Geoff Dyer first became interested in photography not by looking at photographs but by reading about other people looking at them. That meant the holy trinity of seers: Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and John Berger. For Dyer, the most inspirational of these three was Berger, about whom he wrote his first book, Ways of Telling, 35 years ago, and from whom he learned his habits as a critic – always letting the evidence of his eyes have precedence over theory, and bringing what psychologists like to call “his whole self” to the task at hand. In Berger’s writing, that had invariably meant something soulful and learned, almost sculptural in intent. Dyer’s sensibility is more fleeting and alive to comic ironies; his writing dramatises both a restless attention, and the moments it is stopped in its tracks. He shares with his mentor, however, that autodidact’s sense of bringing his singular frame of reference to bear on a singular framed image. “Naturally, I have no method,” he says, characteristically, by way of casual introduction to this collection of short essays. “I just look and think about what I’m looking at.”
Dyer has achieved that rare elevation as an essayist that allows him to demand all his published thoughts be preserved between hard covers
The other quality he shares with Berger here is that sense of elegy as the default tone of experience. For Dyer that tone found its clearest expression in two of his nonfiction books, The Missing of the Somme, his meditation on the immanence of loss in the great war, and But Beautiful, his homage to the ephemeral blue note lives of bebop jazzmen. In this sense, it is no surprise that his looking has been increasingly drawn to photography, with its inbuilt gestures of mortality. He takes his title here from an observation he makes about the pioneering photographer of cities, Alvin Langdon Coburn, that “time since the advent of photography is a kind of see-saw”, now tilting us toward the magic lantern of the past, now thudding us back to earth in the present.
That sense of the uncanny haunts many of the subjects of these essays, which range from the doomed efforts of August Sander to create a “physiognomic portrait of Germany” in the 1920s to the “terminal momentum” of Nicholas Nixon’s famous annual time-lapse pictures of the Brown sisters as they age. Invariably Dyer lets you eavesdrop as he feels his way toward truths, and convinces you with quiet moments of surprise when he arrives at them: thus he will note that “the fleeting geometries” of street life were something that “prior to Henri Cartier-Bresson, no one had quite noticed”; or the fact that Helen Levitt’s peerless photographs of children gain their affective power from the unparalleled mass of “different consciousnesses” they depict. Or he will carefully deconstruct the ways in which the freeze frames of porn movies by the German Thomas Ruff literally “return us to our senses”; or find the exact coordinates of emotion that make Chloe Dewe Mathews’s Shot at Dawn photographs – her album of the sites in the battlefields of France and Belgium where deserters were executed – so moving.
Dyer has achieved that rare elevation as an essayist that allows him to demand all his published thoughts be preserved between hard covers. Some of the pieces here were initially written as columns, others are reviews or introductions to catalogues (he mourns a lone essay that could not be included because of difficulties of formatting). Many of the shorter observations are taken from a weekly series that he wrote for the New Republic magazine in which he chose a picture from that week’s papers – Serena Williams hitting her otherworldly forehand or Oscar Pistorius in tears in the dock – and riffed on its significance. Though the comprehensive nature of this enterprise means that some pieces inevitably feel more finished, or more attended to, than others, it’s a testament to Dyer’s seductive curiosity that even these slighter improvisations reward rereading.
• See/Saw: Looking at Photographs by Geoff Dyer is published by Canongate (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply