Working The Room


Geoff Dyer

(reviewed by Jose Teodoro in The National Post)


Still, I find myself most drawn to Dyer’s pieces on photography, the subject of his 2005 book The Ongoing Moment, and jazz, the subject of his 1991 breakthrough But Beautiful. Of the former there is a veritable treasure trove of wide-ranging and revelatory work, considerations ablaze with the spark of fresh discovery, repeated proof of Dyer’s suggestion that “if you look hard enough, a photo will always answer your question.” Writing about Richard Avedon, Dyer offers one of his trademark reversals: “his portraits are the most extreme expression of contriving a way of stripping away contrivances.” Of Enrique Metinides, Dyer suggests a cultivated religiosity within the Mexican press photographer’s grotesque images: “he pandered to an atrocious appetite for calamity and mishap; such is the singlemindedness with which he pursued this line of work, however, that it does not seem inappropriate to speak of his devotion to the subject.” Over the course of the many photo-related essays grouped consecutively in the first third of Working the Room, Dyer’s fixation with photography urges us to look deeper into pictures — for their hidden narratives, their secret contracts, their diverse expressions of compassion — yet also develops into a kind of potential eulogy, a commentary on how the proliferation of cameras is perhaps leading us to diminishing results.

Something similar happens when Dyer writes about jazz, a musical form he’s enthralled by for its vitality, but whose vitality he makes a strong argument for having died some time ago. One essay suggests that the improvisatory fire of jazz has been taken up by electronica. I wasn’t entirely convinced, yet when this essay is immediately followed by another essay that essentially assumes the same trajectory, it suddenly feels more convincing, probably because this second essay is more overtly personal than its predecessor.

So what is it about photos and jazz, even more than literature, that summons up such peaks of critical and creative energy and enthusiasm in Dyer? Perhaps it has to do with the networks embedded within photography and jazz, the interconnectivity implied in the work of artists obliged to share a dependency on the same visible world (as in the case with photography), or whose art depends on the constant, which is to say nightly, pushing of an idiom’s boundaries, and the myriad variations on group dynamics that arise when so many of the best artists in their field wind up collaborating in one way or another (as with jazz). Perhaps it’s because Dyer is neither a photographer nor a jazz musician, because, as alluded to in his essay “Reader’s Block,” it has to do with his urge to be a channel rather than a receptacle for literature. When he began his career, Dyer already knew a thing or two about books, whereas he had to learn about photography and jazz. As Dyer so eloquently puts it in “My Life as a Gatecrasher,” “it’s not what you know that’s important; it’s what your passion gives you the potential to discover.”

• José Teodoro is a Toronto critic and playwright.