Book Review Travel

The Ongoing Moment: A Book About Photographs by Geoff Dyer


Well, as some of you may be aware, I’m off having adventures. Yes, again. After an 18 month stint in a tiring, stressful job, I organised myself a stress free and relaxed month in which to resuscitate my broken literary bones, read some books – including as much of the Bible as I can stomach – and get back into the habit of daily writing. Oh, yeah, and to walk 800 miles across the whole of Spain in pursuance of some kind of spiritual purity, bouncing against dogma as I take its punishment but not its succour. (Maybe I should’ve just done Ramadan…)

However, in the time since finishing my job and the day my ticket to the south of France (for a few pre-hike days in Marseille with the only man I never call “Big Poppa”, my father) became valid, a lot of positive things happened to me, including the beginning of multiple exciting professional, non-literary, projects and – even more exciting – my being hired as “indie books reviewer” for Open Pen Magazine, my review of their recent anthology containing enough gentle criticism to make them feel worse about themselves and crave my approval. (I learnt how to do that from watching my girlfriend make our dog prefer her.) These multiple good things and my initial plans to spend several nights sleeping alone under the stars in wolf-filled forests made me wary about leaving. But then I remembered that I hadn’t bought a return ticket, my plans to walk an 800 km camino route are wishy-washy and not rooted in a plan to please Jesus, and that hotels exist in towns that don’t have hostels. My mind was made back up again: if I get bored of walking, once I start walking, I can just get in a train and go somewhere else. It’s fucking easy, and I don’t think a high concept travel narrative actually needs to have been experienced first hand to be written about, right?

All this is waffle, all this is far too focused on I. Which The Ongoing Moment, self-loving Geoff Dyer’s most acclaimed book, does the uncharacteristic opposite of. This is not – as Dyer’s non-fiction books usually are – a book about Geoff Dyer writing about a subject, this is instead the real deal: a book BY Geoff Dyer but fully about what it purports to be about, which is photographs.

What it is very important you notice here is the word in italics. This is not a book about photography,  but a book about photographs, and for a reader looking for a history of the medium as technology or a history of the medium as an art form in comparison with its popular usage and eventual widespread development, this is the wrong book. The Ongoing Moment is about photography as art, it is about photographers who were considered and considered themselves artists, and it is about the work they produced.

Dyer, as always, implies a nonchalance that is belied by the sheer evidence of research listed in the Notes, and also by the 105 photos printed within the book, accompanied by descriptions and allusions to about three times that amount. Dyer loves and knows photographs. His mind is filled with images collated from years of flicking through boxed and printed and bound and online and gallery collections. He doesn’t write about methodology except where the photographers have written about their technical methodology, and though he writes about form and composition with evident knowledge, Dyer is quite evidentally and unashamedly more interested in which photographers were fucking which writers, artists, models, actors and other photographers than he is in the processes that go on in a darkroom. Well, other than the darkroom processes that don’t involve ink, iffayageddawhaddameeeen???

The book moves from subject of photograph to subject of photograph, writing about the way different artists (and they are all artists) have approached such recurring images as hats, backs, petrol stations, barbershops and – of course, it is Geoff Dyer – the female nude.* Geoff discusses photography in relation to societal and cultural change,  he places photograph works within the broader artistic canon and he shows a wealth of knowledge about individual photographers and individual works of art.

To be honest, The Ongoing Moment deserves rather more than this tawdry review, for it is informed and informative and a piece worth all the plaudits it received. However, I figured out how to watch Game of Thrones in English in France without breaking any laws, so I’m really, really keen to wrap this up and catch up with all my buddies in Westeros.

This is the best Geoff Dyer I have read that hasn’t been rooted in his personality, and this confuses me.

Before leaving for France I spent a couple of days with my dog in rural Wales. This was taken there. I miss him so much. Oh god I miss him so much.

* No mention of Robert Mablethorpe, who is literally the only photographer famous for 20th century nudes I can think of. (Is this footnote accidentally revealing?)

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