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Reading the ongoing moment:
a response to Geoff Dyer’s book, The Ongoing Moment

- Colin Campbell Robinson


There are only coincidences.
Henri Cartier-Bresson

Reading the ongoing moment. Reconciling simultaneity and the successive.
Attempt to experience, to describe, to immerse yourself in space-time
Set arbitrary limits. Invent rules and play by them Oulipo-like. A
mathematics of progression/regression, an algebra of caressing words, a
geometry of co-existence and interdependence, a circle, a circumference, a

An infinite sphere having its centre everywhere and its circumference
Pascal - Fragment 72 of Pensees

A work in infinite progress. Don’t write a book, engage in a work in
progress,  a series of moments, as random as a pile of photos.

Salgado and the history of a world. I see his iceberg daily, his penguins
playing, sliding into the warming ocean.

Don McCullen and his last supper mushrooms with wine-jug, his open skies
draining moor-light.

Alveraz Bravo and his men at the bar, drinking to the institutional
revolution, dark-hatted.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face; now I know
in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
I Corinthians 13:12

I like Geoff Dyer’s  ideas about ‘figuring’ in the context of Dorethea
Lange and her photos of depressed America. Faces staring into space
‘figuring’. How to make ends meet and live another day. Figuring is active
contemplation. Thoughts as physical effort like labouring in the
dust-bowl. That’s why poor people have lined faces before their time. It’s
all the figuring they have to do.

I spend a lot of time figuring, like an adding machine trying to reconcile
the numbers. The artist as worker not having the private income, the
private support. Sometimes I feel Bruce-like, praising the blue guitar
town beside a bubbling river. Other times I have no fight in me and the
opiated moment is my goal. To be chilled. To be cool as she sings,
tumbling a beer. Then back to figuring the cost. The world costs and who
can pay the price.

Each one of three takes a corner stance.
There is only space there
and in there, space.
They stare yet fail to see the camera.

A man takes to the bar.
He waves to one of the three, who smiles,
pleased to be recognised.
But there the contact ends,
like drinking friends, passing no words,
a silent calligraphy.

Their glasses clink like eternal wishes in a lonely town

The men in the North London bar I’m in look like they’re living on
royalties from a surprise, one-off hit. Or they’re session men for Little
Millie and they’re still touring the clubs but are currently between
engagements. Things will pick up. In the mean time there is still the
monthly cheque payment generated by the re-mastered, re-issue of the
re-mixed version of their surprise one-off hit which, when I hear it,
brings a smile of recognition to my lips and a tap to my toe. Think
Honeycombs, Dave Clark and the crew, glad all over. Maybe later like Mott
the Hoople all the young (but now aging) dudes.

Once I thought about compiling a book of pub scenes with portraits of the
habitué. I even had a title but my memory is not what it was as a result
of spending too much time observing people in pubs. Some of my snaps have
turned brown like the leaves outside my window about to fall.

Cut up picture-shows of flickering intensity (or beauty). Burroughs, like
the surrealists before him, introduced into his writing practice arbitrary
laws to dissect reality . For Burroughs life became a series of routines
endlessly told.

He spoke of virus in a dangerous deadpan tone,
word virus.
Was he predicting or creating?
Are the wild boys ours?
Is Mr Bradley Dr Martin the suited assassin?
Have we seen what’s on the end of this fork?
Like the mariner he was doomed to tell his tale,
which is our tale.

I think of the nude descending the staircase and the bachelors grinding
their own coffee. Part of the same story, same room, same object of
desire, same voyeurs. The bachelors grind their own coffee as the nude
descends, even. All reflected in the shattered large glass. Through the
looking glass she steps. A camera is a mirror with a memory, someone says.

A work in progress is flimsy, insubstantial with subtle berry hints.
Arguments can be abandoned as soon as they are mounted and contradictions
can be admitted at the gate. Some will be specially invited. Depth of
field, light, black/white and colour, the components.

