by Sam Miller ’15.
André Kertész’s photograph Meudon exudes a distinct sense of alienation by exemplifying surrealism’s exploitation of accidental juxtapositions.
The first word that came to mind when looking at this photograph was ominous. There is something unsettling, something sinister about this scene. While nothing is perceptibly “wrong,” it actively radiates an implication that something terrible is about to happen.
A quick glance at the photograph’s content doesn’t reveal anything conspicuously out of the ordinary. Set in a drab alleyway of the titular Parisian suburb, the foreground is dominated by a man with a large wrapped package tucked under his arm, as a train steams ahead stolidly in the background, passing over a viaduct undergoing construction. Several passerby stroll further down the alley, but the area is otherwise largely deserted.
And yet, there is an underlying menace to the scene. The man in the foreground squints suspiciously at the camera, as if he’s disturbed by being photographed. Caught mid-stride, the man is clearly in a hurry to get somewhere with his package. Why does he grasp his package so protectively? What exactly is he carrying? His distrust is echoed by the woman farther down the alley—the only other visible face—as she scrutinizes almost angrily from afar. These people, seemingly in the midst of humdrum activities, appear to be hiding something.
Meudon is also a photograph of movement. The vast, empty space of the viaduct, framed by the photographer in such a way that we see more space beneath the train than above, accentuates the train’s potential to fall. Is the train safe to be traveling over the viaduct, which seems to have abandoned construction supplies strewn about its base?
Furthermore, the viaduct’s clean and fresh façade stands in stark contrast to the gloomy grit of the squalid buildings below and the dusky train above. The viaduct’s superior condition to the decay of the buildings draws attention to a process of industrialization that destroys as it creates—this nondescript street is dying while construction continues in the distance.
Ultimately, the photograph captures a scene that appears to be on the brink of disaster. In the first surrealist manifesto of 1924, André Breton wrote that the surreal is a resolution of “dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality.” With Meudon, Kertész appears to have captured a resolution of reality and a nightmare.
André Kertész (Hungarian, 1894–1985)
gelatin silver print
Museum Purchase, Lloyd O. and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund 1984.1
© Estate of André Kertész, courtesy of Bruce Silverstein Gallery, NY