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Click -- and it's deja vu all over again

The Ongoing Moment Geoff Dyer Pantheon: 286 pp., $28.50

October 16, 2005|Steven G. Kellman | Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of "Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth."

WITH all due respect to Heraclitus -- you can't step in the same river even once. Geoff Dyer understands that no time is ever the first time; what may be new to us has all been done before. "It is impossible to visit the Riviera," he observes in "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" (2003), "without wishing you had been there earlier, with Scott and Zelda in the twenties." That book serves as a chronicle of a traveler who finds himself trailing the footsteps of others. Inspecting World War I memorials visited by earlier generations, Dyer -- in "The Missing of the Somme" (1994) -- even ends up tracking himself. He is surprised to find his name in the guest book at a French military cemetery: "It is the second time I have been here and there is a strange pleasure in standing in exactly the same spot again."

Cultivating that strange pleasure through nine books of fiction and nonfiction has established Dyer as the bard of belatedness. In "Paris Trance," Dyer's 1998 novel about expatriate Luke Barnes (whose life echoes that of Hemingway's Jake Barnes), Luke's girlfriend owns a mirror that is said to "ghost": Its reflections are slightly delayed. When Luke and Nicole make love in front of it, "everything they saw lagged fractionally behind what they felt." Dyer's "The Ongoing Moment" is its own kind of elaborate ghost story, a lambent series of reflections on photography: the art of after-images.

Dyer is distinctive for his quirky, even perverse take on familiar subjects. In 1997's "Out of Sheer Rage," he undertakes a pilgrimage to places once inhabited by D.H. Lawrence, the man he claims inspired him to become a writer. Yet, far from venerating him, Dyer announces that he does not even like Lawrence and cannot bear to reread his novels.

A reader might expect a similar iconoclasm toward the illustrious photographers discussed in "The Ongoing Moment." At the outset, Dyer admits that not only is he not a photographer, but he does not even own a camera. "The only time I take a picture is when tourists ask me to take one of them, with their camera," he explains. But Dyer's presence is less conspicuous here than in his previous books. He even notes that his wife "kept saying she wished there was more of me in it. The reader will, I suspect, be glad that for once I didn't take her advice."

Neither a systematic nor exhaustive look at American photography, "The Ongoing Moment" offers reflections on pictures taken in and of this country by Americans, including Hungarian-born Andre Kertesz and Swiss-born Robert Frank. Dyer continues, in prose, the project begun in contact prints by fellow Englishman Michael Ormerod, whom he characterizes as having "consciously and deliberately set about making a photographic catalogue of the tradition of American photographs."

Dyer is fascinated by instances in which different eyes address and repeat the same visual motif. He analyzes the canon of American photography as a continuing conversation in which Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Steichen, Lewis Hine, Garry Winogrand, Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Weegee, Roy DeCarava, Diane Arbus, William Gedney, Joel Meyerowitz and others respond to the image of a blind man. And a gas station, and much more.

Dyer refers to his method as "this book's aleatory approach and structure," and it might seem as though its organizing principle is the author's whimsical stream of consciousness (one in which many significant figures, including Mathew Brady, Berenice Abbott, Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman, do not swim).

Wary of airtight taxonomies, Dyer recognizes that categories of images overlap; photos of benches sometimes include fences, which leads him to turn his attention to that motif. The result: The book's chapters often end up examining an extended series of visual topoi, including trains, hands, nudes, backs, hats, stairs, curbs, chairs, beds, benches, windows, roads, drive-in movie theaters, clouds, oranges, barbershops and open doors. No one, for example, sees a bridge in isolation: That sight is conditioned by other sights, other bridges and other observers.

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