See/Saw: Geoff Dyer interviewed by Rob Spillman
Geoff Dyer is a ruthless ping-pong player. He methodically dispatched me, along with everyone else standing in his way, to become the Brooklyn Book Festival Participant Ping-Pong Champion, twice, and most maddeningly--with great cheer. Dyer brings this same intensity, focus, and humor to his writing, whether he is examining D.H. Lawrence, Charles Mingus, Gary Winogrand, or himself in Venice. The wide-ranging subjects in his four novels, multiple nonfiction works, many forwards, introductions, and essays, including art, jazz, travel, and existentialism, he self-deprecatingly calls “a path of career avoidance.” His latest book is See/Saw: Looking at Photographs, a collection of short, precise essays spanning the history of photography as an art form. It is a perfect introduction to the mind of one of the best cultural critics working today.
I wanted to actually start at the end, with the last image in See/Saw, the joyful Jean Mohr photo of you and John Berger. Berger is such a touchstone, not only in this book but your life as a writer and thinker; when did you first discover Berger?
I guess it would be, let's say, the early eighties, in that period where I didn't go to grad school or anything, but I'd graduated from Oxford I think, probably in 1980. And I discovered his Ways Of Seeing and a few other books, yeah, in the early eighties. I can remember the date exactly: in 1984. He was without question the writer who was most important to me. And I interviewed him for Marxism Today, and then ended up writing that unbelievably boring book about him. So yeah, it was early to mid eighties, that formative period of my Berger saturation.
And so he hit you in just that really wonderful sweet spot of post-school, ditching theory and getting right into it with him?
Do you know, I'm very conscious of this now, because I teach some graduate students, it really is a sweet spot in one's life, isn't it? It's so great, but it's also so significant whose influence you come under at that age. But what I should say, I mean we've been agreeing about everything so far, but for me, funnily enough, Berger wasn't part of the way in which I ditched theory. I came across him at the same time, that relatively brief period, when I was totally besotted by theory. So yeah, I encountered him as part of the big bag of stuff that included Barthes, Foucault, Terry Eagleton, Raymond Williams, all of this kind of stuff. And only gradually did I become conscious of how he was different to the rest of them.
Right, right. I mean, in the intro you write about reading Berger, Barthes, and Sontag on photography before you even really got into thinking about or consuming photography. I'm curious, what was the first photo or photographer that you really wanted to write about, that was transcendent for you?
Yeah. Well, I don't think there was one, but there was a photograph. Maybe the very first thing I wrote about a photograph was the Robert Capa picture of the Italian soldier and his girlfriend walking along the country lane, and she's pushing a bike. So that was very much a photograph, and what I wrote about it was absolutely a reply to what Berger had written about the André Kertész picture, A Red Hussar Leaving, in Another Way Of Telling. So that's a picture of a guy and his wife or girlfriend going off to war, and this picture seemed really to be the other bookend in that clearly it seemed to be about two people being reunited after a war. I didn't really know much about Capa at that point, and it's possible that maybe I'd written a few tiny things about photography by then. But I can remember, for example, I got asked to review a biography of Walker Evans, and I only had the dimmest idea of who Walker Evans was at that point, so I certainly hadn't applied myself to photography then.
Going back to thinking about hitting the sweet spot of that influence, I remember [James Agee and Walker Evans’] Let Us Now Praise Famous Men hitting me right between the eyes after college.
Oh, did it?
I was like, "Oh, what is this? What is this?" And yeah, I still remember passages of that, of Agee getting right up next to the speakers so that he could be inside of Beethoven. It was like, "Oh my God, this guy just feels so deeply."
Yeah, how interesting, because I was aware of that book's mythic reputation, and then when I got to it I found Agee's prose just so overwrought. And of course, now his behavior in the course of writing that book would have led him straight to the door marked 'Canceled.'
It's like when you first discover someone like Tom Robbins, and you're like, "Oh, all novels should be this way." And then you look back and you're like, "Ooh, maybe it is a little purple."
Yes. So the Walker Evans pictures of course are amazing, and I think I would tend to agree with Gore Vidal when he says in that book that he much prefers the quiet detachment of Evans' photographs in comparison with—it's another one of Vidal's great bitchy things—what he calls, "The Saint James (Agee) gospel."
