If you haven’t a sense of humor, don’t speak to Geoff Dyer. Or read his books.

If you do, the novelist's latest, a literary meditation on photographer Garry Winogrand, is the kind of cheeky, yet critical, approach to photography we've long needed.

At last year’s Bombay Beach Biennale, an immersive academic gathering held on the coast of California’s ecologically disastrous Salton Sea, the writer Geoff Dyer stood before a room full of Burners, local townspeople, aberrant artists and artfully digressed on the construction of memories. Specifically, the premeditated historical construction of World War I memories, as he sipped champagne in an abandoned building on the shore of a toxic body of water. The scene was quintessentially Dyer, as though it was lifted from one of his four art-centric novels. These works, along with Dyer’s additional nonfiction works, nine in total, are all what one would call “genre-dying”—genre being a distinction that he considers to be hollow, anyhow.  

Dyer’s latest volume is a collection of short essays responding to the street photographs of American photographer Garry Winogrand, who mainstreamed the practice of street photography in the 6os and 70s. Modeled after John Szarkowski’s monograph on documentary photographer Eugène Atget, The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand gathers one hundred of Winogrand’s photos in a “roughly chronologically” sequence, with Dyer providing a unique textual commentary on each. The format allows viewers to bring their own interpretation to the images in a mutual invitation of imaginative departures. In the hands of Dyer, the approach creates a potent, and entertaining, field of possibilities for admirers of Dyer’s dry prose and Winogrand die-hards. On a page featuring one of Winogrand’s most famous images, a Porsche speeding out of the frame as a woman lies in the gutter outside of a Denny’s restaurant, Dyer writes, “Winogrand was speeding along, snapping so obsessively, mechanically… that he didn’t eve see the woman who gave the shot the significance that tens of thousands of others from this phase of his life lacked.”

Document spoke with Dyer about Winogrand’s groundbreaking perspective, the process of culling thousands of his images into one book, avoiding Barthesian tropes, and, as we couldn’t resist, Dyer’s reading recommendations. 

Document—Why a book on Garry Winogrand?

Geoff Dyer—I find him absolutely inexhaustible. I love looking at and thinking about his pictures so this was a perfect way to learn more about him. But the key thing is that I’d wanted to do a book in this particular form for a long time: picture on one page, essay on the facing page; one hundred pictures, one hundred little essays. That was the deep ambition and then, fortunately, a publisher suggested the perfect subject to me.

Document—In your interview at The Paris Review by Matthew Specktor, you notoriously refused the division of fiction and nonfiction and asserted that this refusal is part of what your books are about. I wonder if you feel a kinship with Winogrand, vis-à-vis your defiant attitudes toward your respective mediums.

Geoff—On the one hand, as a photographer Winogrand is wedded to the world in a documentary sense, as when he says that if you photograph in Texas then your pictures are gonna look like Texas. On the other hand, he says that the pictures are not the same as the things in them. Maybe that could be a photographic iteration of the non-fiction/ fiction issue. But perhaps your question can best be answered by another: “Who by /What of?” At the heart of photography is this question of whether an image is identified by who took it or what it shows. Now, obviously, this is a book about Garry Winogrand’s pictures but it’s more obviously “by” a certain author, an author with a stronger identifying stylistic presence and sensibility than books “about” artists often are.

Document—Because of the sheer magnitude of Winogrand’s photographs, it must have been an ordeal to make your selections, which include many unseen images. How did that process work?

Geoff—It was fun and exhausting. I didn’t spend that much time in the archive but while there I was particularly keen to see two aspects of the work ignored by the SF MoMA retrospective a couple of years ago, the color work and the stuff he shot in Britain and Europe in the late 1960s. Also, I wasn’t looking just for high-quality pictures in the way that a curator would, I was looking for pictures I’d have something to write about. Winogrand said the challenge was to make a photograph that was more interesting than the thing or person in it.

Document—Did this encourage any imaginative departures from an image?

Geoff—Sometimes I saw an opportunity to write something that might be more interesting than the picture. Those were some of the pieces I most enjoyed writing: little stories generated by the pictures.

Document—Winogrand was known for asserting that “a photograph has no narrative ability at all” but to me, you’ve certainly used the images as a tool for telling stories.

Geoff—The fact that an individual picture has no narrative ability is one of the things that gives it such great narrative potential, especially from the point of view of a writer. And, of course, when you put the pictures together there is a narrative. Depending on how you put the pictures together many different kinds of narrative are possible. One of the things I most enjoyed was learning how to construct a purely visual form of narration and sequencing—something I’d never done before.

