André Kertész: On Reading
For me, photographs are emotionally resonant because they mark time. This is particularly true of the work of (1894–1985), because his New York City is my parents’ New York City and the city of my childhood; his Paris is the Paris I once knew from the movies and dreamed of visiting. Right now, Carnegie Museum of Art is presenting a truly lovely exhibition of Kertész’s work. Not only is André Kertész: On Reading a rich trip into the past, installed in galleries furnished with comfortable couches, oriental rugs, and reading materials, it is also the first exhibition in the region devoted to this giant of 20th-century photography.
Kertész, who began taking photographs in his native Hungary, moved to Paris in the 1920s where he quickly became a pioneer of 35mm, black-and-white photography. Although he made his living as a photojournalist, he traveled in the same artistic circles as Piet Mondrian and Fernand Léger, and published books of his personal work. Faced with the rise of Nazism in Europe, he immigrated to the United States in 1936. Images of people reading function as a leitmotif in Kertész’s work from his Hungarian period on; in 1971, he published On Reading, which includes photographs taken between 1915 and 1970 in locations around the world.
While On Reading has generated good attendance at the museum, it hasn’t drawn audiences in the numbers I expected. I realize that Kertész does not have the name recognition of Picasso or even Ansel Adams. My assumption, however, was that every community has its photo-enthusiasts, hobbyists who will flock to see the accomplishments of a master of the medium. But our relationship to photography has changed radically over the last few decades, and this may no longer be the case.
Since Kodak successfully marketed the box camera in 1888, photography has been a populist medium, and for over 100 years, the resulting snapshots were precious—saved in shoeboxes and pasted in albums. For serious amateurs who processed and printed their own images, there was hard-won skill and commitment involved. But today, photographs are virtual rather than physical. Taken with a digital camera or mobile phone, they are instantly visible and available for circulation. Our society has been inundated with images for a long time, but never to this degree.
Like reading, the subject of Kertész’s exhibition, photography is changing in profound ways to reflect current technological capabilities. Photographs are no less important or interesting than they always were, but they now have a different role to play. I can admire the fall leaves at one moment and send a picture of them to my daughter in California at the next. The world—all of it, potentially—is available to us in very new ways. This is a kind of simultaneity that we have never experienced before.
It doesn’t hurt to take a slow, reflective look back, though; in fact, it aids our understanding of the present. Kertész is as good a photographer as there ever was. I invite you to come and see the show. And don’t miss the small book that accompanies it— Kertész’s 1971 creation—which makes a great holiday gift.
Until next month,