Perlego Book of the Month: The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer

As we finish the month of December and reflect upon the events of this challenging year, we thought this book would be an excellent pick for our Perlego Book of the Month feature; not only for its quiet meditative tone and philosophical nature but also because some of the photographs discussed by Geoff Dyer were taken during the Great Depression and the Second World War, in times of even greater uncertainty. 

UNYP students can enjoy everything that the Perlego online library has to offer during the winter break! 

While photography tries to pin down the ephemeral and speak to the heart of the moment, Dyer’s prose takes the same photographs from the archives of history and moves them into new discussions, reading stories and biographies over them that broaden their meanings and sweep them into an ever-evolving reflection. With no thesis or history, just a winding narrative of connections, Dyer’s writing rambles, returns, and reconsiders. The book offers a discussion of 42 photographers, dating from the early 1800s to contemporary times. The author freely roams through decades, styles, and subjects without losing its unifying thrust. 

One might wonder why a non-photographer would be interested in reading this book? First of all, it is essential to mention that the author himself begins the narrative by alerting us, “I’m not a photographer...I don’t even own a camera.” One doesn’t need to have technical skills to understand photography and write about it, as some of the most important photographic works in history are much more about the content and the “ongoing moment” than the correct exposure time and sharp focus. Secondly, in today’s world, we are bombarded with images on an hourly basis. In a way, photography has never been as available for production and consumption as in the past 10 years. Since Daguerre shot the Boulevard du Temple 182 years ago, nearly 5 trillion photographs have been taken. Due to the accessibility of smartphones and social media platforms, the global picture count is increasing rapidly. Today, more photographs are taken every two minutes than were taken in the 1800s. For that reason, we believe it is imperative for everyone, despite the focus of their studies, to get familiar with the non-technical aspects of the photographic medium, the issues of photographic ethics, and the history of photography. 

Dyer’s book sets out in a singular and illuminating way to elucidate what Henri Cartier-Bresson famously called the “decisive moment.” Instead of weighing up the work of selected photographers from the last two centuries as an academic might do, Dyer decided instead to look at certain subjects common to all the photographers he admires: benches, paths, doors, blind people, caps, walls, highways. His mission is to identify the diverse types and sensibilities that make these subjects look both analogous and infinitely distinct.

In The Ongoing Moment, the richness of language that one might anticipate from an experienced author is combined with a meditative breakdown of the generated literature and art of tropes, and the result is a fresh, living order that sprouts from forgotten corners and lays out its own network of roots. There is no conclusive ending to Dyer’s book, just as there is no conclusion to any of his claims. The book could be read backwards, outwards from the center, or in an endless loop, without repeating the same experience. Dyer’s interactions are continually building and crashing on each other, and the end result is, therefore, exhilarating and frustrating at once, fine-turned and imperfect, yet still decisively constant in nature.


Photograph ©Steve Schapiro: New York, 1961,  courtesy Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles


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