Within this, I aim to discuss a few books I have recently acquired as a means of gaining further critical insight into photographic issues and debates. For my first post, I will give an overview of Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment.
In this, I have based most of my focus upon the first 50 or so pages of his book, which in itself offers an idea of his written approach.
In his introduction, Dyer discusses how he is a outsider the act of photography, he doesn’t even own a camera. However, he has a passion for the subject. Within this, he doesn’t want to elaborate upon traditional method of highlighting critical photographers and their photographic contributions but rather offer a reflexive view of aspects of photography over the years that have drawn his interest and attention for various reasons.
One of the main subject areas within this is how photographers aim to define or classify their work. Many of which forming visualisations of picture categories from which to base their creative work.
For example, Walker Evans in 1934.
People, all classes, surrounded by bunches of the new down-and-out.
Automobiles and the automobile landscape.
Architecture, American urban taste, commerce, small scale, large scale, clubs, the city atmosphere, the street smell, the hateful stuff, women’s clubs, fake culture, bad education, religion in decay.
Evidence of what people in the city read, eat, see for amusement, do for relaxation and not get it.
A lot else, you see what I mean.
In a sense, this foundation outlined the desired narrative of the photographer. However, they became the ‘shooting script, acting a caption from which news agencies/media businesses could encourage their own agenda into the field of photojournalism.
Often photographers would use these scripts as a means of pitching ideas. Which in turn, over time started to set the standard definition of a social documentary picture story. Many photographers have since replicated such concepts within their own work, a taxonomy of fixed, preconceived visual cues.
Even when photographers aimed to follow a more topographic approach as an objective observer, we are all still influenced by cultural iconography and symbols of association.
The example that Dyer follows is hats. He outlines how certain images kept catching his attention, in the same that photographers are instinctively drawn to certain attributes. Within this, he noticed a re-occurring subject of hats. Once aware of this, he started to look for pictures of hats, as he became drawn to the concept.
‘the hat became an organising principle or node’
This assertion leads us to question the truth of the photograph, as there is no true sense of objectivity.
Dyer then moves on to discuss another heavily debate subject within photography, photographing a subject that is unaware of being photographed or a subject who is fully concious and aware of the photographers presence and from this, whether we can truly capture a natural image of a human subject or whether the increased popularity of photography has desensitised people to being photographed, prepared to be willing and aware subjects.
Another significant aspect to Dyer’s book is also the subject of blindness and how it people inflicted with it has incited a great deal of interest as a photographic subject. He starts by analysing the work of Paul Strand and his image of a blind woman, 1916.
Many photographers appear to have focused upon the blind, (in the case of Winogrand, blind and deaf) because they are often unable to force a response for an image, even the use of a camera’s flash bears no effect upon blind subjects. The ethics of which have also been a point of much debate.
There is also an importance placed upon documenting an American city from the view of a native (Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand) and that of the visitor/outsider (Robert Frank, Andre Kertesz). As a result, segregation and injustice were the subject of many photographers work, however the way in which it is constructed and understood a narrative is different.
He also offers an insight into the issues of self labelling, the desire to document a particular scene, incident or place that is defined through recognisable text or icons. In this, he once again cites Walker Evans, focusing upon his earlier work and then on his series for American Photographs (1938).
Evans first published series of images were from December 1930. Within them, he aims to document neon signs on Broadway in a collection filled within meaning and ironic juxtapositions which then became his trademark signature. Creating his own lexicon, whilst showing clear influence from his cultural iconography in a material world of commercialism and advertising.
This then progresses to highlight the contrast between viewing images within a gallery space or within a printed publication, as well as the way in which a photographer can edit a sequence to a force a particular impact or sentiment within the order and structure of the narrative.
The history of the photographic book is the history of photographers and editors trying to lure and coax us into reading them sequentially.
This the stage in which Dyer highlights American Photographs as ambition attempt to experiment with the traditional format of a photographic sequence. Within this, Evans arranges his book as almost a reversal of this, creating the sensation of randomly assembled juxtapositions of portraits. To Dyer, this created the effect of viewing them as though selecting them from a box of images.
The structure in upon which we view a body of work has an enormous influence of our understanding of the images. This can be defined through a dialogue of text within imagery. This photographic lexicon encourages its audience to understand the images beyond simply looking but reading them.
In this, Dyer refers to Lee Friedlander, whose series, Letters from people was influence by the example set by Evans, removing one letter at a time from signs, window displays, notices and advertisements, choosing to separate the individual characters from words. This exclusion and cropping created a ‘vast anagram of the city’.
Another interesting area of critical insight relates to Diane Arbus and the distinction of her approach compared to other photographers such as Strand and Evans. Although Arbus was often the subject of controversy and exploitation, it could be argued that her frank and confrontational approach is less exploitative than the methods adopted by earlier street photographers, who sought ways in which to reduce people’s awareness of their presence to capture to the decisive moment.
Again, the subject of blindness is referred to and reaffirmed through Arbus. In 1960, she became fascinated with a blind street performer named ‘Moondog’. When reflecting upon her interest in photographing the blind, Arbus stated it was:
‘because they can’t fake their expressions. They don’t know what their expressions are, so there is no mask’
Thus, Dyer suggests that photographers see blind people as subject who have no idea of who they are and how they are being perceived. In a way, blind subjects for Arbus expressed her desire for invisibility.
This was in turn reversed upon her when being unknowingly photographed by William Gedney in 1969 while Arbus was photographing beauty queens. This was just two years prior to Arbus’ suicide.
As a result, the area of discussion moves towards the subject of whether Gedney’s captured Arbus’ suicide within his image, in the same way Arbus discussed the idea of photographing Hemmingway or Monroe. Sometimes the most significant element of an image is what we can’t see.
From this, I feel that I have gained an interesting insight into some of the topics and debates involved within photography. It was particularly refreshing to view the perspective of person who isn’t involved within the field of photography offering his own quite informal but developed point of view.