Other Perspectives – Geoff Dyer

Steve Middlehurst 2014

Message – Antigua 2014 – Steve Middlehurst

Unlike John Szarkowski, the curator (here) and Stephen Shore the photographer  and teacher (here) Geoff Dyer ‘s relationship with photography is as an outsider, he declares he doesn’t own a camera, professes no special expertise as art historian or critic and states right up front that he expects the The Ongoing Moment (1) to be a “source of irritation” to people who know more about photography than he does.

The risk of the book being more annoying than illuminating is heightened by the unique way in which he approaches his subject; photographs are not categorised by genre, era or photographer but by an eclectic selection of subjects that are common to the photographers Dyer respects; but whilst this approach demands the reader to keep up as they are switched back and forth between photographers and eras it becomes a strength that allows him to look at the physical and metaphorical relationships that exist across American photography and adding much colour to the characters he finds along the way. The focus on subject allows Dyer to become sensitive to the unique or common styles of photographers capturing the same subject and discover the intentional and unintentional homages that criss cross the medium.

Dyer sees photography as chain link fence of subjects and motifs that connect American photographers from Stielglitz to Goldin; amongst common subjects he looks at blind beggars, clouds, benches, beds, hands, doors, barber shops and hats. His way of interpreting the images within these categories suggests a series of attributes that we can look for in an image.

Visibility versus Invisibility

The relationship between the photographer and his or her subject is fundamental in all types of photography, some aspects of this relationship are discussed by Szarkowski as the vantage point but Dyer raises the question of the photographer’s visibility to the subject. This is discussed both in terms of the photographer’s personality and their desire to capture the perfect portrait that truly represents the subject. Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (3) states what has become an acquired truth; when confronted by a camera we stop being ourselves and start to present ourselves (i). D.H.Lawrence understood that the photograph defined him “the picture of me, the me that is seen, is me”, and in the current era of rampant self promotion we all seem to have learnt, what Hollywood stars used to pay PR agents to do, to manipulate the perception of ourselves by looking the part in a portrait.

Paul Strand became obsessed with finding ways to make his camera invisible because he believed this was the only way that he could faithfully record his subjects; Walker Evans hid his camera under his coat and guessed the direction to point it when he took a series of candid photographs on the subway between 1938 and 1941. Evans described himself as a “penitent spy and and apologetic voyeur” but his intent, like Strand, was to capture people when they least expected it, to find their natural expression in the hope that this revealed something of their true self.

Diane Arbus wanted to photograph the blind because they couldn’t fake their expression and Dorothea Lange desired “a cloak of invisibility”. Arbus took this idea further than most: “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot” (5), Dyer explains that her pictures of patients in mental institutions represented an “extreme exploitation” of being the completely invisible photographer, these people had no idea of how they were perceived or should be perceived and so presented Arbus with the uncorrupted, real expressions that she was seeking.

Interaction

Once we recognise that the degree of visibility of the photography modifies the image we can look for its effect. Garry Winogrand was described by Lee Friedlander as a “bull of a man and the world was his china shop” (4); by all accounts he was a larger than life, loud man hardly suited for candid street photography and as a result his photographs often feel at the centre of action, the photographer inside the whirlwind of the New York streets he loved. Dyer uses the example of Winogrand’s photo of a blind and deaf  black beggar to show how he juxtaposed the neutral, unknowing, expression of the beggar with the sideways glance of a passerby who might be questioning the motives of the photographer.

A review of Garry Winogrand, (6) the book that accompanied the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibition in 2013, reveals a remarkable number of photographs where the subject is actively engaged with the photographer. These reactions range from quizzical looks to apparently aggressive gestures and angry faces. Winogrand was not often invisible, he provoked reactions and his photographs often contain the power of confrontation.

Form versus Content

Dyer only touches on form versus content in passing, quoting Winogrand as saying he liked “to work in that area where content almost overwhelms form” but his brief discussion of Winogrand’s style leads to considering how the balance of form and content varies within the image.