Document—You avoided creating a “Winogrand’s greatest hits” assemblage, which those familiar with his work are likely thankful for.

Geoff—There’s a nice mix, I think, of previously unseen and classic works. But there’s always new stuff to see in pictures that you already know quite well. The sheer number of great pictures he took continues to amaze me.

“Funny and serious are not opposites. I have trouble taking seriously anyone without a sense of humor.”

Document—There’s a humor or lightness in his photos, the kind that, as a viewer, feels like an act of generosity. Did this open anything up for your essays?

Geoff—Winogrand’s pictures are funny, obviously—but that doesn’t stop them being very serious. That’s part of the attraction and compatibility of photographer and writer in this instance. Funny and serious are not opposites. I have trouble taking seriously anyone without a sense of humor.

Document—Plurality, not duality.

Geoff—I’m sometimes tempted to go further and say I don’t want to read anything that’s not funny, but that’s a bit daft, almost a joke. But I think I can say: if you haven’t got a sense of humor don’t read my books. You won’t like them. And if you haven’t got a sense of humor, don’t speak to me because I won’t like you. That seems a fair and reciprocal arrangement.

Document—Contrastingly, there’s often a potent sense of intrusion, or sometimes, collision in a Winogrand shot. He used a Leica M4 camera, whose large scope required being close to a subject in order to capture facial expressions.

Geoff—Yes, I’m struck by how often someone catches Winogrand at it, the looks he gets—disapproving, angry, amused—are often part of the pictures’ effectiveness. And sometimes just his being there, with camera in hand, provokes a picture in to existence.

Document—On one of his British photos, you wrote, “If one wanted to go all Barthesian one would notice the tightness of the black guy’s trousers.” Why not go all Barthesian? Did you have an incompatible goal in mind?

Geoff—The question contains its answer! What’s the point of going all Barthesian when Barthes has already done that? It’s like when people praise a novel for its Dickensian cast of characters. I’ve read almost all of Dickens so don’t feel any great need to repeat that experience. In addition, that once-lovely idea of the punctum became so influential and so thoroughly adopted by academics that it lost exactly what appealed to Barthes in the first place, namely its unexpectedness. For the last twenty years or so you’ve had these critical search parties hunting down the punctum: “We know you’re in there somewhere, come out with your hands up!”

Document—Yes, it was a relief to see that the punctum-hunt was evaded in your book. But what was the process of writing on each photograph like? Did you respond to it in a sitting, or let it marinade in your mind for a bit?

Geoff—It varied. The main thing was that I was always having to start over: I’d finish one and then have to start another. Barthes said he wrote as he did—in fragments—partly because he liked beginnings. This was a book of a hundred beginnings so it was difficult to build up momentum.

Document—In your first book on photography, The Ongoing Moment, you lamented that the physical nature of the book necessitates a clear order: “I wish that each picture — or the verbal equivalent of a picture, each section of text — was not forced to be surrounded by just two others. Ideally some sections would be adjacent to four or eight or even ten others.” Were you similarly aware of physical limitations in the Winogrand book?

Geoff—Oh no, I loved this form — the form of Szarkowski’s great book on Atget — and wanted to do attempt my own version: picture on one page, text on the facing page. The form is perfect!

Document—You recently urged everyone to skip reading The Ambassadors by Henry James, instead recommending The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer.

Geoff—[Laughs] Oh yes, The Ambassadors is so ghastly.

Document—Which contemporary fiction writers would you suggest reading?

Geoff—I guess a more appropriate alternative than Shirer would have been Alan Hollinghurst who has been deeply formed by his reading of James. I just finished the last book in the Rachel Cusk trilogy, the whole of which I found very impressive. But nothing I have read recently has made quite the impact of those books by Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War, Boys in Zinc, Chernobyl Prayer. They are not novels as such but they are Tolstoyan in scope and sympathy.

Document—What about writers who combine criticism and creative writing—are there any contemporaries you admire?

Geoff—John Berger can no longer be considered a contemporary, but I have to mention him as he’s been the single most important influence on me. The Winogrand book is dedicated to him. The first Winogrand picture I ever saw was on the cover of About Looking. I intended it as a birthday present for him, but he passed away before it came out. More generally, I have always loved poems about works of art, but when I discovered there was an name for this — ekphrastic — the shine went out of it somehow.