Tuesday, May 4, 2021

See/Saw. Looking at Photographs, by Geoff Dyer

For as long as I can remember, Jazz and photography have been inextricably linked. 

I hear one and I see the other.

While not strictly speaking about Jazz photography - with one notable exception [Roy Decarava] - Christopher Irmscher’s review of Geoff Dyer’s new book See/Saw. Looking at Photographs [Graywolf 2021] reveals the many ways in which photographs are so powerful, both as an artform themselves, and in their relationship to other forms of art.

Like Jazz, “what a photograph documents is gone for good,”

Like the next Jazz improvisation, “... each photograph also inevitably points toward the future, to the next photograph or series of photographs [improvisations] about a similar subject.”

And like each photograph, each Jazz recording “ … mak[es] a distant past present again every time we look at [listen to] it.”

—Mr. Irmscher is the co-editor of the Od Review, an online journal for the photographic arts.

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 

Appeared in the May 1, 2021, print edition as 'Every Picture Tells a Story.'

Geoff Dyer begins his rich new collection of essays with a consideration of “Saint-Cloud, 1924,” a magical picture by the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927), quietly reflective in the way some Rilke poems are. Here, claims Mr. Dyer with his trademark playfulness, Atget’s “Atgetness” is in full display. We see a landscape devoid of human presence: a broad, tree-lined promenade, divided by rows of ornamental shrubs, receding into a hazy, mysterious distance that, thanks to the camera’s off-center position, seems even farther away than it is. Marble statues preside over the emptiness. The time is early morning; no one except the photographer is up and about. Whatever life there is in this park—originally created for the brother of Louis XIV—appears to reside in the billowing trees on either side.

A photograph is “a witness of something that is no more,” sighed the French critic Roland Barthes in “Camera Lucida” (1980), a book that has cast its melancholy shadow over most recent writing about the medium. For Barthes, what a photograph documents is gone for good, like that misty morning in Saint-Cloud, or it will be gone soon. But where Barthes always felt the painful prick of his own mortality, Mr. Dyer’s “See/Saw” finds the delicate promise of new life: A photograph, like one of the silent statues in the royal gardens of Saint-Cloud (that’s Mr. Dyer’s comparison), endures, at least for now, making a distant past present again every time we look at it. We see anew what someone else once saw, a dizzying experience to which the clever title of the book alludes. Averse to jargon, Mr. Dyer never strays too far away from an ordinary viewer’s experience. A proud interloper in the compartmentalized halls of academe—an experience he has previously celebrated in the witty essay “My Life as a 

Apart from lifting the past into our present—allowing us, in the case of Atget’s Saint-Cloud photograph, to wander, with our mind’s eye, through a vacant park as if not a day had passed since 1924—each photograph also inevitably points toward the future, to the next photograph or series of photographs about a similar subject. If Barthes, somewhat exaggeratedly, dubbed photographers “agents of death,” Mr. Dyer celebrates them as active participants in an ongoing conversation—an idea reflected in the title of his brilliant 2005 book on the subject, “The Ongoing Moment.” Thus Atget’s austere street scenes live on in the impressions of Paris recorded during the interwar period by Ilse Bing (1899-1998), the “Queen of the Leica,” the deserted Southern plantation homes visited, during the 1940s, by Walker Evans (1903-75), or the recent reworkings of Google Street View by the photographer Michael Wolf (1954-2019).

In the preface to “See/Saw,” Mr. Dyer asserts, entirely too modestly, that writing about photography has just been a sideline for him. Not counting “The Ongoing Moment,” he has published prolifically on the subject, in prominent places such as the Guardian, the New Republic and the New York Times Magazine—enough for him to envision, tongue in cheek, a “deathbed or—yikes!—posthumous edition” of his collected photography essays. Fortunately, that grand finale still seems a long way off. In the interim, the 52 scintillating essays in “See/Saw” provide reassuring Despite the range and the staggering number of artists represented, most of Mr. Dyer’s essays remain focused on just one photograph, each of them beautifully reproduced by Graywolf Press. Intriguingly, the timeless statues of Saint-Cloud lurk behind many of Mr. Dyer’s choices, which reveal a predilection—handled with a degree of self-conscious irony—for impersonal structures, such as houses, streets, and monuments. Thus, Mr. Dyer praises the work of American photographer Bevan Davies (born 1941), whose photographs, in Mr. Dyer’s understanding, exemplify how buildings, if they had cameras, would take pictures of each other. And he admires the dreamy compositions of Oliver Curtis (born 1963), which show us what we, the visitors, would look like from the perspective of a monument such as the Taj Mahal—a bunch of scraggly, indistinct shapes milling around the famous Basin of Abundance.

The author of more than a dozen works of fiction and criticism [including But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz - 2009], Mr. Dyer has cultivated an unmistakable narrative voice, by turns lofty and self-deprecating, acerbic and arch, dismissive and sympathetic. A virtuoso example of his skill is his meditation on August Sander’s 1926 portrait of the forgotten writer Otto Brües (1897-1967). His head drooping like that of a sick bird, eyes watery behind thick, wire-framed glasses, Herr Brües sits hunched, as if imprisoned in his oversized black suit, his right hand resting idly on his right leg, an unhappy young man grown old before his time. Reflecting on Sander’s photograph, Mr. Dyer lets his imagination run riot: If Brües’s black-trousered leg, looming large at the bottom of the picture, looks like it could be a sort of writing desk, it reminds him also of the plinth of a statue—which would, jokes Mr. Dyer, make that entire portrait a “photographic memorial to the unknown writer.” Or, wonders Mr. Dyer, does that leg rather represent the dark, “swampy ooze” from which all intelligent life, including that of the prematurely petrified Herr Brües, once sprang?

If these ruminations strike you as a little overwrought, that is Mr. Dyer’s intention. His readings, entertaining, nuanced and irreverent, never pretend to uncover any single truth about a photograph. Instead, they are an attentive viewer’s creative attempts—always incomplete, often fantastical, sometimes wrong—to determine what a photograph might mean. Even cursory biographical research (which Mr. Dyer concedes he hasn’t undertaken) would have disclosed the unpleasant fact that, a few years later, Otto Brües joined eighty-seven other writers in signing a pledge of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. But such additional research would only have distracted from Mr. Dyer’s point—that a good photograph is always superior to the stories we tell about it. Anything truly relevant about Otto Brües’s life is already present in Sander’s sardonic memorial.

Among all the photographs gathered in “See/Saw,” the one likely closest to Mr. Dyer’s heart is a blurry black-and-white portrait of two jazz giants, Ben Webster and John Coltrane, taken in 1960 by the inimitable Roy DeCarava (1919-2009), with what must have been the slowest shutter speed possible. For Mr. Dyer, this picture is a monument of sorts, too, a commemoration of an intimate moment carved in such a way from the flux of time that, like the music of Coltrane and Webster, it remains alive today. With Webster’s giant hand wrapped around his jaw, Coltrane, his face visible only in profile, sinks into his older friend’s embrace. Topped by the inevitable hat, Webster’s head floats beside Coltrane’s, huge, like that of a benign god just come in from the mist. The two men’s closed eyes reflect the intensity of their hug, which spills beyond the frame into the viewer’s world. Webster was already past his prime then, but, thanks to DeCarava’s now iconic photograph, what could have been a melancholy leave-taking becomes also, as Mr. Dyer suggests, a new beginning for both men—one that, like a love supreme, lasts longer than a lifetime.”


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