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bw110630book.jpgOTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE HUMAN CONDITION

Selected Essays and Reviews 1989–2010
By Geoff Dyer

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2011 Geoff Dyer
All right reserved.

 

ISBN: 978-1-55597-579-1

 


Contents

List of Illustrations..............................................................................................xi
Introduction.......................................................................................................3
Jacques Henri Lartigue and the Discovery of India..................................................................9
Robert Capa........................................................................................................12
If I Die in a Combat Zone..........................................................................................15
Ruth Orkin's V-E Day...............................................................................................20
Richard Avedon.....................................................................................................25
Enrique Metinides..................................................................................................31
Joel Sternfeld's Utopian Visions...................................................................................36
Alec Soth: Riverrun................................................................................................40
Richard Misrach....................................................................................................44
William Gedney.....................................................................................................51
Michael Ackerman...................................................................................................67
Miroslav Tichý................................................................................................71
Saving Grace: Todd Hido............................................................................................78
Idris Khan.........................................................................................................82
Edward Burtynsky...................................................................................................87
Turner and Memory..................................................................................................91
The American Sublime...............................................................................................95
The Awakening of Stones: Rodin.....................................................................................100
Ecce Homo..........................................................................................................113
D. H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers....................................................................................123
F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Beautiful and Damned......................................................................129
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night...........................................................................137
Pounding Print.....................................................................................................146
Richard Ford: Independence Day.....................................................................................150
James Salter: The Hunters and Light Years..........................................................................156
Denis Johnson: Tree of Smoke.......................................................................................162
Ian McEwan: Atonement..............................................................................................166
Lorrie Moore: A Gate at the Stairs.................................................................................170
Don DeLillo: Point Omega...........................................................................................173
The Goncourt Journals..............................................................................................177
Rebecca West: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon...........................................................................184
John Cheever: The Journals.........................................................................................193
Ryszard Kapuscinski's African Life.................................................................................200
W. G. Sebald, Bombing, and Thomas Bernhard.........................................................................205
Regarding the Achievement of Others: Susan Sontag..................................................................212
The Moral Art of War...............................................................................................215
"My Favorite Things"...............................................................................................231
Ramamani...........................................................................................................236
Def Leppard and the Anthropology of Supermodernity.................................................................239
Editions of Contemporary Me........................................................................................245
Is Jazz Dead?......................................................................................................252
Cherry Street......................................................................................................264
Blues for Vincent..................................................................................................269
Loving and Admiring: Camus's Algeria...............................................................................272
Oradour-sur-Glane..................................................................................................280
Parting Shots......................................................................................................286
The Wrong Stuff....................................................................................................291
Fabulous Clothes...................................................................................................300
The 2004 Olympics..................................................................................................308
Sex and Hotels.....................................................................................................315
What Will Survive of Us............................................................................................319
The Airfix Generation..............................................................................................327
Comics in a Man's Life.............................................................................................333
Violets of Pride...................................................................................................341
On Being an Only Child.............................................................................................346
Sacked.............................................................................................................356
On the Roof........................................................................................................367
Unpacking My Library...............................................................................................374
Reader's Block.....................................................................................................378
My Life as a Gate-Crasher..........................................................................................382
Something Didn't Happen............................................................................................386
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (with particular reference to Doughnut Plant doughnuts).....................391
Of Course..........................................................................................................404
Sources and Acknowledgments........................................................................................417

 

Chapter One

VISUALS

Jacques Henri Lartigue and the Discovery of India

 

This photograph was taken by Jacques Henri Lartigue on the Cap d'Antibes in 1953. He was almost sixty by then, had been photographing for half a century. The picture is of a woman—I don't know who—propped up on a lilo or lounger on the terrace of some presumably luxurious hotel or villa. She's wearing a swimsuit and one of those fun wigs made of strips of colored paper that you can buy in party shops. You can't see her eyes, she's wearing a pair of big plastic sunglasses, but there's a hint (and this is the lovely flirty thing about the picture) that she is glancing up at the photographer—which means that she is also glancing up at me, at us—rather than reading the unbelievably serious book in her hands: Nehru's The Discovery of India! It looks like it's about eight hundred pages long and weighs a ton. It wouldn't be anything like the same picture if she was reading Bridget Jones's Diary, which, obviously, hadn't been published back then—but that's another thing about the picture: it could have been taken yesterday, it could have been taken today (especially now that white sunglasses are in vogue again).

