E-Photo
Issue #93  9/21/2005
 
New Photography Books/Catalogues

By Matt Damsker

ANDRÉ KERTÉSZ: THE EARLY YEARS.

By Robert Gurbo. Edited by Robert Gurbo and Bruce Silverstein. W.W. Norton & Co., 500 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10110. Web site address: http://www.wwnorton.com . W.W. Norton & Co., Ltd., Castle House, 75/76 Wells St., London, WIT 3QT. This book accompanies an exhibition held at Bruce Silverstein Photography, New York City, October-November 2005. Bruce Silverstein Photography, 535 West 24th St. New York, NY 10011; phone: 1-212-627-3930; fax: 1-212-691-5509. ISBN: 0-393-06160-4. 81 pages; 61 plates.

The formative work of a great artist affords an obvious opportunity to read perhaps too much into his later, greater achievements, but in the case of Andre Kertesz, it's fascinating to observe how consistently the seeds of his mature work were sown in his early photographs. This wonderful book--and its accompanying exhibition in October and November of this year at New York City's Bruce Silverstein Photography--is the first devoted solely to Kertesz's earliest vintage photographs, the so-called "Hungarian Contacts" that were discovered in a small, all but forgotten box after the artist's death in 1985.

Under the circumstances, these tiny prints would be charming regardless of their quality, but they reveal all one could hope for from a great photographer--an instinctive eye for affecting yet unsentimental composition, and a distinctive style. Created during a 13-year period in his native Hungary (from 1912 to 1925), they tell us that Kertesz was joyously experimenting with the possibilities of the camera, exploring the expressive powers of distortion, shadow, and portraiture. Most of all, they are stamped with the vision of a true modernist.

This is evident in the very first print, an elegantly composed image of Kertesz's camera on its tripod, seen from the middle distance against a huge, shadowing tree, with a bright meadow in the background. By objectifying the very instrument of photography in this gently ironic manner, Kertesz invokes an almost Duchampian spirit. Other images are less conceptual, yet still touched with the shock of the new--as in a shot of two men pulling at a fallen horse ("Country Accident"), or of shadowy figures against a house in Budapest, the image dramatically framed by a thick L-shaped shadow.

Another photograph, taken from a high hillside vantage, explores the geometry of field, meadow, and farm structures with the rigor of a Cézanne and an inspired sense of the visual field, balancing the volumetric variety of the buildings with their complex placement in the landscape. Such formal explorations affirm Kertesz's seriousness about the dimension of photographic expression, while the portraiture that makes up the lion's share of these prints points to the powerful humanism that is often at the heart of his work.

Much of this, we realize, was engendered by his experience as a soldier during World War I, and Kertesz's camera brings us into intimate contact with those days. A 1914 self-portrait (one of many; Kertesz role-played a great deal in those days, to the extent of dressing as a woman in one photo) in a soldier's uniform reveals a skinny young Kertesz, diffidently posed against a stark wintry backdrop that hints of death. Then, in 1915, there is the breathtaking "Force March to the Front, Poland," for which Kertesz stepped outside the marching line of his regiment to snap a photo of the entire mass of soldiers snaking along the road for miles ahead. Other wartime shots, of the army in motion, on trains, or at rest, or hunkered down in the trenches, shooting at the enemy, are filled with urgency and immediacy.

As for the many intimate portraits collected here--of Kertesz and his wife, Elizabeth, along with his brother, Jeno--they are at once celebrations of familial love and, always, well-realized expressions of joy and possibility. The shots of Jeno, in particular, convey childlike glee, as Kertesz captures the lanky, clownish Jeno in all manner of playful guises--as a nude Pan with a flute, as an Icarus with wings scampering along the seaside, or as a dancing sprite silhouetted against the sky.

At the same time, the Kertesz whose camera had become an inseparable companion, documenting the whimsicalities and wonder of those days, was crafting a style and a modernist vision that would continue to blossom in his mature years. The images from the 1920s--of wandering violinists, street sweepers, figures in horse-drawn carriages confronting us in the hazy twilight, of nuns gathered at a cemetery--contain the classic touchstones of Kertesz, and stand up to his later work quite well. Indeed, as Robert Gurbo details in the book's informative essay, the young Kertesz was a romantic who looked for "the poetic" in everything, and especially in photography, which led him to heights of creativity even in these early shots.

"The war years were difficult for André," writes Gurbo. "First he contracted typhoid. Then, in 1915, he was shot and wounded. After being hospitalized and receiving experimental treatments, he would swim every day as part of his convalescence. It is here that he discovered and recorded his first 'distortion.' Sitting above the pool in the bleachers, he observed and photographed the rippling effects of the moving water that refracted his vision of the swimmers as they cut through the pool's surface (Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom, Hungary, 1917, plate 28). This altered state offered a visual paradox. A somewhat deformed, headless body is gracefully gliding through the frame--a hopeful metaphor of man, battered by war, somehow managing to progress."

IN FOCUS: PAUL STRAND. PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM.

Weston Naef, General Editor; introduction by Anne M. Lyden. Published by The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. ISBN-13: 978-0-89256-808-2. 144 pages; 47 plates; paperback. Getty Publications, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Suite 500, Los Angeles, CA 90049-1682. http://www.getty.edu .

Paul Strand's mastery spanned much of the 20th century, resulting in a body of photographic art that sets a high humanistic standard to match his compositional rigor. The sharply etched tonalities and dimensionality of his views are rewarding enough, but combined with a great portraitist's gift for capturing faces and figures at their most expressive, Strand's vision often seems peerless. The J. Paul Getty Museum is blessed with 186 Strand prints, and this collection of about 50 of them is a superb sampling that ranges from the misty pictorialism of his beginnings in 1913 to the rustic height of his mature style in Europe through the 1950s.

Strand's modernist credentials were forged impeccably, as a student of Lewis W. Hine in the early 1900s, and as a protégé of Alfred Steiglitz, who virtually declared Strand the future of the medium when he devoted the final issue of his publication, Camera Work, to Strand's photos in 1917. By then, Strand had absorbed enough influences--including the Cubist innovations on display at the watershed New York Armory exhibition of modern art in 1913--to break new ground with his images. And so it wasn't long before his pictorialist period--exemplified by a soft-focus, impressionist view of trees in Central Park--gave way to formal adventures and indelible shots, such as the 1915 photo, taken from an elevated vantage point, of pedestrians flowing through City Hall Park in New York. Worthy of Degas or Manet, this view of the crowd, with its subtle serpentine rhythm of figures and careful, vertical cropping, evokes Japanese art; yet the atmosphere is pure Manhattan.

In 1916, Strand began using a camera with a false lens that would allow him to photograph people on the street in close up without their being aware, since the false lens pointed forward while the real lens, under his arm, was set at 90 degrees from his line of sight. Strand's ethics may have been questionable, but the deception resulted in some deathless artworks, most famously his 1917 image of a blind woman, her coat buttoned with a municipal badge issued to beggars, and a sign with the word "Blind" hanging around her neck. This photo, which illuminates the invisible humanity of New York, resonates with modernist power, vaulting photography toward conceptualism--the textual prominence of the "Blind" sign suggests that we are as blind to her as she is to us--and also stands as a watershed in social realism.

Strand's purely formal explorations are no less important, though. A 1929 image of a rural shed in Quebec, surrounded by other outbuildings under a richly clouded sky, takes its lead from Cezanne's volumetric treatment of line, shape, and mass, yielding a black-and-white composition of great complexity and depth. Similarly, Strand's famous 1931 shot of New Mexico's Rancho de Taos church rivals Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of the same structure, with its high windowless bulk and wing-like buttress. Strand lets the pure form of the church take up almost the entire frame rather than set it in an expansive landscape, and the effect embodies the spiritual mystery and primitive architectural force of the place. Yet there's power as well in the simple celebratory photo of an apple tree in bloom somewhere in New England, of iced-over farmhouse windows and latched wooden barn doors, and of seascapes in which the light and dark of clouds, sky and sea are accented and contrasted by the human, animal and mineral details on the shore.

