Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Photographers On Reading

By Alastair Johnston

Who doesn't love a good book? And in our image-saturated society, who doesn't love a good photo of someone else reading? The Hungarian photographer André Kertész (1894-1985) published a book of sixty-three candid black and white photos of people reading, called appropriately enough ON READING (New York, Grossman, 1971). 

It celebrated the universal joy of reading in a poetic elegy of private moments made public. Kertész gained recognition as a photographer and was able to travel the world and always when the opportunity arose made snapshots of readers for his project. 

Since it began in 1915 with a group of three boys reading in his native Hungary, it's clear Kertész came to think of it as a century-long project! Kertész died in 1985, but his work endures. A gift of 120 of his reading photos was the basis for an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College in Chicago in 2006. More recently, in 2009, his work was celebrated at the Photographers' Gallery in London, and in 2011 the Carnegie Museum of Art hosted an exhibit of his "Reading" pictures.

To me it's odd that as recently as 1971 -- which is in some people's living memory, though still B.C. (Before Computers) -- the world was black and white. But more specifically the world of fine art photography was black and white, and for some collectors and curators remains so.

Photojournalism has changed a lot in the last generation, just as reading has. Now artists like Alex Webb and Steve McCurry regularly dazzle us with news photos that are works of art in their own right. Webb works in the margins: he likes the places where borders exist and throw up societal conflict. He responds to chaos in spots where most of us are disconcerted and the last thing we want to do is pull out a camera and start getting in people's faces, like at a funeral in Haiti. He has a painter's eye, gets the tropical colors, scorched shadows & dramatic cropping effortlessly into the frame and manages to tell a story at the same time. And one of the most visually striking parts of Webb's work is its richly saturated color. He says,
As I understand it, one of the tenets of Goethe’s theory of color is that color emerges from the tension between light and dark, a notion that seems to resonate with my use of color, with its intense highlights and deep shadows. Also, my photographs are often a little enigmatic — there’s sometimes a sense of mystery, of ambiguity.
He makes it sound simple! But then he is capable, in his books, of taking Cartier-Bresson and Lee Friedlander to another level, through his use of color.

National Gee has long fostered talented photographers. There's a whole new bunch to watch, including Michael Wolf (who started out at GEO in Germany, but now works in Hong Kong) and David Liittschwager, who takes Avedon-like portraits of endangered creatures. The most celebrated, and with good reason, is the spectacularly gifted Steve McCurry. He is an unassuming bloke, a face in the crowd, which is a good asset for a street photographer: Someone you might see loitering on a bridge and not think, "A perv, call the cops!" He's just hanging out, waiting for that moment when the flower seller rows his boat underneath. He's there every day -- as long as it takes -- and, after ten days, the light is right, a slight haze, even the water wants to look good, everything comes together and he gets the shot. One photograph. A very Zen exercise. But how many times have you missed the shot, because your mind wasn't there in the moment, or your reflexes weren't quick enough? But people reading are in their own time and space, and that is all the time in the world for them -- suspended over the abyss of an author's black words in a limitless white expanse, the white of the page blending into the sparkling scrim behind their eyes -- as well as for the observant to capture their portrait. 

McCurry has updated Kertész, and he does it with such aplomb: it's on his blog which he regularly fills with masterpieces as if he were just dealing cards but somehow hitting full house after flush after Aces and Kings. And as he travels the world, adding images to his own "People Reading" category, it's gratifying to see that books and newspapers are still crucial to people's lives.


1 comment:

  1. Great photos! The State Library of NSW in Sydney has a nice set of reading photos too. http://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryofnsw/sets/72157629124423523/


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