Sunday, February 11, 2007

Juxtapositon IV: The Ongoing Moment

So I've been reading Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment, in which he wends his idiosyncratic way through the history of modern photography. His method is to find a motif and explore how various photographers have gone after it. For example, he has about ten pages worth of material about photographers who have taken famous pictures of blind people, and he theorizes on the symbolic significances of that choice. Some of the blind people turn out to be playing accordions, which leads him to a discussion of a series of photographs of accordion players. Later, he looks at discusses photographs of hands. I like the way he follows the associative leads that the photographs present to him: the direction of his narrative is always open to surprising shifts of focus. Dyer says:

This book...aims to... echo the possibilities of simultaneity and random juxtaposition afforded by a pile of photographs. You rummage in the box. You pick up a photograph and then another one and the way they are combined makes you view each of them in a different way...

But I wish that each picture — or the verbal equivalent of a picture: each section of text — was not forced to be surrounded by just two others. Ideally some sections would be adjacent to four or eight or even ten others. As Strand wrote in the introduction to the portfolio of photographs On My Doorstep, 'rather than a linear record, [it] should be seen as a composite whole of interdependencies' .

...this book aims to emulate the aleatory experience of dipping into a pile of photographs as far as is compatible wth the constraints of binding. of its being a book. (38)

Although the pictures he chooses and the stories he tells about them are fascinating, Dyer does have a tendency at times to push his analyses just past the bunds of credibility. Here, for example, is his hyperbolic commentary on Dorothea Lange's "Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona":

In bright sunlight a man covers his mouth was his hand. The palm is facing the camera. It is not a natural pose but it could be derived from the gesture of wiping his mouth with the back of his hand after drinking. He is young, handsome, but the hand is that of someone twenty or thirty years older. The hand seems almost to belong to someone else, poking into the picture from an elbow beyond the frame. His eyes are in deep shadow so that it is the hand that identifies him, that both silences and speaks for him. 'All I have is a voice,' Auden declared at the end of the 1930's; all this man has are hands which are exactly the same texture as the long-weathered wood on which he leans. (This piece of timber is angled in such a way that it could almost be his upper arm.) The hand is criss-crossed by the dirt tracks of the life he has led — which is exactly the same as the life he has to come. The palm is the landscape — the face of the land— through which he travels. You don't need any knowledge of palmistry to understand that his life, whatever its length, will be as hard as the earth whose qualities — dry, capable of epic endurance — it has taken on. The picture's optimism comes from the contrast between the face and the hand, by the way the face, at this stage, is still relatively unlined, untouched by the life of the hand; its pessimism or hopelessness from the knowledge that it is only a matter of time before it becomes just as creased and worn. That is the destiny we read in this palm. (55-6)
On the one hand, I admire the patience and thoughtfulness with which Dyer goes about unpacking what he sees as the metaphorical dimensions of the photo. On the other hand, I can't help but wonder, as I read the last sentence, "Who is this we you speak of, Kemo Sabe?"

There's a lot of this sort of thing in The Ongoing Moment, and I find that even when, as in this case, I find his interpretations hard to swallow whole, they are entertaining and thought-provoking and serve the purpose of making me go back and take a close look.

(Photo credits:
Blind Woman:


No comments: