Issue #87  4/13/2005
Photography Books and Catalogues: Roger Fenton and Andre Kertesz

By Matt Damsker


Published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 304 pages; 89 plates. $65. ISBN No. 1-58839-128-0 (hardcover); 1-58839-129-9 (paperback); 0-300-10490-1 (Yale University Press). The book accompanies the exhibition of the same name held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., from October 17, 2004, to January 2, 2005; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, from February 1 to April 24, 2005; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from May 24 to August 21, 2005; and Tate Britain, London, from September 21, 2005 to January 2, 2006.

It is hard to grasp that Roger Fenton created a deathless and rather extensive body of photographic work in less than a single decade, from 1852 to 1860, only to retire from the medium and return to the practice of law--as if taking pictures had been something of a detour. Perhaps it had, since the medium was so new and novel, while Fenton's academic grounding, in painting and law, was highly traditional.

Still, as the extensive biographical essays in this catalogue tell us, Fenton himself was a portrait of professional indecision, and it is a good thing for posterity that a checkered early career led him to the blank slate of photography at its first golden moment. Traveling to Russia in 1852, he was among the first to capture the Kremlin in photos, and within a few years he was commissioned to photograph the Crimean War, turning out landmark portraits of battle-worn soldiers and blasted battlefields.

These images alone would have been enough to cement his reputation, but this wonderful exhibition--touring halfway round the world, deservedly--tracks the Fenton who captured so much more, from the open spaces of Great Britain to posed Orientalist images that echo Delacroix and Ingres. Fenton's shots of such European abbeys as Tintern or Rievaulx catch the spiritual richness of church architecture activated by casual passersby and contemplative sitters. We can feel the life in those moments, while the rigor of Fenton's exposures, his strong tonalities, and painterly compositions seem to make the utmost of the sharp detailing and glossy surface of the albumen-print process he favored for much of his career.

In his Russian and the Crimean photos, though, he was working in the earlier salt-print process, which generated a softer texture and dreamier tone. Thus, the vistas of church domes in Moscow, or views of the Kremlin walls, have a misty quality evocative of Constable's or Turner's paintings. Meanwhile, the cannonball-strewn fields of the Crimean War are like moonscapes, harsh and hilly, with a near horizon. And Fenton's images of grimy Hussars or Croat chieftains, under skies that seem thick with powder, are nothing less than archetypes of military fatigue.

After the exertions of Crimea, Fenton seemed to throw himself into the romanticism and lyricism of Scotland and Wales, documenting his abbeys, chapels, and church ruins with a palpable affection. Craggy Scottish vistas, of falls and lush valleys, have a pantheistic intensity to rival anything by the Hudson River School of painters. Likewise, Fenton's English landscapes and portraits of stately homes are marked by an inspired eye for perspective. In one lovely oval 1859 image of Harewood House in Yorkshire, the sumptuous residence is glimpsed from a great distance, through trees and across water, shimmering in the center of the photo like a dream of civilization, and with a miniaturist delicacy that seems almost Japanese.

Indeed, the Orientalist studies of 1858--costumed studio shots of near-east pashas, odalisques, water carriers--prove that Fenton was comfortable with the exotic, along with a languid female sexuality that boldly confronts the camera. These photos point to modernism, even though Fenton's career-closing sequence of lush still lifes--fruits and decanters, flowers and foliage, baskets and fringed cloth--seem to be where his artistic heart lay, though now they seem fussy and mannered. Of course, Fenton always wanted to prove that photography could equal painting, if not surpass it, but, despite the expansiveness of his work, perhaps he saw too narrowly. The mighty world that called to Fenton can contain oceans of expression, none truly better than any other. If he hadn't given up so soon, who knows what worlds he might have conquered?


Catalogue of exhibition at the Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago, March 11-May 28, 2005. 128 pages. Price $75. Catalogue and photo inquiries should be directed to Stephen Daiter Gallery, 311 W. Superior St., Suite 404, Chicago, Illinois; phone: 1-312-787-3350; fax: 1-312-787-3354; email: info@stephendaitergallery.com .

This handsome catalogue and exhibition do elegant, eloquent justice to one of the 20th century's quintessential masters of photography. Collecting more than 50 of André Kertész's classics, along with some obscure works, from 1914 to his death in 1985, Chicago's Stephen Daiter Gallery brings typical passion and sensitivity to an important overview. The result is a study that begins in Kertész's native Hungary, moves through his crucial pioneering period in Paris, and concludes with images from his peerless half-century as a New Yorker.

It is important to note, as John Szarkowski does in his reprinted essay (one of several expressive bits of writing here), that Kertész was an important pioneer of "the special aesthetic of the small camera… Kertész had never been much interested in deliberate, analytical description; since he had begun photographing in 1912 he had sought the revelation of the elliptical view, the unexpected detail, the ephemeral moment--not the epic but the lyric truth. When the first 35mm camera--the Leica--was marketed in 1925, it seemed to Kertész that it had been designed for his own eye."

Indeed, Kertész's work proceeds not from the heightened drama of, for example, Cartier-Bresson's decisive-moment signature, but from a quiet mastery of pictorial space, with foreground and background effortlessly matched, and all manner of tension and balance in the figurative details and formal design. Thus, the great nude shot of Dana Haraszti, photographed in 1920, is a formal study of man in nature--seated contemplatively and vulnerably on a mound of earth, beside a river--with blades of grass and a far horizon balanced on an epic scale, and yet the effect is intimate.

And so, by the time Kertész turned to the handheld ease of the Leica, which coincides with his Parisian days, he was more than ready for the close-ups and casual angles that would help bring modernism into focus. In one strikingly fresh image, Kertész looks down a steep sequence of steps to trees and a street below. The tiny blur of a man pulling his cart near the middle of the frame is almost indistinguishable from the latticework of gates and handrails that define the heart of the photo. Yet that little flicker of humanity, and the offhand sense of scale which it imparts, make it a memorable shot.

Similarly, a seeming snapshot of an ornamental cast-iron horse at the Luxembourg Gardens is a startling confrontation with the everyday, as the scratched and mottled texture of a public object stands out in a soft-focus framing of trees and ground. No less potent is Kertész's handling, or rather his embrace, of deep shadow, as in a shot of a man standing on a desk to hang a picture, obscuring the small light source and casting the scene in a silhouetted mystery resolved only by the explanatory title of the photograph. This is a flutter of conceptual art worthy of Duchamp.

Indeed, Paris is where Kertész takes his greatest liberties, reimagining the bodies of female nudes via the funhouse-mirror elongations and grotesqueries of his "Distortions" series. This is Kertész taking on Picasso in his own meditative way, and delivering highly original work that suggests Henry Moore to us and continues to inspire painters and photographers.

Once in New York, by the mid-1930s, Kertész seems nothing less than haunted by the New World. A European cut off from his roots, he looks at Manhattan's skyscrapers with new eyes, finds images of isolation and disconnection in parks, streets, and fire escapes, and locates images that are strangely, surrealistically American. For example: "Arm in Ventilator," in which a man's arm hangs inexplicably from an opening otherwise taken up by the blades of a metal exhaust fan. Writing of this, National Gallery of Canada curator Ann Thomas notes that the image "shocks, disconcerts and intrigues more than it elucidates the facts of the world, evoking the classic power of surrealism to transform ordinary events into visual conundrums." The arm, we eventually realize, is only that of a repairman, but the mundane moment is turned into a rich symbolic stew by Kertész's eye--and by his passion for seeing so much more than meets it.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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