Book: See/Saw – Looking at Photographs; by Geoff Dyer

The eye, and the mind, of author Geoff Dyer are easily sparked and perpetually active. That appears as true if he finds himself encountering a billboard shot by Dayanita Singh, at Delhi airport in 2006, or at home poring over Fred Sigman’s book Motel Vegas, or even Googling photos by Luigi Ghirri. All three ‘exhibits’ are greeted with an infectious love of the medium of photography, just as previous books have succeeded through a love of, say, DH Lawrence, or mid-20th-century American Jazz.

Indeed, Dyer is as comfortable with the complexity of a street photograph by Helen Levitt, as he is with the exhaustive vision of Andreas Gursky, or even the war reportage of Gary Knight. Photography is no monolith, and perhaps that is why contemporary art photographs lend themselves so well to the monkey brain of a polymath such as the author of this book.

Dyer’s wide learning is apparent throughout See/Saw. He demonstrates a solid grasp of the history of the artform and appears to hold Walker Evans as the touchstone for many of his observations and ideas. And he variously quotes former MoMA curator John Szarkowski, or draws on the grave comedy of novelist Don Delillo in order to spice up his own accounts of the images which are shared here in more than 50 colour plates.

If anything, the texts collected here are a little too allusive. During a 10-page discussion of Alex Webb’s fractured respresentations of streetlife in Haiti, Dyer conjures with the names of Lévi-Strauss, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Rebecca Norris Webb, Lee Friedlander, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Max Kozloff, Samuel Johnson, John Donne, de Chirico, Pico Iyer, DH Lawrence, Brett Weston, Aimé Césaire, Ezra Pound, WH Auden, William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison, Ryszard Kapuściński, Martin Parr, David Alan Harvey, Harry Gruyaert, Dorothea Lange, André Kertész, Jane Jacobs and finally, naturally, Walker Evans.

It is enviable to have such a roster of artists and writers to hand, and it is also true that Dyer has a word pool as richly stocked as his library. Although he is always readable, he is often florid, and is frequently idiomatic. He asks whether, in a confused shot of a Favela, we can see the limb of photographer, Bullit Marquez: ‘Or am I just pulling your leg?’ Or whether, in an image with two dogs, by Philip-Lorca Dicorcia, we are being ‘sold a pup’? At times this reader wondered whether the allusions and the wordplay ever get in the way of the photos. But it remains the case that each of these essays deepens our relationship with the works in question.

See/Saw is an essay collection given over to 40 photographers, 10 photographs, and three writers. It was not originally conceived as a book. And the author says, in his introduction, that his writing about photography is only a sideline. Having said that, Dyer adds, everything is a sideline as he is completely without a main line. It’s a modest admission, and it accounts for the fact that in terms of these myriad citations and clever puns, Dyer uses every weapon to hand. The result is a series of quite companionable discourses on photos which comprise a selective history. You will learn a lot, but you might lose sight of the originals.

See/Saw: Looking at Photographs is published by Canongate and available now from wherever you get your books.

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