Led by the master - My afternoon with Kertesz
December 8, 2011
Led by the master - My afternoon with Kertesz
by David Cummings

One afternoon last January I felt a sense of connection to Andre Kertesz that surprised me with its intensity and effect.  My wife and I had gone to Paris to see photographs and take some of our own.  There was a major retrospective exhibit of Kertesz’s work at the Jeu de Paume - the very museum near which Kertesz did some of his best Paris work.  This building stands at the edge of Tuileries Gardens, next to the Place de la Concorde.  Every famous photographer of the last 170 years has made well-known photographs in these surroundings.  Many times I have gone to this part of Paris to try to do successful street photography in the spirit of Kertesz and Cartier-Bresson.  None of the images has ever pleased me  very much.  Not until Kertesz helped me.  

I spent three hours looking at Kertesz’s collected work in the exhibition. What he could do with shadows and arrangements of picture elements was impressive.  Kertesz would not only recognize a worthwhile scene, but also arrange the elements within the frame to make perfect sense from a graphic design standpoint.  Time after time I stood awestruck while feeling the emotions that these timeless photographs evoked.

Leaving the Jeu de Paume, I realized I was standing above the street in which Kertesz photographed the four men eighty years before. Tuileries Gardens extended to the Louvre behind me. I could see the metal chairs by the pond that Kertesz had immortalized.

So here’s the story, an imagined
encounter in Paris:

I thought I could hear Kertesz whisper in my ear, “Let’s go take some photographs.”  It seemed as if he were standing beside me, ready to go do some work.

I felt tugged down to the street by the elbow.  There we were, at Kertesz’s viewpoint from 1928.  Late January sun threw long shadows toward me as people walked past.  A mother and child over ten yards away cast a shadow that almost touched my feet.  It dominated the foreground.  Click. I heard a whisper. “Got it.” Hungarian accent. This was getting a bit weird.

We walked together through Tuileries Gardens, past the great pond surrounded by the metal chairs that Kertesz had photographed so many times.  Click.  “Not so good. I did it better.  Keep walking,” Kertesz told me, sounding like so many other self-assured photographers.

“May I ask you something?” I wanted to know his ‘secrets’.  “Why did you do work that was so different than what was selling at the time?  People love your work now, but you never got rich doing what you did.”  A couple passing by gave me a look. I had asked this out loud, but of course they couldn’t see Kertesz.

“I was bored with the Pictorialist way of seeing,” he replied.  “In the early twentieth century, all that they did was show pretty things in pretty prints.  Sunsets, winter trees, and flowers on a table.   They didn’t know that a photograph could show a whole new reality.  By 1920 I knew that it was time to do more than just show what was in front of me.  I tried to use tools that they had never thought of.  Shadows, for example.  Before my work I never saw a photograph that used a shadow.  Early photographers never even saw the shadows, and certainly never used them as part of the image.  Shadows can become as real as stone if you place them where they can be of use. I tried to use geometry, relationships, and arrangements to find meaning greater than just the things I saw.”

“But how can you make that happen?” I wondered.

“Open your eyes, and think about what you’re seeing.  Remember that the image is all that the viewer has.  He can’t know the emotions and feeling you felt unless you get it into the print.  And if you take the same snapshots that all the other tourists take, you’ll get home with work that’s no better than theirs.  Be brave enough to capture something that is your own.  Show something that no one else saw.  Wait for the light to be unique.  Look for emotion and meaning.  Try to leave out the rest of the whole world, and then the two or three things that you do show will become a meaningful new world frozen in one instant.  Look over there.  Something wonderful just might happen if you make yourself ready to receive it.”

At the end of the gardens, where steps go up to the plaza outside the Louvre, something magic did happen.  A German student was jumping off the wall several times for her friend to photograph, and the backlight made her stand out against the shadowed building in the background.  The descending walkway below her bisected the frame and established a separate space below..  The camera’s viewfinder showed two separate spaces where two totally different things could happen.  People were walking down the sidewalk but they just didn’t complement the energy of the young lady above.  

With the right foreground element, this could be a winner. We stopped and waited.  People kept walking past, not noticing what I was seeing.  Silently I implored Kertesz:  “Please send somebody that would be just right in this space.  A tired old lady would be perfect.”

Just as the young lady was getting ready to jump for the last time, a little old lady in a neck brace - a neck brace! - shuffled down the walk.  The very second that the girl jumped for the last time, the old lady was in exactly the right spot for the photograph.  She was perfectly positioned, with downcast eyes and a shadow that preceded her off the bottom of the image.   The downward shadow was a dark premonition of where she was headed, both visually and metaphorically.  The young girl above, in contrast, was bathed in radiant light.  I had the perfect Parisian image of Youth and Decline.  Kertesz merely nodded his approval.

Not wanting people to see me talking to myself, I silently mouthed my thanks to Kertesz:  “Thanks, but the neck brace was a little much,“ I told him.

“Ajándék lónak ne nézd a fogát!” said Kertesz in Hungarian.  “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”  At that he turned his back and slipped away through the trees.
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