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Also in the intro you write that you prefer to look at photos at home, in a book, at your leisure. I'm curious if there have been cases when you've seen photos in a museum or gallery or other setting that has changed the way you look at them? I'm thinking for me it was last year at the [Garry] Winogrand show, at the Brooklyn Museum, the full-color slides. I don't know if you saw that?
Oh yeah, yeah, I did. That was amazing. And it's funny because I entered that show the wrong way. I entered it through the exit. If you remember, at the exit, there's just a little projector. And I remember thinking, "Oh God, this is all just a bit shitty." And then you go in there and there's this absolute state of the art thing with this wonderful... whatever style of projection they're using. And oh yeah, it's absolutely fantastic, isn't it?
Yeah. I went to that over and over and over. And actually, my daughter lives nearby the museum, and so we would meet there often. After the show she actually gave me your Winogrand book.
Oh, that really is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, isn't it?
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Too bad the writing sucks. But the book is just wonderful, yeah.
The University of Texas did an amazing job with the images.
They really did, it was fantastic. And actually, in that context, I think Winogrand is quite interesting, because yeah, that show is exceptional and wonderful and we're completely agreed. But generally speaking I don't think you tend to gain much from seeing a Winogrand picture on a museum wall. Partly because, unlike Evans, say, he wasn't particularly interested in printing, and he famously said "Anyone who can print can print my pictures."
Or for me, [Richard] Avedon. The first time I saw those giant Avedon prints, those portraits…
Agree completely. Yeah. So with those it's like the difference between seeing a great movie in the cinema as opposed to just watching it on your computer or something. So yeah, some of them do change substantively like that.
Speaking of scale, there's so much joy and play in these essays, I'm curious about your approach to the short form versus the sustained, more expansive, like in The Ongoing Moment. They’re different approaches.
I'm not sure they're quite so different, because really, with The Ongoing Moment, although there's no chapters you could say it's one long piece, in the same way that's it one long piece of music by The Necks or something on a CD; effectively it's a load of little things, that book. So quite often it's about an individual photograph, or they're short pieces about individual photographers. So yeah, it's made up of quite small pieces. And I mean, I think typically I can't sustain things for a long time. I've often thought enviously, wishing I was one of those writers who could spend five years writing a 700 page book as opposed to always going through this cycle of beginning, ending, and sinking into idleness, and then getting going again. But yeah, quite often, if I go through the editing process, people will say, "Could you expand on this a bit?" And I never feel like it. I always feel, "Well, sometimes the point is made nicely, precisely by virtue of it not being written out in longhand, as it were."
Yeah. I mean in the spirit of ongoing-ness, that's one of the things I appreciate about your essays; it's that you're invited in and then you can keep thinking about it. It's like it's not been hammered to death.
Yes, good. And it's not just how I write. I like reading books like that as well, where I'm getting a lot of food for thought, as opposed to this kind of thing where it all has to be argued through and substantiated at every stage.
When you first start to write about a photograph, what is it that brings you in to engage with a photo? Is it something like Berger's idea of “thisness”? Trying to find the “this-ness” of the work? Or is it confusion, complexity?
I guess it's just if something about it attracts me, which means that… well, okay, so we go back to these Winogrand things. On the one hand it's a question of what the photograph is of, and so if it's depicting an interesting event or an interesting object, then of course it compels your attention. And then, perhaps at the next stage, you think, "Oh, how is this being achieved photographically? And what is the process by which this has become a photograph?" And it's that thing that Winogrand keeps talking about over and over about, to make a photograph that's more interesting than the thing it's a photograph of. But still, in the nature of the photograph, it still is very heavily dependent on the thing it's of. So it’s that great, I think philosophically very deep line of Winogrand's, when he says, "If you photograph in Texas then your pictures are going to look like Texas." I think it's just a whole mixture of things. Sometimes my response is a very basic one. Sometimes I can be attracted to a photograph just because of the pretty colors, if it's a color photograph.
Or light or shadow.
Yes, that's right. But I think really my interest does tend to draw more to that broadly speaking reporting or documentary style of photograph. So what it's of is always of really quite considerable importance to me. But equally—this would be a good example—if you think of the piece on those photographs, The Scarecrows, by Peter Mitchell. Okay, so I think they're really beautiful photographs, but clearly what they're of is very important. And until I saw those photographs, I wasn't conscious at all of the place that those scarecrows—which I'd been seeing since I was five years old—occupied in my consciousness. So it took the photographs to make me able to cogitate on or reflect on something which had been out there in the world and which I was not oblivious to, but in a sense I hadn't been properly aware of.