The book is a touch of genius—the genius either of contrivance or of the moment—but, actually, if any element of the picture were removed (the wig, the glasses, the painted nails or lipstick) it would be thoroughly diminished. That's the thing about all great photos, though. Everything in them is essential—even the inessential bits. It occurs to me that another important component of a photograph is the things that are not in it. The inclusion of certain things can not just diminish a photograph but destroy it. In this case—all the more remarkable in a photograph taken in 1953—the absence of a cigarette (so often considered an accessory of glamour) or ashtray is crucial to its allure and its contemporaneity. A cigarette would "date" or age the photograph as surely as it ages the faces of the people who smoke them. If there were any evidence of smoking I would have to look away. As it is, I can't tear my eyes away. I can't stop looking at her.

So who is she?

But there I go, forgetting one of my own rules about photography, namely, that if you look hard enough a photo will always answer your question—even if that answer comes in the form of further questions. Well, whoever she is, she's beautiful. Actually, I can't really tell if that's true, for the simple reason that I can't see enough of her face. But she must be beautiful for an equally simple reason: because I'm in love with her. Lartigue, too, I suspect. Now, plenty of men have photographed women they love but this picture depicts the moment when you fall in love.

That's why the suggestion that she is looking up, meeting our gaze—the photographer's, mine—is so important: this is the first moment when our eyes meet, the moment that each subsequent meeting of eyes will later contain. If this picture is of a woman Lartigue has been with for ten years it actually proves my point: that look, that meeting of the eyes, still contains the charge of the first unphotographed look from way back when. As for me, since I've only just seen the photo, it's a case of love at first sight. And that, I think, is why Lartigue became a model for so many fashion photographers. The most effective form of subliminal seduction—the best way to sell the dresses or hats featured in photos—is to make men fall in love with the woman wearing them, and photographers are all the time trying to emulate or simulate that feeling. With Lartigue, though, it's for real, and the accessories on offer are what? A daft wig, some zany sunglasses, and a hardback of The Discovery of India! That's the charm of the picture, its magic.

As I said at the beginning, they're all crucial, these ditzy accessories. The book lends a hint, at the very least, of the exotic. And the wigs and glasses give the picture its faint but unmistakable touch of the erotic. If you want to see her without the wig and glasses then you are already starting to undress her. Not that there is anything explicitly sexual about this—it's more that you want to see what she really looks like. In other words, you want an answer to the question the picture insistently teases us with: to what extent is it posed, contrived? I'd love to know. It would probably be possible to find out by consulting one of the many books about Lartigue currently available, but I prefer a less scholarly, more direct, but—I hope—not too intrusive approach. "Excusez-moi, mademoiselle. J'espère que je ne vous dérange ..."

 

2005

Robert Capa

 

Works of art urge us to respond in kind and so, looking at this photograph, my reaction expresses itself as a vow: I will never love another photograph more.

The caption on the back of the postcard on which I first saw it read "Italian soldier after end of fighting, Sicily 1943." The Allies invaded Italy in July of that year; Palermo, the capital, was captured on July 22, and by August 17 the whole of Sicily was in Allied hands. Victory in Europe was still almost two years distant, but Robert Capa's photo is like a premonition of—and coda to—the end of the war in Europe.

When I next saw the picture, in a book of Capa's work, it had a different caption. This time it read: "Near Nicosia, Sicily July 28, 1943. An Italian soldier straggling behind a column of his captured comrades as they march off to a POW camp." This is much more specific—but which of the two most accurately expresses the truth of the image (as opposed to the circumstances in which it was made)?