In the work of photographers that might be labelled purist such as Henri Cartier-Bresson we can often see the subject selected and isolated against a carefully composed background. This may have been purely instinctive or he may have selected the stage and waited for a subject to enter the scene but either way the end result is that his photographs have strong compositional form. (ii) Sean O’Hagen quotes the curator Clément Chéroux as saying that Cartier Bresson was “obsessed by form” in the years prior to co-founding Magnum; in an interview published in 1958 (8) HCB explained how he saw form as a “rigorous geometrical organization of interplay of surfaces, lines and values”. On a regular basis I turn the pages of his books and the overwhelming impression of many of his photographs is the form, the shapes, the lines, the composition and the geometrical balance; overwhelming in the sense that it is the form that stays in my mind’s eye rather than the content.

Somewhere towards the other end of the scale we find photographers who cram the content into the frame, their photographs are full of information that is held together, sometimes quite loosely, with form. Winogrand is the perfect example whose photographs Szarkowski described as “showing us with precision three times as much as we would have thought relevant” (9) Winogrand himself was unsure at what point content overwhelmed form and there is a sense that he was continually testing the limits of how much information could be organised inside the frame. The traditional explanation of content in art will include the word “meaning” more often than “information” but both Szarkowski and Winogrand talk far more about description than meaning with Winogrand going as far as to say “I don’t have anything to say in any picture”; he accepted that it was interesting to give a photograph symbolic or narrative content but “it doesn’t have anything to do with taking pictures”.

Common Subjects

As previously mentioned Dyer’s book is based on looking at how different photographers approach the same subject. It is unnecessary to revisit those subjects here but his approach is a valid and useful way of gaining a greater insight into photography. By recognising that Strand, Evans, Arbus and Winogrand were all attracted to photographing blind beggars Dyer is able to find both common and unique ideas and in either case we learn something about the photographer and the sub-genres of subjects. Dyer’s writing is based on intelligently structured and careful research, I cannot believe that all or even most of the images he considers were already in his mind when he started so having identified common subjects he must have searched for them across a specific group of photographers. The lesson here, if there is one, is that to look at a photograph in isolation is interesting and potentially informative but if we can consider that piece within the context of the photographer’s broader work and then cross refer to other photographers working with the same subjects we lift our interpretation and potentially our understanding to another and higher level. The summary being that we need to build a wide knowledge of the medium to fully appreciate the work of the individual.

Self Labelling and the Discourse of Language

Some of Dyer’s subjects or categories are obvious, we immediately recognise them as common subjects even if we have not described them as such in the past but some, like self labelling, had not occurred to me as a sub-genre of photography (v). Now, having read Dyer, I realise that this is a widely used technique in both historical and contemporary photography. Dyer’s most obvious example is Strand’s Blind Beggar who has a sign “Blind” hung round his neck but he also refers us to a more complex image that is the opening photograph in Walker Evan’s American Photographs (10).

License Photo Studio, New York, 1934 Walker Evans

License Photo Studio, New York, 1934
Walker Evans

Dyer points out that this photograph is very intentionally the first plate in American Photographs, it acts as a visual introduction to to the whole book “photos this way”. I have owned a Books on Books copy of American Photographs for some time but it took Dyer’s comments on self-labeling to allow me to “see” how often Walker Evans appropriates text from the world he photographed to communicate, to emphasise or to inject irony.

Towards the end of his life Evans started to take Polaroid photographs of letters to form an alphabet (vi) and Lee Friedlander with his Letters from the People project worked more recently on similar ground. I have previously looked at the work of Eric Tabuchi (here) and mentioned his contemporary Alphabet Trucks project (12) (vii) which follows the same path.

So whether we look at Brassai’s or Levitt’s Grafiti or Evans’ self labelling or Tabuchi’s trucks we find disembodied text embedded within the photograph. For Brassai this represented ” none other that the origins of writing”, where do these words appear from without any documented human intervention? and does their meaning change by being photographed?