Work disrupts, protects us from unanswerable questions, but dulls. Getting
and spending we lay waste our powers
, as Wordsworth wrote in another
ongoing moment.

To be light-hearted. A heart full of light. Illuminated.

I’m labouring from the other direction now like I’m involved in building
the transcontinental rail. I used to know the story. Gangs of workers set
out from in the east, some from the west finally the iron horses nudged noses. I knew
it like I knew so many tales, tall tales and true from the legendary past .

My first consumer desire was a coonskin hat. One is displayed in a musty
shop glimmering in my memory . I wanted to look like Davey, King of the
Wild Frontier . American  mythology was young and ornery.

The mythology of the United States is the only significant body of myth to
be developed largely within photographic time. There are snaps of Billy
the Kid and Buffalo Bill and General Custer. There are also photos of
Sitting Bull. The Civil War is well documented in sepia as is the birth
of the blues.

This rumination brings me to why black and white and not colour dominates
the history of photography. I thought about it at length but could not
find a satisfactory answer . Why still-lives in black and white? Why
landscape, interiors and portraits in various grey shades? Why was/is
black and white used almost exclusively for artistic purposes? Certainly
in the beginning there was no other choice and from what I gather, reading
Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, early experiments with colour processing
were not all that successful. But why when the process was perfected
did/do many photographers continue to work in black and white?

Salgado’s current documentation of the unearthly, earthy earth is a case
in point. Gorillas hang in silver branches, whales swim the silver ocean.
An iceberg looms out of the greyness like a fortress built circa 1265. All
the subtle graduations of black to white are employed to describe a world,
our collective world that in the next instant, because of our actions, may
be gone. The ongoing moment at an end.

Why did film embrace colour more readily leaving black and white to the
odd auteur and amateur? I think I’m better of figuring how to make
coincidences last.


Standing in tense light
stumbling through design
like there is still a determined life

I live these days
he squalls like a demented angel
juggling blue notes

take a battering
rustling like a leaf-spirit

crumpled as a soul-king
dangerous as a Texan twister
the cole-man approacheth
laden with black-purpose

lace hidden woman
he speaks of you sometime

Geoff Dyer compares the release of Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz
to Come
with the publication of Robert Frank’s book of photographs titled
The Americans.

In the late 1950s Coleman’s music was revolutionary, unprecedented.
Listening to it now we can hear, quite clearly, that it is drenched in the
blues that the saxophonist had heard growing up in Forth Worth, Texas.
It’s the same with Frank. Since his pictures have themselves become part
of a tradition we can now see how they have come directly out of an
earlier phase of that tradition.

From Ancient to the Future as the Art Ensemble said.

The ongoing moment makes (remakes) me realise that American mythology and
culture has had an enormous influence on me and my ‘peers’, those who were
born in the 50s and 60s . The songs going around our collective head are,
in the main, the original or derivative rhythm and blues with some
country, folk and standards. These song are primed in the juke-box of our
minds. The movies star James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. And
the beat goes on with Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac the rest of the crew .

As a result of this realisation I decide that a trip to the States
mightn’t be a bad thing after all. When I was young New York was near the top of my
list for visitation one day, when I had the money, when I’d written a book, because
I wanted to write a book. Whatever the reason New York was it and a bit
because THE MUSIC IS PLAYED THERE. In Sydney, where I lived for many a
day, if one musician a year made it to ‘your really nice place down
under’, we were extremely grateful. One year was unbelievable. Chico
Freeman, the Art Ensemble, Old and New Dreams with Don Cherry, and the
greatest drummer I’ve ever seen, Eddie Blackwell, all made it over.

In New York Archie Shepp was playing one gig while the charming ferocity
of Milt Jackson echoed around Carnegie Hall. And there was always MOMA to
pay respects to.  Not only New York. I also developed a deep affection for
San Francisco believing that city to be the more cultured older sister of
Sydney. City lights were shining into the Berkeley Hills. The golden gate
opened up and trolley cars bells trilled the tune.
Should I mention Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto and all the other possible
ports of arrival for potential immigrants  ? Taos, a necessary pilgrimage?