Through his wanderings in Mexico, France, Italy, and Scotland from the 1950s onward, Strand captured people, textures, objects, and landscapes with consistent artistry, from the poor Lusetti family and their noble Roman faces to the rugged Scot visages and stonework of the Outer Hebrides. The photographs speak for themselves, but there is also wonderful commentary throughout this book, beginning with a fine introduction by Anne M. Leydon, associate curator at the Getty, who also provides detailed descriptions of each plate. The volume rounds out with the transcript of a roundtable discussion about Strand and his work, featuring Leydon and five other photography experts. Their insights are generous, inspiring a deeper appreciation of Strand's achievement.

PHOTOGRAPHS: A SELECTED OFFERING 2005

Catalogue from Richard Meara Fine Books and Photographs Ltd., available from Jubilee Photographica, 10 Pierrepont Row, Camden Passage, Islington, London, NI 07860 793707; phone: +44(0)1932 863924; fax: +44(0)1923 860318; mobile: +44(0)7860 793707; email: meara@btconnect.com . 64 pages; 60 photographs.

This is British collector and dealer Richard Meara's first major catalogue, stocked with 60 original vintage images from the 19th and 20th centuries. The selection is quite good, and the reproductions in this modestly bound and unfussy publication do justice to the originals, the condition of which is described, along with size and other specifics, below each image.

Meara has separated his selections into four groupings: The Jeweled Image, consisting manly of cabinet cards and cartes de visite; Exotic Travels; Early Practitioners; and Bizarre and Surreal. The result is a neatly organized trip through photography's early days, and its preoccupation with the celebrated, the unusual, and the taboo. An image of Queen Victoria, in plump mid-life profile, using a spinning wheel, is a classic, and perhaps Whistlerian, picture of its era, while H.L. Germons' portrait of "Millie Christine," black Siamese twins from Carolina, is poignant and dignified.

In fact, all of the images merit a bit more than a passing glance. The handsome visage of a young violinist, Anton Kubelik, dated 1902 and signed across the lower corner by Kubelik, is a striking picture of aesthetic youth. Similarly, a highly valued (at 800 pounds) half-plate French daguerreotype from 1850 of a young man in a cadet's uniform, with his friend leaning on his shoulder, conveys a nice sense of lost gentility. As for the exotica, it ranges from the Americas to Indonesia, and these rarities connect us with cultural moments both timeless and thoroughly dated. A platinum print of a nude Ceylonese woman, reclining casually, is a study in pure, unassuming voluptuousness, while an image of Japanese prostitutes standing outside their brothel ("Nectarine") in full kimonoed splendor, is somehow a tender portrait of its place and time. And a wonderful image of a "Chinese Hand," in this case a woman's hand with four of the five fingernails grown to great length, suggests the mysteries of the East in a simple close-up.

Other images remind us of early photographers' interest in racial characteristics, especially a group of six Zulu warriors in a studio setting, from 1900. Photographed in their tribal garb, and carefully exposed to emphasize skin tone, they regard us with wary pride. Less elegant, an 1870 group of four carte-de-visite-sized prints of black people posed in western domestic settings are variously titled "Negro," Negra," and "Mulata," as if for an anthropological study.

As for the early practitioners of photography, there is a fine image of Rome's Arch of Titus by Robert MacPherson, as well as a good Roger Fenton (of soldiers, posed in their Crimean camp in 1856) and some fine views of Italy by Giuseppe Alinari. The bizarre and surreal entries range from the near-pornographic (two "Filles de Joie" in a carefully staged erotic coupling, circa 1880) to the whimsical (a man and woman standing on stilts, for no particular reason) to the truly bizarre (two Zulu girls playing ping pong). The catalogue's final anonymous image--of a starving flute player in India, circa 1870--walks the line between exploitation and unflinching realism, but it is a powerful photo of poverty and humanity, as the boy's emaciated frame and tilted-back head, his mouth agape, near death, confront us with painful immediacy.

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.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)