Author Geoff Dyer Has Lots of Marvelous Insights Into the History of Photography. Why Can’t Our Interviewer Remember Any of Them?

Our correspondent spent nearly an hour on the phone with Dyer and couldn't recall a word of the conversation.

Geoff Dyer's latest essay collection, See/Saw: Looking at Photographs, brings together more than 50 short essays. Photo by Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images.
Geoff Dyer's latest essay collection, See/Saw: Looking at Photographs, brings together more than 50 short essays. Photo by Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images.

For the first hour after I got off the phone with Geoff Dyer to discuss his new essay collection, See/Saw: Looking at Photographs, which gathers more than 50 writings on photographers such as Eugène Atget, Vivian Maier, and Roy DeCarava published over the past decade, I wandered my apartment in a daze.

What a discussion! What insights he has! The way he draws out delicious kernels of knowledge from photographs, the weight of it all—or really, the utter lightness, his facile cleverness around pictures—swirled through my head and I kept thinking, “Extraordinary! Truly, he is on to something, something quite simple, quite instinctive, that no one has noticed before.” 

I was vaguely conscious over the course of that hour of my toddler son (my responsibility at the time) as he babbled his way happily from one room into another, adrift in his own impulses. That vague consciousness became acute when my poor boy caught his tiny foot on the damn carpet that for weeks has been edging its way up off the floor to become not only a visual nuisance but an actual danger. He fell, screaming. I picked him up, danced him into bliss, and set him on his way.

Free again to rewind the conversation in my head, it struck me that I couldn’t remember a word of what Dyer had said. Not one. We’d spent nearly an hour on the phone, and I had no idea what we talked about. The photographer Garry Winogrand came up, that I recalled, and so did critic John Berger. What did Dyer say about them? I don’t know! Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember anything he’d even written, neither in See/Saw, nor in The Ongoing Moment, his previous book about photography, nor in Out of Sheer Rage, his peripatetic reflection on D.H. Lawrence, nor in But Beautiful, his riveting book on jazz that first drew me to his work.

I did remember that, in discussion, he was very charming. He even said my name properly when he answered the phone! But wait… had I been fooled? Had he disarmed me with his cunning words? Did he, like any savvy interviewee, actually tell me nothing, all the while convincing me I had a coup of a story? 

I honestly don’t know. What I can tell you, having read See/Saw and having listened over the record of my interview, is that Dyer, like his writings, has many suggestions and perspectives and interests, but few positions. He dances around an interview the way he dances around photographs, without ever making falsifiable assertions. He fires flickers of insights that fade as soon as they appear. And I realized that the reason I couldn’t remember our conversation or his writings was that he had designed them that way.

Alex Webb's Cap Haitien, Haiti, 1987 is among the pictures Dyer discusses in the new book. "Wherever he goes," Dyer writes, "Webb always ends up in a Bermuda-shaped triangle where the distinctions between photojournalism, documentary, and art blur and disappear." Dyer's writings similarly blur genres and collapse distinctions. Photo courtesy Graywolf Press.

Alex Webb’s Cap Haitien, Haiti, 1987 is among the pictures Dyer discusses in the new book. “Wherever he goes,” Dyer writes, “Webb always ends up in a Bermuda-shaped triangle where the distinctions between photojournalism, documentary, and art blur and disappear.” Dyer’s writings similarly blur genres and collapse distinctions. Photo courtesy the artist.

The first thing I’ll do is not ask a question, but just make a statement, because I could not come up with a question to begin with. And I realized the problem was that there don’t seem to be any arguments in See/Saw about any of the photographers you discuss, and I’m used to talking to artists or authors who have specific claims I can question. But with you I thought, “My goodness, I don’t know what to ask!”

That’s an interesting observation, or claim, you make. Now that you mention it, it seems obvious to me that I’m not a great taker of positions. Was it T.S. Eliot who said of Henry James, “He had a mind so fine, that no idea could penetrate it”? Maybe that applies to me.

No claims, I would accept that. I think there are a lot of observations in the book, and what’s the difference between an observation and a claim? An observation is a suggestion, let’s say. It’s something you put out there and people can respond to it. But it’s not staking a position people can refute. The tacitly adversarial way of proceeding is not mine. But I think the stuff I do, maybe it provides food for thought. There are lots of speculations people can chew over, as it were.

