André Kertész: The Polaroids
That time has come again, at the end of the year, when people buy presents to each other… So, I thought to look at some of the recent photography publications. ‘New’ is not necessarily better, but certainly can tease our senses. And there is one book that has fully captured my attention.
Andre Kertesz: The Polaroids was published just last week. The Hungarian photographer (1894 – 1985), one of the most influential masters, with the poetic vision for the ‘simple’ and ‘everyday’ subject, was hardly recognised in public during his lifetime in Paris and New York, but only after his retirement. Actually, this work comes from that later stage of his life.
Kertesz got a Polaroid SX-70 camera after the death of his wife. And he managed “to generate a whole new body of work through which he transforms from a broken man into a youthful artist” as Robert Gurbo, the curator of the André Kertész estate writes about The Polaroids.
“Taken in his apartment just north of New York City’s Washington Square, many of these photographs were shot either from his window or in the windowsill. We see a fertile mind at work, combining personal objects into striking still lifes set against cityscape backgrounds, reflected and transformed in glass surfaces. Almost entirely unpublished work, these photographs are a testament to the genius of the photographer’s eye as manifested in the simple Polaroid. 80 color photographs.”
“Andre Kertesz nearly always seems to have had a genuine affection for what he photographed” is Tim Atherton’s subtle comment in his blog Muse-ings. It is a comment that surely finds most of us ready to agree with.
Many of these window compositions remind me – in a way – another of the 20th century great photographers, Sudek, when he was forced to stay home during the period of the second world war. He had also focused all his creativity upon simple arrangements and still life settings made by his spartan personal possessions, which then were usually staged in front of his windows. Compositions of glass, eggs and paper, and views of the garden, under reflections and shadows, and through a special quality of light.
These images here, however, make use of intense colours, vibrant tonalities and a rich and warm daylight to indicate an affective mood. They make full use of the polaroid aesthetic effect. The images are often nostalgic and refer to the past, that is shared moments and places (such as the Eiffel Tower), or more often the beloved person who was lost from Kertesz’s life. But they also become reflections of a lonely individual, which we assume is Kertesz himself, although his overall stance appears reflexive and still connected with life’s complex mystery, both its melancholy and its small pleasures.
The shapes tend to express a sense of clarity and the compositions retain a realist form, as ”slices of life’ in the modernist tradition which Kertesz had been foundational to establish himself. Yet, this time his photographs, his slices of life, feel less of abstract observations, and more personal; they are reflections of his own life. There are several self-portraits and references to a photographer within the collection.
All the same, the images captivate us with a dim emotional power and a kind of dreamscape quality. For me, the subject is never clearly established – whatever the rather lucid subject-matter of each photograph. Is it about himself and his own literal experience or about a wider concept and a shared human experience, for example such as life or alienation? I believe it is true that Kertesz was so much a modernist as much as he expressed a strong surrealist side in his work.
These photographs and all the Polaroids portfolio is property of the Andre Kertesz Estate and can be viewed there.
© Christos Stavrou