See/Saw: Looking at Photographs, by Geoff Dyer, Canongate, 336 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1644450444
The pleasure of text is rivalled by the pleasure of feeling reasonably well-versed in the audio/visual arts. Our learning curve may include perusal of coffee-table books of photographs over which one has gazed at television for decades; probably the “family fave” work of Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson; perhaps a stretch served in art college or in the academic study of communication, media and film; maybe even a handy course in the digital fine arts. At the very least, we have all imbibed the visual grammar of the frame: increasingly maybe from the mixed results of our smartphone snaps and videos; but also perhaps from years invested in the matinee dark, where we enjoyed cut-price repertory cinema to emerge as visually ambitious humans damaged by the triple bill.
Geoff Dyer has written several books in relation to film (Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room and Broadsword Calling Danny Boy). In these, he takes the presumably shared experience of a difficult arthouse film (Tarkovsky’s Stalker) or swashbuckling war adventure (Where Eagles Dare) and uses it to explore and gossip. They’re like a cogent post-picture-house chat over a pint with a pal. The effect is exhilarating, intelligent and socio-culturally revealing. And fun, for Dyer is a most entertaining chap.
See/Saw is a collection of short essays written over the last decade in which he focuses on still photography and some writers/thinkers of relevance. The title is clever and alludes to the amalgam’s many swings and roundabouts and the possibility that one is in for a rollercoaster of a read. No doubt due to having become sparrow-brained during lockdown, I found the first few pages slightly mechanistic and clanky, joyless and, to be honest, intimidating. My instinct was to race from this photographic playground having first ignorantly puked up by its railings. Eugène Atget’s tedious image of a Parisian park walkway in essay one is not for me. Alvin Langdon Coburn’s London Bridge in essay two is dull and unconvincing. I horrified myself by crassly not even liking the names of these photographers. But Dyer’s thoughts and sentences lured me on – essay three about August Sander rewards with a mystery about how the darkness in front of a seated man may be either his desk or his legs. By the time he writes of Peter Mitchell’s scarecrow photos and describes their subjects ultimately as crucified effigies in a field – “all that’s left is a wooden cross with a few tatters blowing in the wind” – the book has become a marvel. Mention of key names builds sequentially: familiarity with the frequently referenced Walter Benjamin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Susan Sontag, John Berger, Roland Barthes, Don DeLillo, DH Lawrence, Robert Capa, Edward Hopper, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window assures you of your ability to take other – unfamiliar – linchpins in your stride. But even the new names crop up often enough to make you think you know something about them. As you plough on into the book, Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, William Eggleston and Walker Evans become part of your old gang.
His opening essay on Atget as characterised by a 1924 photograph, Saint-Cloud, is a right-from-the get-go rumination on space and time. The image itself does not excite and so turns the accompanying discourse into an uphill battle. At least Dyer admits to feeling crushed or suffocated by the furniture and clothes of Atget’s interior shots, and these feelings are also unfortunately induced by the chapter. Such was the weight of the crush and the seal of that suffocation that I consulted the wrong photo for his observation that “Sometimes the exposure times flatten out the wind-rippled surface of the water and cause reflections of naturally permanent features – trees, hills – to blur as if they too are transitory.” What vulgar error led me to inspect at this point Coburn’s photo of London Bridge (1904), the subject in fact of the following essay? I had lost my place as a reader. This second piece is where Dyer embeds the title of his book, suggesting that 1909/1910 is the fulcrum of photography’s developmental see-saw. (More correctly, this is from where he extracts the title, given that the essay did not know it was later going to be part of a bound collection.) He wisely notes that the quantity of photos taken since then would burden and tilt the axis of that see-saw towards us in the 2020s. In another water-retentive paragraph, he notes: “Time’s flow is stalled by the longish exposure times – ten minutes at midday if the weather was foggy – which flatten out the river’s surface, stilling its treacherous currents so that it appears almost to have congealed.” Just chapter two and something treacly could drag the buoyant reader beneath the waves.