It’s just—it’s sort of slippery, right? There’s something polemical about not staying in one place for too long.

Yeah, and it may be also because I’m conscious of coming out of that [Susan] Sontag, [John] Berger tradition. It seems to me that they were the ones who staked claims and defined what photography was, and I’ve sort of accepted that. I just do a bit of tending within that territory.

The critics Susan Sontag (above), John Berger, and Roland Barthes loom large in Dyer's writings on photography. In an earlier book, The Ongoing Moment, he writes that one of his biggest challenges was to avoid quoting them "every five pages." Photo by Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet via Getty Images.

The critics Susan Sontag (above), John Berger, and Roland Barthes loom large in Dyer’s writings on photography. In an earlier book, The Ongoing Moment, he writes that one of his biggest challenges was to avoid quoting them “every five pages.” Photo by Jean-Regis Rouston/Roger Viollet via Getty Images.

Let me ask you about that territory. In your earlier book on photography, The Ongoing Moment, you suggest that certain images reappear throughout the history of photography, even in pictures by very different photographers from very different eras. But very few visual themes recur in See/Saw, and you look at a broad range of photographers, such as Andreas Gursky, August Sander, and Luigi Ghirri, suggesting a greater degree of pluralism. Did something change between these two books? 

I suppose the very short answer would be no, nothing’s changed, and that nothing can be deduced from the different approach. The Ongoing Moment did make a sort of claim that the tradition of photography is comprised of people photographing the same thing. And the book was organized in such a way as to demonstrate and substantiate that claim, whereas See/Saw is just a collection of pieces I’ve written over the last 10 years. 

The thing that has changed is that I wrote The Ongoing Moment in order to learn about the tradition of photography, because when I started to write the book, I had a very patchy knowledge of it. By the time I finished, and as a result of finishing, I felt, “Oh, yes, I do have a pretty comprehensive knowledge.” So everything I wrote from that moment onwards had the kind of authority of a non-specialist guide. Now, compared with people who are working the curatorial-photography hustle full time, of course, my knowledge is still very inadequate. But the foundation is a lot stronger than it was.

Is having an inadequate knowledge beneficial at all?

Well, having an inadequate knowledge of anything is a huge incentive to find out more. I always contrast my way of proceeding with what I’ve perhaps mistakenly characterized as the PhD way of proceeding whereby, when you’re doing a PhD—I gather, I’ve never done one, thank God—you spend all this time reading all this stuff. And then the dreadful moment comes when you’ve got to start writing. At that moment, one of three things happens: either you go ahead and write it and fulfill all the requirements; or you abandon it; or you have a complete nervous breakdown. I’ve avoided all three. For me, the writing of all the books on different subjects has proceeded pretty much hand-in-hand with my learning about them.

In See/Saw, Dyer notes that Diane Arbus was the kind of photographer who claimed that pictures "can serve as a kind of prophecy, that a photograph of someone at a particular moment in their life can tell you everything about what life has in store." Photo by Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

In See/Saw, Dyer notes that Diane Arbus, pictured above, was the kind of photographer who claimed that pictures “can serve as a kind of prophecy, that a photograph of someone at a particular moment in their life can tell you everything about what life has in store.” Photo by Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

The essays in See/Saw are built on lively, close descriptions of the pictures you’re looking at, and the descriptions seem very truthful. But at the same time, they are very interpretative. Is it a challenge to be, on the one hand, very honest towards the photographs, and on the other to allow your writerly persona through?

That’s a very good and complex question. I’m trying to respond to the pictures as honestly as possible. But equally, I’m looking through my eyes, and one of the things I’ve become very conscious of when writing about anything, and particularly art, is that I can’t fake it. I can’t write about something just because the consensus is that it’s great. So the classic example would be that I just didn’t have the Rothko Chapel experience. It did nothing to me. So, in a sense, I’m only interested in my experience. On the one hand, that means I have a certain faith in the contingency of my own experience and the peculiarities of my own sensibility. One of the things that really bores is if I read a book about a given subject that could have been written by anyone who happens to be in receipt of the necessary knowledge. Whereas the value of my books is that it’s my take. I’ve always written these little encouraging notes to myself in the notebooks that accompany the writing of each book, where I’m always reminding myself, “Write the book only you could write.” But I think anything I write about the pictures could stand up to a certain amount of cross examination, although I’d always be very, very vulnerable to somebody who brings to the discussion technical knowledge of what the photographer’s doing in terms of f-stops and all of that.

