Henri Cartier-Bresson once said of himself, Robert Capa, and Brassaď, Whatever we have done, Kertész did first. He was referring to André Kertész, one of the giants of 20th-century photography, whose work is featured in an exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art
this fall. André Kertész: On Reading includes photographs from the 1920s to 1970s that examine the power of reading as a universal pleasure and illustrate Kertészs ability to capture the poetry and choreography of life in public and private moments. Balanced between geometric composition and playful observation, these glimpses of everyday people and places show how Kertész forever changed the course of photographic art. This is the first exhibition of Kertészs photographs to be shown in Pittsburgh.
In the digital age that surrounds us, where people read from computer screens, cell phones, and electronic books of one sort or another, we sometimes forget that reading in the past always took place from a book, a newspaper, or a journal, said Linda Benedict-Jones, curator of photography at Carnegie Museum of Art and organizer of the Pittsburgh presentation of On Reading. When André Kertész made these images, he was celebrating the love affair that people have with the written word as it exists within the soft pages of a book; little did he know how that would change. Not only is this exhibition fascinating for that reason, but it also engages us in his unique vision, a way of seeing and organizing visual information within a photographic rectangle. His mark is unmistakable in these photographs.
The images were made by Kertész during a 50-year period in Hungary, Argentina, Japan, France, and the United States. Kertész captured individuals immersed in the act of reading in a variety of settings, both public and privatein parks, cafés, and libraries; on rooftops, street corners, and trains; and standing at book kiosks or sitting backstage. Spanning the decades, from 1920s Paris to 1970s New York, the photographs depict a range of subjects, from Trappist monks to urban sunbathers, from commuters on a train to a young boy reading comics on a discarded pile of newspapers. Kertészs wit and skill in composing images is immediately evident, with numerous photographs featuring playful juxtapositions of the readers and the objects, architecture, and even animals around them. A cow appears to read over the shoulder of a man engrossed in his newspaper. A clerk in an antique store reads cross-legged while a nearby sculpture mirrors his pose almost exactly. A beetle is paused on a Voltaire novel, as if reading the French text. In many images, the readers seem unaware that Kertész has photographed them in a moment of concentration and escape.
Through these poetic, and at times humorous, studies, Kertész imbues the solitary activity of reading with humanistic touches.
André Kertész (American, born Austria-Hungary, 18941985) began taking photographs in Budapest in 1912. After being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, he volunteered for service at the Polish and Russian fronts. Wounded in 1915, he returned to Budapest before moving to Paris in 1925. Kertész circulated among avant-garde literary and artistic groups and embraced the culture of Paris between the world wars. He also participated in the New Vision movement, based on the speed of the new portable Leica camera and on German progressive artist László Moholy-Nagys call for a new visual literacy based on photography. With the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, many from the Parisian avant-garde took their discoveries to America. In 1936, Kertész moved with his wife, Elisabeth, to New York, where he worked as an artist and commercial photographer for the rest of his life. He received little recognition for his contributions until shortly before his death at age 90, but he had an undeniable influence on scores of photographers, including Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander, among many others.