25 October 2005

the ongoing moment

Dyer's new book consists in variations on this theme: "Photographers sometimes take pictures of each other; occasionally they take pictures of each other at work; more usually they take photographs - or versions - of each other's work. Consciously or not they are constantly in dialogue with their contemporaries and predecessors" (112-13). Alternatively and somewhat more strongly: "All the great photographers are capable of metamorphosing themselves, if only occasionally and accidentally, into other photographers" (131). Finally, pondering the recurrent motifs photographers explore and the characters who appear and reappear in their photographs: "How long can a coincidence extend before it ceases to be one. Does coincidence have to be momentary? How long is the moment, the ongoing moment?" (115).
It is in many ways a fascinating book. He weaves examples throughout the book in ways that do not exactly argue for, but instead illuminate and illustrate, his primary claim. Indeed, the structure and style of the book is impressive. Which of these more specific examples did I find most persuasive? Dyer advances an extremely telling interpretation of Dorothea Lange. In particular, he locates the tension between the impulse to capture general predicaments and the equally strong desire to accord individuality to those who endure them. On the one hand he stresses the ubiquity in Lange's work (and that of other documentarians of the era) of men wearing hats where "the hat serves to personalize the human costs of impersonal economic forces." Likewise, he brings our attention to "Lange's ability to use hands rather than the face as a way of individualizing her subject." (104,99). By calling our attention to how Lange tacks back and forth from the particular to the aggregate, Dyer - wittingly or not - encourages viewers to resist the depoliticizing tug of "compassion."

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