Why haven’t you pursued that knowledge?

I guess I’m not so interested in photography as in photographs. I’m just happy with describing the photographs as they appear to me.

In a 2018 article on Garry WInogrand, Dyer writes of one photograph that "the abundance of information is matched always by the amount withheld. In spite—and because — of everything that’s going on, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on." Winogrand took the above picture of British TV executive Ronnie Waldman in 1953. Photo by Garry Winogrand/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

In a 2018 article on Garry Winogrand, Dyer writes of one photograph that “the abundance of information is matched always by the amount withheld. In spite—and because—of everything that’s going on, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on.” Winogrand took the above picture of British TV executive Ronnie Waldman in 1953. Photo by Garry Winogrand/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

One of the things you suggest is that photographs promise to offer factual clarity, but continually frustrate assurance. What can photographs provide instead?

I guess until quite recently, the central claim was that if you had a photograph of something, it proved it happened. I always come back to that George Bernard Shaw line, where he says he would trade all of the paintings of the crucifixion for just one snapshot. That would prove that it happened.

That goes hand-in-hand with one of Garry Winogrand’s observations, where he says a single photograph has no narrative ability at all. He gives the example that if you look at a picture of a woman, you can’t tell whether she’s pulling her panties up or down. But almost as a result of that, a picture has an enormous amount of narrative potential. It always invites you, I think, to speculate on what’s just happened, or what’s going to happen next. You have all kinds of incentives for storytelling. John Szarkowski said about Winogrand that his work offered not just a vast archive of documentary evidence about what was going on in the period he was photographing, but that Winogrand was providing new knowledge. Those are my thoughts around your question, I guess, rather than in direct response to it.

What else would I expect, Geoff? That’s a very Dyer-esque response. Well let me ask about the Impressionistic quality of your writing. In all your books, you constantly bring things into focus and then blur them out, or quickly move on to something else entirely. Do photographs encourage or complicate that tendency?

I’m not sure they do. And I don’t want to make a big deal of it, but I’m not sure about this word Impressionistic, because that suggests a kind of fuzziness, whereas what I like in almost all writing is clarity. So although it is Impressionistic in the sense that it’s first person, I would hope to have a kind of precision. I guess the other thing is that it’s intrinsic to my nature—I like this thing of making a point and then backtracking on it and undermining it.

The cover for the U.S. edition of Dyer's book includes a picture by Chris Dorley-Brown, which Dyer writes "looks like a world in which time is stalled."

The cover for the U.S. edition of Dyer’s book includes a picture by Chris Dorley-Brown, which Dyer writes “looks like a world in which time is stalled.”

Then let me ask you about storytelling. You write in See/Saw that photography is “an incentive” for “descriptive narrative.” What can storytelling do for photography that other types of criticism cannot?

I guess the first thing is that we always like hearing stories. But I also quote that Berger line where he says the traffic between storytelling and metaphysics is continuous. I would add to that that the distinction between essay writing and storytelling is very permeable. I particularly like the kinds of essays where you go on some kind of journey. In a story, the question is, what’s going to happen next? And maybe in essays it’s, where are we going? What is this leading to? I’d like it if there’s an element of suspense, and certainly lots of incidental observations that we take pleasure in en route.

What about academic criticism? You’ve been critical of it before. Is there anything useful in academic writing? Would it be better if it didn’t exist?

Generally, I love academic work. I always want to have the most authoritative scholarly edition of any work. That kind of stuff I just love in an obsessive way. Then there’s the next level, where I’m grateful to people who write very thorough biographies and turn them into reasonably accessible sources for me. Then there’s the kind of stuff which is just deadly to read. It’s written in order to satisfy all the requirements of academic stuff. It requires an effort I’m increasingly unwilling to make. I’m quite impatient as a reader and a writer in some ways. I take to heart the Nietzschean advice when he says he treats philosophical problems like a cold bath—in and out quickly. 


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