Interviewing candidates for a position in creative nonfiction this past winter, I noticed that many of them were mentioning the name Geoff Dyer in conversation, and felt chagrined that I’d never heard of the fellow. I did a bit of research and found that it’s no wonder CNF types are into him, since his shtick is to write not so much on subjects, but to write about himself writing about subjects, a stance rapturously endorsed by the AWP.
It so happens that one of Dyer’s books — this one — uses a subject matter quite dear to me, namely photography. So this seemed like a great place to begin to get to know him.
I should have known better. Early on, Dyer makes very clear that he doesn’t know anything about photography. Um, OK. Then he lets us know that his account of the history of photography will be wholly idiosyncratic and aleatory. Um, OK. Then he proceeds to remind us, every five pages or so, that he can’t be held accountable for anything he says because of how idiosyncratic and aleatory he’s being. Um, not OK. After fifty pages or so of truly stupid interpretations salted with assertions of how exciting I’m supposed to be finding same, I put it down.
What really drove me over the edge was Dyer’s perseverating insistence on the originality of his conceit that photographers are continually taking and retaking versions of the same photograph, inhabiting each other’s styles, reincarnating each other’s images over time. (Hence his book’s title.) It’s a fine idea, as it goes, not terribly original (cf. Eliot, cf. Bloom, hell cf. Heraclitus) but useful enough and valid as a through line. What’s absolutely maddening is Dyer’s incessant meta-commentary on the boldness of his decision to use this as a framework. He’s like a proud toddler who thinks he’s the first to have ever successfully shat in the proper location.
Still, a few weeks later, I went back. I think the awesome Eggleston on the cover kept drawing me in. Also, I paid eleven dollars for this thing.
There are many wonderful moments in this book, most of which exist despite rather than on account of the author’s intentions. It seems clear Dyer thought this was to be a book where he’d ignorantly stumble through the history of photography, making associations and finding insights which would be valuable precisely because he isn’t an expert on the subject. This does in fact happen here and there, it really does, but not nearly as often as Dyer thinks it does, and not nearly as often as he announces to us that it has.
Fortunately, though, Dyer’s a very good researcher, and he has a really good ear for telling quotations and anecdotes from other sources. So the book I wound up reading isn’t the one Dyer wrote but the one he found, and that book, unlike the other, I can recommend without hesitation. Ignore Dyer’s fulminations and boasting and instead focus on the comments, anecdotes, and images from Strand, Stieglitz, Evans, Kertész, O’Keefe, Weston, Arbus, Winogrand, Lange, Frank, Eggleston, Shore, Meyerowitz, et. al., and you’ll find plenty to enjoy.
It’s kind of like eating lobster: a lot of work and a lot of trash but worth it for the sweet bits.