These days America, the United States, is seen as betraying the promises
of youth and has, for some of my generation , become a grumpy and
infantile old man no one wants to visit much unless you have to. He’ll
lock you up and shoot you down as soon as seeing you. Americans are rude,
uncultured and they insulted the French. We don’t like them any more. But
as with all generalisations based on groupings such as ‘Americans’, the
truth will, not doubt, prove to be further away than North Dakota. While
there is undeniable imperial (post-imperial) posturing by the elite I
imagine that on the ground people will have their feet on the ground,
dealing and figuring as ever. And someone will be playing the blues.

I wanted to quote the line that made me laugh the most reading The Ongoing
but I can’t find it. So instead I’ll go back to my notebook and
pick up the trail from there. I have noted: Hit your stride and fall off
the horse in reference to race-writing. Race-reading is the sensation I
(others?) get when I’m really into a book and I start stumbling over the
words and skipping whole passages caught in the tumult of the ideas being
expressed. Apply the same to writing. The trick is to stay on the horse.

Sicilian barbers. My last four barbers have been Sicilian. Three are named
Tony and one is Frank. The section in The Ongoing Moment that explores the
place of barbershops in the history of (American) photography is most
enjoyable for those of us (men) who find refuge and a sense of belonging
in the mirrored institution. Recently in Stockbridge, Edinburgh I saw a
display of 50s (and earlier) barbershop accoutrement. The pile of
hand-clippers, razor-belts and basins looked like instruments of torture
and in some ways, as a child, I saw them that way. Gradually, I grew to
trust them but only because I grew used to the barbershop itself. I
believe I have moved barbershops far less times than I’ve moved house. In
the fifteen years I lived in Sydney I only went to two different barbers
within a short bus ride of each other, whereas I lived in ten flats or
houses .

While I’m thinking about this I overhear two young boys talking as they
sit astride their bikes on the towpath near Camden Lock.

Vladamir: Let’s go.
Estragon: Where we going?
Vladamir: Anywhere.

They speed off.

Thinking is the only thing to teach, I think as I continue my way along
the old canal on an international Saturday. I was thinking I couldn’t
teach poetry even though I have been writing poetry since I was just
seventeen, you know what I mean .  I have also read lots of poetry
particularly in translation. I won’t list my favourites but some are
Polish and some are Italians. One is a Chinese émigré and another is a
Swede. A handful of those Americans. Despite the experience of writing I
still don’t know what ‘anapaestic four or five stress lines’ means or what
William Carlos Williams is talking about when he says ‘foot’. Besides to
teach poetry means to hang around universities and dreary colleges. The
canal, pubs, parks and barbershops have more rhythm and rhyme and afford a
better time .

In my thinking course I’d use The Ongoing Moment as a key text
particularly in the Improvisation and In-between-ness sessions.
Improvisation 1 and 2 would also examine (well, lounge around and listen
to) Miles Davis, Filles de Kilamanjaro. While in-between-ness would have
the paintings of Edward Hopper for inspiration.

This week’s essay topic is: What is the relationship between haiku and
photography with reference to Basho’s Journey to the North? Discuss in
3,608 words or less. Deadline: The ongoing moment.

