Noticing how one of the world’s great noticers notices
Depending on how you look at it, Geoff Dyer is either the prototypical contemporary English-language writer or the outlier. Awards committees love him, and publishers do, too: his pace (nine books in the last 10 years!) is as relentless as Twitter’s. His range is as vast as Wikipedia’s. His style is briskly lucid; while most of his books reward a second read-through, he rarely writes a sentence that requires one. He’s published some straight-up fiction, but his best work treats nonfiction subjects with a liveliness more often found in novels.
The last part is the key one. As lots of lots of book critics have noted (and noted lots of book critics having noted), writing about nonfiction subjects in a novelistic way is one of the defining modes of 21st century literature, from Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti to Elif Batuman and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The difference is that these authors’ nonfiction subjects are really the same subject: themselves. Dyer writes about himself, but never to the exclusion of other things. Reading his stuff, you learn about him, but also about jazz, the Andrei Tarkovsky art film “Stalker,” the Richard Burton action film “Where Eagles Dare,” life aboard an aircraft carrier, John Berger and World War I (each the subject of one of his books).
Occasionally, Dyer’s name will appear next to Lerner’s and Heti’s on lists of trendy, genre-bending authors. But the comparison only shows how cramped the supposed liberation of the autofiction boom has turned out to be — and how much richer books would be if writers were a little more curious and a little less narcissistic. “The two most depressing words in the American language,” Dyer has said, “are creative nonfiction.” Dyer writes nonfiction (art criticism, travel reports, biography) creatively. It’s the difference between the self as world and the self as jumping-off point, between navel-gazing and people-watching.
Another way of putting this is that, at his very best, Dyer writes like a photographer — better yet, like one of his all-time favorite photographers, Garry Winogrand. His style, like Winogrand’s, is recognizable but not overpoweringly idiosyncratic — there’s a lot of description, but never too many scene-stealing analogies or allusions. The shadow he casts over his subjects is long but narrow. When he’s criticizing a work of art, you’re rarely blown away by the brilliance of his ideas, as you might be by those of, say, T. J. Clark or Leo Steinberg — more often, you feel like he’s pointed out something you already knew but haven’t thought about in a while (even though, odds are, you’ve never thought about it in your life). He’s less a theorizer than a first-rate noticer, which is what a good photographer should be.
Naturally, Dyer writes a lot about photography. He’s published an excellent overview of the medium, “The Ongoing Moment” (2005) a lively single-figure study, “The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand” (2018), and now, a collection of photography essays called “SEE/SAW.” None of the essays in the new collection is more than a couple pages long. None has anything like a thesis. In lieu of 30,000-foot views, they offer close, keen-eyed readings of images, of a kind that strikes me as pathetically rare in recent art criticism, probably because they’re much harder to fake.
Another critic who specialized in this kind of writing was the semiotician Roland Barthes, the author of “Camera Lucida,” one of those books that everyone who’s interested in photography has to read sooner or later. Barthes, who lived the charmed life of a Parisian public intellectual before a careless laundry van driver ended it in 1980, shows up a lot in “SEE/SAW.”
“Camera Lucida,” Dyer writes, “is a glimpse of the world as rendered by a master stylist; as such it offers a version of the pleasures derived from the best discursive fiction […] Barthes liked ‘to write beginnings’ and multiplied this pleasure by writing books of fragments, of repeated beginnings.” The description is true enough, and clearly something Dyer aspires to in his own writing. In Barthesian terms, Dyer’s specializes in the punctum — the playful little detail crumpled into the photograph, waiting to be discovered and smoothed out by the elegance of the author’s style. SEE/SAW is punctum after punctum, beginning after beginning. Consider what Dyer does with a 1956 Eli Weinberg photograph of South African protesters:
There’s one crucial component that I haven’t mentioned. Squeezed in at the front, visible in a gap between the placards, is a solitary boy with a pudding-bowl haircut. I’m guessing he’s about thirteen. His right arm is reaching across and touching his left – a gesture that people sometimes make when they are nervous. He’s wearing shorts, sandals and a short-sleeved patterned shirt. He’s smiling slightly – and he’s white. He is there, that is the fact of the matter – his watch might even enable us to tell the time he was there, the exact moment the picture was taken. We look at the photograph and the question on our lips articulates its mystery and magic. Or, to put it the other way around, the photograph remains stubbornly silent in response to the question it insists on our asking: what is he doing there?
The solitary boy with the pudding-bowl haircut is in some sense the “secret” of Weinberg’s photograph, but writing about him solves nothing — if anything, it makes the photograph more mysterious. For Dyer, as for Barthes, careful observation is something you savor for its own sake, not for the answers it provides you. Its greatest pleasure, for those who appreciate such things, is the fleeting eureka of a beautiful phrase:
“The light is hazy but the man is shading his eyes as if staring into the face of divine radiance – a reminder that buses are anticipated as eagerly as the Second Coming and that timetables are best regarded as prophecies of dubious reliability.”