Absence of Socio-Political Meaning

We spend a lot of time searching for meaning in photographs and the meaning many commentators suggest we search for is a critique of society or a political manifesto. A combination of Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author (13) and Post Modernist theories (here) have given us licence to create our own meaning from any piece of work. This generates an imperative necessity to find meaning, a positive consequence because this encourages creative interaction with a photograph; but we should always remember that we have only created one among many potential meanings. Barthes assures us that our new found meaning is as good as anyone else’s but the danger lies when this creative interpretation is presented as the artist’s intent. I am constantly interested in looking at intent in the context of subsequent interpretation, if the artist has shared their thoughts one element is fixed whilst the other bobs along on a river of contemporary context, fads and fashions.

Dyer looks at Weston’s work which he believes is “devoid of historical context and independent of social commentary”, Weston was interested in “the thing itself”, to record life. We can look at Weston’s photographers and accept this idea without too much argument, much of his work fits easily into Szarkowski’s “The Thing Itself” (2) category, Dyer refers to his nudes as “detached”.   It is harder to do this with Walker Evans who was part of the FSA project and apparently photographed the American condition so could easily be categorised as a social documentarist but he explicitly distanced himself from any ideological interpretation of his work saying there is “no politics whatsoever” in his photographs. Dyer does not use Winogrand as an example of this lack of social or political meaning but as already discussed he was another photography who argued that he put no meaning into his work, just recorded what he saw.

Details, Symbolism and Metaphors

Dyer explores symbolism by considering how various photographers have concentrated on what they see as highly revealing details that comprise a fraction of the scene but represent the whole. Dyer calls this a visual synecdoche (viii). His analysis of Dorothea Lange’s work reveals how she regularly returned to hats, hands and faces to represent the suffering of the poor during the great depression; the weatherworn hat becomes a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of its owner, a man’s hands show how hard his life has been, and we read the story of economic downturn in the tired faces of both young and old subjects. This is a different form of symbolism than Barthes’ dissection of advertisements, the hat is part of the narrative, part of the reality of the event but without changing the meaning of the battered hat it can be used as a symbol of being battered. This is an especially effective technique when used regularly by one photographer or across a number of photographers to become a serialised metaphor.

Other common subjects have become recognisable metaphors but the same subject may hold different meanings depending on the photographer’s vantage point. Eugene Atget returns to steps on a regular basis but, Dyer tells us, he usually photographs them from the bottom; perhaps a metaphor for moving towards the future. Whereas Brassai more often than not photographs steps leading downwards into darkness which could be a metaphor for death or decline. Empty chairs, unmade beds and coffins might be read as a premonition of death as used by many photographs and so the list continues.

Conclusion

The Vanitas artists of the 17th century created a visual language based on symbolism (here), a language that was understood by both artists and buyers; the photographers of the late 19th and 20th centuries also created a symbolic language that was understood well enough for it to have been used, not just by artists working in the same time and place, but by the wider group of practitioners that followed.

Part of this cross fertilisation has come from the tendency of photographers to take inspiration from each other’s work and some of it from the fact that certain things look better photographed than others; Atget may have seen stairs as a metaphorical stairway to heaven or he might have simply liked the obvious graphic forms; when Cartier Bresson used stairs to frame his subjects in so many photographs he may have been tapping into an established metaphor or he may have just recognised that the photograph looked better that way. The identification of some of these common subjects and themes is at the heart of Dyer’s book and he endeavours to understand the photographer’s motivations, seeking meaning where he can find it but recognising that even the greatest photographers are not always thinking about the message. His discussion about the photographic and social relationships between Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keefe and Rebecca Strand is refreshing because it isn’t about photography, Dyer, by investigating the the complex nature of Stieglitz’s character and his need to dominate younger photographers, provides a human perspective and broader context to his work.

To use Dyer’s own words this is a book about the “poetry of comprehensive contingency” in American photography from Stieglitz to Goldin. I am left with the thought that if Alfred Stieglitz were to revisit us today he would be astounded by the ubiquity of photography, in its technological progress and its financial value as an art form but would he be surprised or comforted to find that we are still photographing much the same things?