The third essay is on August Sander. The accompanying photo really does not bode well: a plain and joyless portrait of a man who looks who like the anonymised poster boy for every ancient civil service. But analytical flickers start to engage. There is a reference to a glint from his eyeglasses and from his wedding ring. Dyer then observes perceptively that “his trouser legs are almost like a soft desk behind which he is sitting”. The human, in all its legged glory, is starting to creep into our frame.
The next piece, on Ilse Bing, drags half the ravaged face of Garbo into the gallery in the form of a photo of a deteriorated and torn show poster clinging to a crumbling Paris wall. Barthes wrote a related essay (“The Face of Garbo”) and something in See/Saw now really seems to be coalescing. Dyer describes Bing’s image as a “photograph about photography” and relates it back to the “still older Paris of Atget’s photograph [the unpleasing walkway], parts of which had disappeared by the time this picture was taken”. He reminds us of a leap forward “to a time when the face of Garbo would come in inverted commas, in the form of an essay of that name by Roland Barthes”. Snap!
The pieces that follow pick up pace and win you over into interesting worlds. Two focus on the street photography of Helen Levitt (children holding the frame of a broken mirror) and the posthumously discovered Vivian Maier, an “amateur” whose negatives captured people perambulating in Chicago and New York from the 1950s onwards. Dyer writes about the protest group of black men and women in a photograph by Eli Weinberg (Crowd near Drill Hall on the first day of the Treason Trial, Johannesburg, 19 December 1956). Respecting the social history of the moment, he wonders why an incongruent white boy is there “in the front row of history like this”. He concludes that it was almost certainly the photographer’s son, Mark. Regardless of who he is, his presence “silently disrupts the racial opposition of the protest and subtly demonstrates a crack in the implacable armour of apartheid”. Dyer then discovers that Mark died some years later at the age of twenty-four and decides everything we know about the shot is “documentary evidence of the unknowable”.
One of the most vivid images is his three-word portrait of Andy Warhol as a “putty-faced maestro” when he writes about Lavender Disaster, the artist’s photograph of an electric chair. Dennis Hopper’s photos of actors, bikers and street scenes are neatly illuminated by Peter Fonda saying his Easy Rider co-star had an understanding “not just of the frame of the camera but the frame of life”. Dyer inculcates and charms our understanding by generously firing from his vast arsenal of apt quotes.
Certain images catch the imagination more readily than others, with or without Dyer’s frame analysis. The Fred Herzog chapter is a great example. His 1968 photo of a hand-bandaged, chin-bleeding man standing by a bus stop close to a frail, older woman is vivid, eerie and dramatic. We are informed Herzog was a German who came to live in Canada, “one of the pioneers who mastered colour photography before such a thing respectably existed”. Dyer runs his semiotic writerly eye over the Kodachrome photograph using all his skill to impose narrative and anecdote. He makes links between the man and the woman (bandage, white gloves) and detects in their stare into the distance (for a bus?) a type of squinting from “divine radiance”. He then introduces the idea of stigmata to how we see the bandaged hand, and connects the bleeding chin and its blob of blood with a plain red postbox. This is life slowed down by Herzog, he writes, or life come to “a functional standstill”.
Other pieces reference the presence and perspective of monuments (Lee Friedlander, Oliver Curtis) and the yearly march of time across the faces of four sisters (Nicolas Nixon). Consistently, Dyer marbles his tight pieces with tidy quotes, weaponising their wisdom to enrich his analyses and impart insight as he dissects, connects and intelligently entertains.
He may be at his very best when he turns his eye to photographers who, like him, engage in playful semantics, those photographers who are most strikingly post-modern and disruptive in their method. At such times, both writer and image-maker are operating at the same focal length.
