Ping Pong by Alec Soth, Geoff Dyer & Pico Iyer, reviewed by Rory Duckhouse

In this collaborative ode to the game of ping-pong, a curated selection of vernacular images from the Little Brown Mushroom Library play across the pages, accompanied by a verbal back and forth by long time adversaries Geoff Dyer and Pico Iyer. The book celebrates this obsession, described by Iyer as “… a life style, a training in attention, a diversion, a mad passion and a way of not taking anything important too seriously and taking some tiny things much too seriously.”

The book cover folds out flat to form a miniature ping-pong table, with the spine acting as the net, but regrettably there are no miniature paddles or balls to re-enact what is seen on the pages within. This immediately signifies the spirit in which the book has been produced, not to be taken too seriously but to draw attention to the games idiosyncrasies.

Throughout the book Dyer and Iyer partake in a game of literary ping-pong, the conversation revolves around their games, battles and experiences as obsessive’s. The texts recall memories about the game around the world, draw distinctions between table tennis and ping-pong and offers an explanation of its charm, and the people who are drawn to it.

They discuss memorable games, in basements as adolescents, on the side of a road in highland Ethiopia, and with grandmas in Japan whose skills far outweighs the authors. What comes through in the text is the universality of the game and the spirit in which it is played.

The book acts as a conversation, a visual back and forth between images and written content. The images reveal a varied history of this game, played by soldiers, nuns, the young, the old, humans and pigeons amongst others. Throughout the book each player enters into a game across the pages.

The game is as much a mental sport as a physical one; the player becomes engrossed in the act of returning the ball in a way that affects their opponent. In the images, we witness a moment of mental exercise; each player has a focused eye, a sense of competition and more often than not, a smile. The game offers a moment of distraction from everything else, where the only thing that matters is returning the ball over the net.

The book works in a similar way as you become engrossed in the images and text. The two sides of the page act as each side of the net, your eyes bat back and forth between the images in a game of ocular ping-pong, but in this game there is no competition, no physical exertion, only mental. This game continues until you reach the last image, a friendly handshake between competitors marking the end of the game.

The design of the book mimics a scrapbook or family album, almost as if you are given the privilege to see into another lifestyle. The inclusive format of the book provides a compelling narrative from which to approach it. Ping Pong articulates the author’s love of this simple and engrossing past time. It doesn’t pretend to present anything serious, but leaves the viewer with an appreciation for the small pleasures in life, the distractions from everything else, where the mind is clear and focused.

Ping Pong can be purchased here

Rory Duckhouse is an artist and writer based in South Wales. Using found images, his work looks at how the photographic image shifts and mutates when dislocated from its original context. Rory graduated with an MA in Photography: Contemporary Dialogues from Swansea Metropolitan University, and now works as the exhibitions assistant for the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea.