Monday, March 13, 2006

Ten "Epiphanous" Photographs: #5

The fifth of ten "epiphanous photographs" - a hand-picked series of photographs as defined in an earlier Blog entry - is...

Epiphanous Photograph #5: André Kertész's Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe, Paris, 1926

André Kertész (1894 - 1985) captured his first photograph while working as a clerk at the Budapest stock exchange in 1912. A member of the Austro-Hungarian Army during WWI, Kertész photographed his experiences of the war until he was wounded in battle in 1915. Unfortunately, many of the images he captured during this time were lost during the Hungarian Revolution of 1918.

Thereafter, this preturnatually gifted poetic soul traveled to Paris (in 1925), where he worked as a freelance photographer and published three books of his images; and on to New York (in 1936), where one of the 20th Century's most gifted photographers was effectively cold-shouldered by the photographic "establishment" and relegated to taking pictures of architecture and home interiors for House and Garden. In what must be one of the most egregious oversights in photographic history, not a single one of his images was selected for Steichen's famous The Family of Man exhibition in 1956! It was only after Kertész retired from commercial work (in 1962) that he was again able to devote his considerable powers of observation and feeling to the same "simple" everyday subjects of his "amateurish" youth. Kertész left behind a legacy of beautiful, meloncholic tonal poems for all future generations of aspiring photographers to marvel at; and to marvel at the breadth and depth of his feeling for the human condition.

I have selected Kertész's Mondrian’s Glasses and Pipe as my epiphanous image #5 for two reasons: (1) it is a wonderful example of his visual poetry, with the gentle perfection of the geometry of the composition (that slightly evokes the "Decisive Moment" component of Henri Cartier-Bresson's approach, though with a decidedly less-fast-paced subject!), and (2) it is also an example of how subtly Kertész is able to fuse the everyday with the abstract. On one level, the photograph is about nothing more than glasses (and a pipe); on another level, it is an "abstract" in the spirit of Minor White (in the way it uses the objective image to reflect the inner meloncholy of the photographer).

However, Kertész's fusion of the everyday and abstract features an important additional dimension (as does much of his life's work); a dimension that makes this one photograph so memorable to me (and places it firmly on my list of personally epiphanous photographs): the tonal forms of the photograph are used not just as a symbolic language of the inner emotions of the photographer, but as a language that speaks directly about how the photographer relates to humanity.

Where Minor White deliberately used essentially unrecognizable abstract forms to communicate inner states, Kertész instead used immediately recognizable shapes and symbols to convey the nature - and feeling - of his connection (or, more often than not, dis-connection) to the world around him. The fragile interconnected bond between artist and humanity was the real "subject" of Kertész's poetic gaze; and we can all feel it, as we look upon the shapes and tones of Mondrian's glasses and pipe. His work is less about the traditional subjects of photographs (people, places and things), even as the traditional subjects populate his portfolio, and more - much more - about his feelings about his relationships with the traditional subjects that came within view of this gentle artistic soul.

"The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don't necessarily see. I never calculate or consider; I see a situation and I know that it's right, even if I have to go back to "get the proper lighting." - André Kertész.

Kertész's work in general, and this one picture in particular, made me appreciate the fundamental role the capture of one's raw, emotional attachment to the human condition plays in shaping the communicative power of photography. It also intensified - immeasurably! - my love of fine art photography.

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