“What’s surprising is that it’s not only the clothes and hair — which change most noticeably over time — that seem solidified in the past; the faces, too, are stuck like fossils in the geology of time.”
“The stretched silhouettes acquire not just the primal quality of Giacometti’s etiolated sculptures. They start to loom like figures painted on a cave wall: humans vulnerable to the threat of beasts and forces they hope to keep at bay.”
Dyer is skeptical of big, sweeping interpretations — to borrow from Susan Sontag, he’s an erotics of art guy, not a hermeneutics guy. Strange, then, that Sontag — the author of “On Photography,” another book that everyone who’s interested in the subject has to read sooner or later — is loudly absent from these pages. In a way, SEE/SAW is a refutation of one of Sontag’s signature ideas, that the camera is a leveler, blurring the line between important and unimportant, alien and familiar.
Dyer is constitutionally incapable of thinking about photography in this way — he’s too sensitive to difference, too gifted a close-reader to settle for one-size-fits-all approximations. And so, where Sontag sees the early 20th-century German photographer August Sander as some kind of ur-Nazi, taxonomizing his countrymen with an icy “class condescension,” Dyer zeros in on Sander’s portrait of the writer Otto Brües (1926) and finds all kinds of wonders Sontag missed. Though this is a photograph of a man whose job is to sit at a desk writing books, there is no desk or book in sight. And yet Brües’s “trouser legs
are almost like a soft desk behind which he is sitting […] As we continue to look at the picture it seems almost as if the dark mass of legs might be more than a desk. They could be almost a plinth, the kind on which statues are supported, or memorials … to the unknown soldier, for example. Maybe that is what we have here: a photographic memorial to the unknown writer.”
A fanciful line of thought, to be sure, but not a strained one. Dyer earns the right to be a little fanciful because he’s such a careful observer: because Brües’s legs do, in fact, resemble a desk, I’m inclined to follow Dyer from desk to plinth to state to unknown soldier, all the way to the final, melodious phrase, a photographic memorial to the unknown writer.
Sontag would never have written something like this —but then, Sontag didn’t really do close readings. “Almost nowhere,” George Scialabba observed earlier this year, “does [Sontag] grapple with a poem or novel or film or painting or piece of music and show us, from the inside, how it works: how, precisely, it achieves the effects it does.” Scialabba didn’t include photographs on that list, but he could have — it’s remarkable how few individual images Sontag analyzes at length in her writings on the medium. On the other hand, what Sontag did better than almost anyone — and what Dyer seems unable to do or uninterested in doing — is advance a coherent, overarching theory of the aesthetics and ethics of photography.
Perhaps this is a trade-off that all art critics must make. No theory is without its exceptions, and so proposing a new theory demands a certain amount of nervy indifference to the details. The stronger a noticer you are, by the same token, the less comfortable with cavalier theorizing you’re likely to be. The advantage of being a great noticer, like Dyer, is that you’re always fun to read on a sentence-by-sentence level. The danger is that you never go anywhere too far from home, and sometimes you wind up going in circles.
There comes a point about halfway through “SEE/SAW” when I started to get tired — or maybe it’s Dyer who gets tired. He writes that Nicholas Nixon “has created a profound and ongoing exploration of what it is to be human”; that viewers “fall quickly under [Luigi Ghirri’s] spell”; that Zoe Strauss’s is “a coherent and important body of work.” It’s not bad prose so much as it is clichéd, lazy, sluggish prose. Even Dostoevsky wrote this way some of the time, but because Dyer’s biggest selling-point is his vivacious curiosity, the lapses are especially grating.
In the strangest, funniest, nastiest and most revealing essay in “SEE/SAW,” Dyer attacks the art historian Michael Fried with a stingingly precise parody of his style—“In this essay I want to …” and so on. Fried’s problem, as Dyer sees it, is that he’s always announcing himself in his prose, signposting his own argument so often that the signposting starts to drown out the argument itself and become “a kind of ongoing flourish or extravagance.” Dyer, one needn’t be a first-rate noticer to notice, is not a fan of this kind of writing. But, as my uncle likes to say, the thing that bothers you most about other people is really the thing that’s wrong with you.
“For long stretches,” Dyer complains, “this reader’s brain felt like it had been fried by its engagement with a book that was being consulted not for its style but its presumed content.” Bold words from someone who made their name with a book nominally “about” D. H. Lawrence that said hilariously little about Lawrence and much about Dyer’s stylistic nimbleness. The big difference between Fried and Dyer is that Dyer doesn’t suck at writing sentences. As different as they seem (one is sort of the other’s evil twin), both men have written books that leave the reader feeling fried, worn-out, cheated, nagged by the sense of having received somewhat less than they were promised. Maybe that’s a crotchety point to end on, but lest I seem ungrateful, let me add: I would rather be vaguely disappointed by Dyer than satisfied by almost anyone else.
Jackson Arn is the Forward’s contributing art critic.