At first it seems that the entire meaning of the picture changes according to the caption but then one realizes that whatever the circumstances surrounding the picture frame, Capa has deliberately isolated this young couple (making both captions misleading since neither mentions the woman). As Steinbeck remarked, Capa's "pictures are not accidents." The visual truth of the photo pushes the circumstances in which it was taken beyond the edge of the frame, out of sight. Following Capa's example, I too prefer to "crop" the narrative, to concentrate on the story contained by the image, to transcribe the caption inscribed within it.

Capa's picture recalls and complements another: André Kertész's photograph "A Red Hussar Leaving, June 1919, Budapest." In the midst of the commotion of departure, a man and a woman look at each other for what may turn out to be the last time. In Another Way of Telling, John Berger has written of how the look that passes between them is an attempt to store the memory of this moment against everything that may happen in the future. Capa's photograph shows the moment when all the unvoiced hopes in that photograph—in that look—come true. And not just the hopes of Kertész's couple, but the hopes of all lovers separated by war.

The hot Mediterranean landscape. Dust on the bicycle tires. The sun on her tanned arms. Their shadows mingling. The flutter of butterflies above the tangled hedgerow. The crumbling wall at the field's edge is the result not of the sudden obliteration of bombs, but of the slow attrition of the seasons. It is possible to grow old in this landscape. All the sounds—the rustle of cicadas, the noise of his boots on the road, the slow whir of the bicycle (his or hers? it has a crossbar)—offer an irenic contrast to the deafening machinery of tanks and artillery. The photograph would be diminished without the bicycle; it would be ruined without her long hair. Her hair says: this is how she was when he left, she has not changed, she has remained true to him.

Noticing these things fills me with longing. I want to be that soldier. Since that is impossible I resolve to go on a cycling holiday in Sicily. I want, also, to know their story. When did they meet? Have they made love? How long have they been walking? Where are they heading? How long is the journey? The photograph itself urges us to ask questions like this, but if we look—and listen—hard it will provide the answers. Listen ...

They do not care how long the walk ahead of them is; the greater the distance, the longer they can be together like this. She will ask about the things that have happened to him; he will be hesitant at first, but there is no hurry. She begins to remember his silence, the way it was implied by his handwriting, by the letters he sent. Eventually, he will tell her of the friends he has lost, the terrible things he has seen. He is impatient for news of friends and relatives, back in their village or town.

She will tell about her brother, who was also in the army and who was wounded, about his parents, about the funny thing that happened to the schoolteacher and the butcher's dog. They will walk along, their shoulders bumping, noticing everything about each other again, each a little apprehensive of disappointing the other in some small way. At some stage, perhaps when they are resting by the roadside or perhaps when they lie down to sleep under the star-clogged sky, she will turn to him and say, "Am I still as pretty as when you left?"

Knowing what his answer will be, feeling the roughness of his hand as he pushes the hair behind her ear, watching his mouth as he says, "More. Much more."

And the defeat of Italy, the end of the war? Maybe they will talk of that too, but not now, not now ...

 

1991

If I Die in a Combat Zone

 

Requiem is a tribute to "the 135 photographers of different nations" who died while covering the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Designed as a memorial—the endpapers, inscribed with the names of the dead, deliberately echo the Vietnam "wall" in Washington, D.C.—it is not just a book of more or less startling photographs held together by an editorial concept. Requiem is a great photography book: a book, that is, with its own visual grammar and narrative coherence.