So it taps a deeper well of experience and feeling, emotion, in there.
Yeah, you've summed it up very nicely for me. Thank you.
You're welcome. Also, in the intro you write, "When writing about difficult pictures or music or poetry, it's important not to forget, deny or disguise one's initial or enduring confusion or perplexity." You seem to thrive in that zone of perplexity. I mean, do you seek that out as well, or is that where you are most comfortable?
Oh, that's a very good question, because on the one hand, I would go along with that line, which I variously attributed to either Winogrand or Lisette Model, that there is nothing more mysterious than a fact clearly stated. And yeah, I don't know a better summing up of things than John Szarkowski when he's talking about Evans talking about photography's central purpose and aesthetic: "The precise and lucid description of significant fact." So on the one hand, this means I'm very much on the side of clarity and simplicity and all this kind of stuff. But the fact that that word mystery is there in the line that I quoted means that, yeah, there's often something to be unraveled. And I guess for me, the purpose of any essay-writing or any writing project is to try to come to some sort of understanding or greater appreciation of something. So even when one is confronted with something that is ostensibly very simple, such as a full frontal Walker Evans picture of a building, it's still interesting always to work out where that power has come from. And that can be quite difficult to work out, even though it doesn’t have the kind of difficulty that we might associate with Finnegan's Wake or some avant-garde piece of music.
Right, right. I think about the famous [Edgar] Degas quote: "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." And you seem to love to get at the making, how they are making you see.
Yes, and to try to articulate that. And my editor, Ethan Nosowsky at Graywolf, will be very happy that you mentioned those lines, because they originally were buried in one of the pieces. And then he said, "No, no, you've absolutely got to bring this forward into the introduction and make a larger methodological claim. So yeah, you'll make him happy with that.
One thing that I love grappling with in your work is the ideas of the two-way nature of time and influence. I'm thinking specifically in the Winogrand book, you talk about how the teen girls in one photo could be the middle-aged women in another photo. Or when you see the past and the present in the work in [Diane] Arbus and [August] Sanders. I find that really fascinating. And even when you're talking about Geary, you say, "The act of documenting simultaneously created what was there and made it available for others to photograph. Recording brought it into existence, or at the very least made visible what has hitherto passed unnoticed." Yeah, it's one of those interview questions that's not a question, but more of a…
Oh yes, Charlie Rose used to do that, and then say, "Your thoughts?"
Yeah, and if we were on stage you would go, "Yes," and leave me hanging.
Yeah, I was thinking actually, that sounds rather nicely expressed as you read that out. But yeah, I agree with what you've said, but then it would be weird if I didn't, because you were quoting me.
It's just a really interesting way of thinking of something coming into focus. It's like what James Woods talks about in literature of being co-creators of the world in fiction, where you're having that moment at the same time as a character or the narrator, or whatever is being written, where you're having that revelation at the same time.
I suppose it comes back to Howard Bloom and the anxiety of influence, isn't it? The way that typically now you might well have read Joyce's Ulysses before reading Homer. So yeah, the tradition works both ways, as it were.
You have several essays in See/Saw from the New Republic Exposure column on photographs seen in the news. I was particularly mesmerized by the Thomas Peter photo from the Ukraine, the one with the two women's legs and the soldiers in the background. It raises all kinds of questions about art, news, and propaganda.
Yeah, right, that's the thing. We come back to Winogrand, I guess, with his book Public Relations. And I could easily be wrong about this, but unless I'm mistaken, he was the first person to draw attention and photograph these events which...I mean, he didn't stage them. They're not faked, they really happened. But the thing is, these events took place in order to be photographed. So, effectively, in those Winogrand pictures, you're quite often seeing the event, as it were, in quotation marks. And we're all familiar now with this thing whereby you'll see a photograph of a violent event, it might even be some sort of combat photography, so there it is, you're right there in the frontline, and quite often now photographers will pull back, and you'll see that this very dramatic, “unmediated” quotation from reality, if you move the camera a few degrees to the left or right, there's a whole bunch of other photographers there.
Yeah, but it's so wonderfully open-ended. I was surprised, on the other end, the Ferguson photo that you wrote about. For you, it's kind of surprisingly reductive, because it's literally beauty in the rubble. And obviously in the essay you evoke a lot of history, but I'm curious why that one. It seems very literal for you.