Andreas Gursky’s image 99 Cent, 1999 is a wonderful shot of an infinity of products. Using techniques of composite imaging to ensure extreme depth of focus, his colour shot of a shop interior is a portrait of domestic demand as part the consumer-industrial complex, a vast collection of livery-coded items all for sale. “In a globalised world, nothing lends itself to homogenisation as spectacularly as variety on an unprecedented scale,” Dyer tells us. Train your increasingly trained eye on the reproduction of the image and you will discern several product-placed consumers, camouflaged among the goodies for sale in clothes they have presumably purchased in some other warehouse of treats.
Pavel Maria Smejkal’s “fatescapes” are well-known images of news events from which he has digitally removed the signature action. This act of artistry reduces the scene to mere innocent background, cancelling the thing that took place and neutralising what happened by making it seem as if it did not happen after all. “How profoundly the original images must be embedded in our brains,” writes Dyer, “for us to be able to reconstruct them, unthinkingly, from the unnoticed background.” We dream of the life-preserving erasure of a Vietcong prisoner being shot in the head. We dream of the horror road down which a napalm-burned little girl no longer has to run.
Chris Dorley-Brown takes outdoor street photos and compiles into them what he deems the most important events to have taken place over the course of 30 minutes or so he has allotted the scene. He edits the greatest hits of a street corner and corrals them into a single frame. Dyer uses his skills here to help us. Writing that “the frame of temporal reference is necessarily hazy”, he nails the tone as follows: “Dorley-Brown’s admission that he doesn’t have ‘a journalistic bone in [his] body’ fits nicely with Rebecca West’s suggestion that ‘sometimes it is necessary for us to know where we are in eternity as well as in time’.” Remember this the next time you are existentially hanging around a street corner with your delinquent pals.
There is a great chewy joy to reading Dyer – in See/Saw, cheeky stretched conceits are applied to tasty ideas as he operates surgically on the heart of a concept with an apposite quote from someone relevant or learned. He has a talent for contracting the long and insightful into the short and insightful: there is octuplet pregnancy in his pithiness. Without the least sign of exploitation, he uses multiple spotlights in his trenchant, fascinating criticism.
Occasionally, I wanted more of Dyer’s essential Dyerness, which he achieves effortlessly in sentences like this one you are reading in which I am ham-fistedly attempting and (I would argue, deliberately) failing to smarten up my own alecism. But my essayist/reviewer’s remorse is dispelled when I dip back into See/Saw to check on what I have actually read and find “… these are the pictures in which Atget’s Atgetnes is most clearly manifest”; “… there no sense that Eggleston before colour was somehow pre-Eggleston”; “…glimpses of the world as photographed by Ghirri gave way to an extended Ghirri-esque world view”; and “…it took me a while to learn where the various bits of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s almost-rhyming name began and ended: the syllables just flowed rhythmically together”. Along the way, Dyer amuses with a thought about motion and transition, throwing in the phrase “a Muybridgean analysis”. And there is rich immaturity extracted when Thomas Struth is described as a near contemporary of Thomas Ruff, before he targets the surname. Strewth!
Dyer never gets lost in this book about the art of others: he is there glowing like plutonium in the darkrooms from which these pictures emanate. In section two, under the rubric of Exposures, he pulls focus and writes shorter pieces with greater immediacy. The standout is one about Jason Reed’s shot of tennis player Serena Williams: the image elevates her “to a level of cosmic isolation” due to “the strict blue rectangle of a court … transformed into the blue curve of earth, surrounded by the darkness of outer space”. On a photograph of the misery of an eviction from a slum in Manila, he describes the whirl of limbs and falling flip-flops as a man is dragged from his abode. He notes a blurred blue object at the front of the frame and posits that it might be the denimed knee of photographer Bullit Marquez as he snaps this scrum of limbs. Then he asks, “Or am I just pulling your leg?” Dyer has been hiding his Dyerness out in the open.
The third and final section’s title is Writers. By the book’s internal logic, this is where Dyer should just furnish a few photos of his own and shut the f-stop up. He has, after all, just spent 290 pages writing about photographers. Should he now not “photograph” about writers? But no. These last eighteen pages are covered in words about Roland Barthes, Michael Fried and John Berger.