The first photos, taken by Everette Dixie Reese in the 1950s, are elegant, classical images of a serene and exotic landscape. Photographs from the war will show combat-haunted GIs with "the thousand-yard stare"; Reese photographs an old Vietnamese man with a thousand-year gaze. Another irenic image shows a Buddhist monk—the Western ideal of wisdom—but there are hints, too, that this is a part of the world where rivers have run routinely red. A twelfth-century stone relief shows a battle between the Khmer and Cham armies in 1177. In a picture by Pierre Jahan, a French sentry's helmet gives him the look of an invading conquistador, which, in a sense, he is. An aerial shot of the Red River Delta shows a landscape that seems nothing else so much as camouflage patterned. Military aircraft begin to appear in Reese's cloud-strewn skies, followed, in 1954, by French paratroopers. Then, in photo graphs by Jean Peraud, we get the first of the images of combat that will make up the bulk of the book. A few pages later the death of Robert Capa in the Red River Delta is announced.

Capa's dying in Vietnam provides an essential continuity from images of the Second World War to those in this book. Many of Capa's famous photos, from the Normandy invasion to the liberation of Paris, show soldiers tramping out of the edge of the frame, trudging from one battle to the next. The last photos he took, minutes before treading on a mine on May 25, 1954, show a column of soldiers wading through waist-high grass. They could be the same soldiers he had photographed in 1944. One of them even raises a rifle in familiar salute. Then Capa is blown to pieces. The column of soldiers marches on, invisibly, into the deepening conflict of Southeast Asia.

In keeping with this implied continuity, the war in Vietnam looks, at first, pretty much like the Second World War. In the early stages of that conflict, writers tended to see it through a poetic optic derived from the 1914–18 war, specifically through Wilfred Owen. In the same way, photographers tended to view the war in Vietnam through a filter or lens developed to cover the Second World War. The emphasis is on the ordinary, individual soldier, usually in moments of great danger. This is not surprising. After all, details of vegetation, topography, and complexion aside, the experience of men at the sharp end of combat remains fairly constant. The uniforms are different, but in every other respect, Dana Stone's picture of South Vietnamese troops on a devastated hilltop outpost in Ha Than in 1968 could have been taken at Passchendaele fifty years earlier (in common with many accounts of the Third Battle of Ypres, a section of Requiem is titled "The Quagmire"). Robert J. Ellison's shot of an ammunition dump exploding in front of three Marines is like a full-color version of W. Eugene Smith's classic image of four Marines cowering from an explosion on Iwo Jima. (The pictures in Requiem do not only look back in time. Kyoichi Sawada's photo of a dead Vietcong soldier being dragged behind an armored vehicle anticipates Paul Watson's even grislier image of a U.S. soldier being hauled through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.)

As the war progresses, so it begins to develop its own visual style. Capa had said that he preferred a powerful picture to one that was technically perfect. In Vietnam—most evidently in Catherine Leroy's images published by Look in "full-bleed" (as the technical term so accurately puts it)—this distinction becomes increasingly blurred. Larry Burrows took carefully composed images, but for many photographers immediacy undiminished and unmediated by anaesthetic formal concerns was everything. This was not simply because of the exigencies of battle; or, rather, developments in non-combat photography lent themselves particularly well to the hazards of Vietnam. By the mid-1960s Robert Frank's apparent indifference to traditional photographic virtues had become an ordering aesthetic in its own right. In Bystander: A History of Street Photography, Colin Westerbeck remarks that Garry Winogrand was trying "to see what is left of photography, what the essence of it is, after you give up the formal French rationality that Cartier-Bresson always hangs on to." Where better to explore that question than a war where any vestige of rationality could be annihilated in four hours at My Lai? The Second World War had a shape, a purpose, that became evident both in the larger narrative (from Capa's pictures of D-Day to George Rodger's images of the liberation of Belsen) and within each of the individual, incremental pictures that make up that narrative. As the war in Vietnam progressed so it came to be seen—quite literally—as confused, chaotic, purposeless. Three years before he went missing in action in Cambodia, Dana Stone wrote to his parents that "the risks were getting way out of proportion to the gains. I seemed to be getting the same pictures that I had made many times before and as I became more accustomed to the war what had initially been interesting and exciting became dull and frightening."

(Continues...)

 


Excerpted from OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE HUMAN CONDITION by Geoff Dyer Copyright © 2011 by Geoff Dyer. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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