Oh, yes. It is literal, and it's literary, because there's a word in there, but it's one of those things, I don't know the photographer, I haven't spoken to him, but I'm very interested in this thing; when he saw that, did he immediately think, "Ah, Walker Evans"? Or was it just me? But I feel that the ghost or shadow, or whatever you want to call it, of Walker Evans actually lends a real kind of lyricism to that picture.
Yeah, absolutely. But the thing with the damaged photo is that it's just so full of irony, because it's this new neon being loaded up. And yeah, if you're getting all Marxist, you can talk about capitalism and all that.
But don't you think that there's a related irony going on in the Ferguson picture?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
So I thought that was a really, really strong picture. We've seen a lot of images of those events, and they were always very crowded and dramatic and all this kind of stuff. And I can't remember now whether I talk about this in the piece, but if you go back to some of the original war photographs, such as Fenton's picture of the cannonballs in the Crimea, they could only photograph the aftermath of events. Obviously it was quite a while before people could photograph action. So I think that's a nice historical link as well, the aftermath of confrontation and violence.
And it also evokes the classic World War II photos of post-blitz bombing, or Berlin after bombing. It draws that line.
Yeah. And I think also I was reading in the new Eula Biss book when she quotes somebody, I can't remember who it is, unfortunately, but it's something like, "Yeah, it's great. We'll have the revolution on Saturday. But who's going to clean up on Monday morning?" So yet again it's that thing that we were talking about earlier, that it's a very, very simple picture. There's nothing elaborate going on in the framing, it didn't require that great speed of thought or sleight of hand that we associate with Cartier-Bresson or Winogrand or any of the rest of them. But yeah, there's a lot of things that resonate in that very still image.
Absolutely. So, speaking of the political and back to Berger, his dictum that you quote from 1960, "Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights," do you have anything similar, analogous, that guides you to choosing your work?
No. Do you know, I really wouldn't. I don't have any kind of ideological predilection like that aesthetically. It's just things that snag my attention, that take my eye. And certainly I wouldn't be able to come up with any. I'm very much a responder to things, as opposed to having an idea of what I want something to do.
You've said in the past that your many interests have led you on a “path of career avoidance”; I'm curious what you're working on next?
Oh, great, yeah. Well, I finished a book called The Last Days Of Roger Federer. And it's not my tennis book, it's about things that's interested me for a while. A lot of work has been done on late style, as you know. I feel late style is close to being not exactly a cliché, but it's something like kitsch was twenty years ago, when everyone was writing about kitsch. So this is slightly different in that with Beethoven, of course, his late style was also his last style, so it's a perfect match, but I was quite interested in these people who their last thing wasn't necessarily their late thing. So Winogrand had a last phase, but he didn't have a late phase because he got ill so suddenly. The same with Coltrane. So it's about the last things in people's careers. And God, as my wife says in derision about it, it's all about me and my knees aching and the terminal phase of my tennis so called career.
I can't wait to read that. Do you include ping pong in there?
Do you know? I don't. Even though, as I'm sure you know, I was twice the Brooklyn Writer's Festival ping pong champion.
Yes, I suffered at your hands. Yes.
Did you really? Do you know, I was so busy crushing anyone who came my way that to me you were just another shmuck.
Oh yeah, I felt it. I played tennis occasionally against George Plimpton, and even though he wasn't British, he had that sort of British nature of he could be playing with a Pimms Cup and he would play just better than you. If you played brilliantly, he would play brilliantly plus one. If you played horribly, he would play horribly plus one. So it was maddening, playing against him. I remember you were very polite about crushing me.
And was that the year when I first won it, or was it the year I retained my title, if I can put it so pompously?
I think it was the first year. Luckily I think Johnny Temple took me out in the second year, so I didn't have to face you.
Right, okay. Oh, it was funny that though, God, because I was basically the only person who was taking it really seriously. But I wanted to win, and I did win, and that night, it was so much fun. I mean, that night I felt the world is a properly meritocratic place. I just felt so good about myself, but there was such a disparity between how I felt and the amount of press coverage.
Well, we'll have to get you back. We'll make it a proper thing, invite the paparazzi and get some sponsorship.
Yeah, I so miss that world. I used to love going to festivals and doing readings, and then having dinner afterwards. I just adored all that. So yeah.
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