I saw They Shoot Horses Don’t They at the Clayton Twin. This film was part
of a golden age in American cinema probably the last and the last.
McCabe and Mrs Millar, Mean Streets, anything with Jack Nicholson
or Karen Black, Cassevettes and Geena. I saw two movies a week, at least,
few at the drive-in I admit because by then the drive-in was showing more
‘commercial’ fare. Teenage horror, kids flicks, Love Story that type of
thing. In 1972 –73 the place to be was the Murrumbeena Capri. A converted
church hall in the midst of Melbourne’s  suburban sprawl. Every Saturday
and Sunday two films would be shown. It could be a Fellini Double or
Clockwork Orange and Punishment Park or Images or Don’t Look Now, whatever
it was they were usually very good. It cost a dollar and at most 10 people
would turn up. Often we knew the entire audience. The Capri’s operator
sold the tickets, collected them and projected the film dressed in evening
wear. He showed Brewster McCloud on successive weekends because he liked

All you need to make a movie is a woman
and a betrayed friend picking up the tab

all you need to make a movie is an immigrant
and a faded actor feeding his amnesia

all you need to make a movie is a blonde
and a blonde on blonde

all you need to make a movie is tension
and a dissatisfied crowd

Chaplin said all he needed to make a movie was a girl
a park and a policeman

Godard said
a girl and a gun

Blind musicians, nudes and gas stations haven’t been covered and I’ve
nothing to say. I am approaching the ongoing moment when the successive
words on each successive page will blend and become simultaneous. I
read/am still reading The Ongoing Moment in the order in which it is
printed although for my response I have referred back and re-read earlier
pages at the same time. So I have a selective, retrospective reading
happening at the same time new ideas are being discussed or previous ideas
are re-contextualised . A process of accumulation and dispersal.

The doors of perception have been mussed up.

I have a crank theory that there are only 27 people in the world. One of
them may be the man in the overcoat Geoff Dyer refers to. He who passes
through the history of photography as the figure in a landscape, anonymous
but present. In a 60s submarine film  (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?)
Edward G. spends many scenes merely making up the numbers as strategies
are discussed. He stands around saying nothing. I thought every film
should have a character that just stands around.

Which raises the issue of strangers who have regular walk on parts in the
film that is your life (or your life that is the film). At the moment I
have two. One is quite hirsute and strides purposefully around in heavy
leather boots. At first I saw him as he walked down my street. Then I
started to see him up the shops and finally I saw him twice in one day in
places distant from each other and suspect he, like me, is a renegade
flaneur. The other is in a number of people’s films and his story, as
related to me by the barmaid last Friday when I was scribbling my thoughts
re The Ongoing Moment into my aforementioned notebook, his story has a
poignancy to it that I cannot relate until the facts are confirmed.
However, he is around and he waves at me and others as if he’s behind a
two-way mirror.

The silent closeness of strangers provides some solace for those of us who
inhabit a world of dogs eating dogs and fouls behind the line of sight. We
are in this together even though we are not together.

I planned to write a series of vignettes based on Edward Hopper paintings
some time ago. I wrote the first one based on Sunday Morning 3.00 a.m. I’d
picked out the others but at this stage it is a work in waiting, not
currently in progress. Which is appropriate given, as Geoff Dyer says,
Hopper’s paintings are about waiting and refer to the in-between moment.
It also occurs to me that a large retrospective of Hopper’s paintings was
on at the Tate last year. Perhaps this is why he has been given a more
prominent place in Geoff Dyer’s history of photography than he normally
would be afforded. However, this may be an incorrect assumption because
when I have a quick peek at the acknowledgements page in The Ongoing
Moment it is revealed that Geoff Dyer completed the manuscript in June
2004 and the Hopper exhibition opened on the 27th May. This may not have
been enough time to provide immediate influence. The paintings are
photographs about to happen, he says.

Michael Ignatieff referred to Hopper in his book The Needs of Strangers.
According to Ignatieff the silent closeness of strangers in a big city is
a positive aspect of living in cities. I agree. Waiting, silently waiting
like nighthawks at a diner. We are alone as Jo Hopper on her bed. As alone
as the Clown and Columbine are when taking their final bows.

After death, what?

Look at the last photo in The Ongoing Moment. A man with a placard
(stumbling?) to understand.


Colin Campbell Robinson


Readings webjournal, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX. email: or or