The first essay here explores Barthes’s identity as a writer, one “whose life’s work was destined, by increments, to remain unfinished”, one who “entertained few doubts as to his literary gifts”. We must remember that the Mythologies and Camera Lucida writer’s idea of cameras as “clocks for seeing” is as poetic as it is semantically perceptive.
The second piece here is ostensibly about “highly regarded art historian” Michael Fried. Dyer deploys wit and intellect to vent about the default style of writing research papers and textbooks, whereby the academic keeps throwing down positional signposts in “perpetual announcement of what is about to happen” in the unfolding of their findings. At the start they tell you what they intend to tell you. Then they actually set about telling it to you. After that, they tell you what you have been told. Referring to a chapter written about Thomas Struth, he declares “the first page of Fried’s introduction summarises what he intends to do and ends with a summary of this summary”. Dyer mimics this technique or “pathology” throughout and lampoons how Fried keeps it up right to the very end. He concludes the style makes for “some of the most self-worshipping – or, more accurately, self-serving – prose ever written”. A brilliant shard of satire, it comes unexpectedly at this late point in the book.
The concluding piece is about John Berger and begins with Dyer saying his own interest in photographs came from reading about them rather than taking or looking at them. Dyer says Berger shared a goal with Barthes: “to articulate the essence of photography”. Close to the end, he links Berger’s analysis of photographs with narrative, “… so the task of the critic and interrogator of images gives way to the vocation and embrace of the storyteller”. This seems strikingly true: it is where the blank page and the blank canvas and the blank sheet of photographic paper and the file of pixels not yet saved – and maybe even the unrecorded musical track – all rhyme artistically.
The book’s final page carries a charming photograph by Jean Mohr of Dyer and the beloved John Berger in Turin in 2004. Dyer looks like a smart boy but less the class swot and more the class cheat. A seated disciple or acolyte, he even wears glasses, coding himself as sharply focused on his mentor, a man of great, humane importance. In Mohr’s shot, Berger could almost be Picasso – before him on the table he has what appears to be a rolled-up canvas. Dyer (left) gazes at Berger: a way of seeing.
By way of postscript, I interviewed Dyer some years ago. We got on like a house on fire. The chat was pre-Zoom but post-travel expense cutbacks. So it was conducted not in the flesh but between Dublin and London on the phone. I went with a Skype call to save cash. The audio quality was occasionally Dalek-like. But at least talk was cheap. There is a journalistic technique (rightly condemned as a narcissistic flaw) whereby the interviewer writes into his piece one or more comments he made to the celebrity interviewee, usually reporting how the interviewee laughs and says something like “That’s a great question” or “I wish I had thought of that when I was writing my book.” In the absence of good subediting, such odious self-reference by the journalist gets left in the final published piece. In the worst examples, just as they are getting an insight into the personality and thoughts of the interviewee, the reader is forced to go along with the ridiculous idea that the true star of the show is the interviewer, who seems to think they have captivated the quarry with their own wit and wisdom. The table is thus farcically turned and the Grub Street scrivener gets a blast of glory, like the toilet attendant who gets to hold the Olympic flame for a moment while the great athlete goes inside to use the facilities or when the five-star hotel carpark attendant gets to drive the film star’s winged Cadillac into an appropriate parking space.
In a few lines in See/Saw – I failed to mark them in passing and can’t seem to locate them now – Dyer describes the slapstick of how an art fan may screw up a meeting with an art hero by burdening the conversation with too many insights and anecdotes of their own. The aim being supposedly to impress. Back in 2014, Dyer told me at the end of our free-flowing, laughter-filled chat to be sure to put into my newspaper article several of my own remarkable ideas as demonstrated in the course our ninety-minute interview. I am so glad I never did.
John Fleming is a writer and Irish Times journalist who invested years in the matinee cinema dark to emerge as a visually ambitious human damaged by the triple bill.