Notes on Text

(i) According to Barthes “Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.” (3)

(ii) There is an interesting review of the re-published Decisive Moment by Sean O’Hagen (7) in which he says “Cartier-Bresson always emphasised the importance of composition, and liked to ‘instinctively fix a geometric pattern’ into which a chosen subject fitted. The idea that he lay in wait for someone to walk into a precomposed frame may explain his extraordinary hit rate – but it runs contrary to the French title, Images on the Run, which suggests exactly the opposite.”

(iii) “For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean a rigorous geometrical organization of interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organization alone, that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.” HCB

(iv) Time is discussed in the context of reading photographs in my essays on Shore, Szarkowski and Bayer’s ideas.

(v) I am interested to discover whether this is a “sub-genre” only discussed by Dyer. It is hard to believe that this is the case but a Google search of “self labelling in photography” and “embedded text in photographs” and “self labeled photographs” only gave me one relevant result: a comment on Walker Evan’s work for the FSA which is similar to Dyer’s own discussion of the opening image in American Photographs.

(vi) Maria Morris Hambourg (11) writes about this phase in Evan’s life describing him as having “explored the physicality of language with a cabalistic intensity, discovering mysterious confluences of sound, shape and meaning.” His approach was to isolate words within words so “kin” was taken from “parking” and “goo” from “good”. Without reviewing the series, which was never finished, it is hard to judge whether he was discovering mysteries or seeing exciting graphic shapes.

(vii) Tabuchi’s artist statements are always worth a read, I remembered Alphabet Trucks more for his explanation than for the photographs “Through language (Alphabet) and displacement (Trucks), Alphabet Trucks therefore questions, beyond its formal aspects and references, the notions of membership, identity and coeducation.” Well, obviously it does.

(viii) Synecdoche: the use of a part of something to represent the entire whole, e.g. we could refer to workers as “hired hands” or the number of cattle as “head of cattle”.

Sources

Books

(1) Dyer, Geoff (2012) The Ongoing Moment (originally published in 2005 by Little and Brown). London: Canongate Books (Kindle Edition)

(2) Szarkowski, John ( 2007) The Photographer’s Eye (originally published in 1966 and based on a 1964 exhibition at the MoMA) New York: The Museum of Modern Art

(3) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

(5) Arbus, Diane (2011) Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (fortieth edition published 2010/11) New York: Aperture Foundation.

(6) Winogrand, Garry (2013) Garry Winogrand. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

(10) Evans, Walker (1938) American Photographs (Errata Edition: Books on Books, published 2011) New York: Errata

(13) Barthes, Roland (1968) The Death of the Author. (Included within Image, music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (1977)) London: Fontana Press

Internet

(4) O’Hagan, Sean (2013) Garry Winogrand, edited by Leo Rubinfien et al – review (accessed at The Observer 18.7.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/19/garry-winogrand-photography-review-sfmoma

(7) O’Hagen, Sean (2014) Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his Decisive Moment has passed (accessed at The Guardian 20.7.15) – http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/23/henri-cartier-bresson-the-decisive-moment-reissued-photography

(8) Zhang, Michael (2015) An Interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson from 1958 (translated by Erica McDonald from a vinyl record titled Famous Photographers Tell How) (accessed at petapixel 20.7.15) – http://petapixel.com/2015/05/03/an-interview-with-henri-cartier-bresson-from-1958/

(9) Callahan, sean (1978) Szarkowski and Winogrand: The Curator and Photographer as Theorist (accessed at Ramapo College New Jersey 21.5.15) – http://pages.ramapo.edu/~jlipkin/206/readings/greench6.pdf

(11) Hambourg, Maria Morris (2000) Walker Evans published by the MoMA (accessed at Google Books 22.5.15) – https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=rJzaHS4lQ5IC&dq=walker+evans+alphabet&source=gbs_navlinks_s

(12) Tabuchi, Eric (2009) Alphabet Trucks vol.2 (accessed at the artist’s website 22.5.15) – http://www.erictabuchi.com/index.php?/editions/alphabet-truck-vol-2/

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