By Tracey Faber, ’16.
The wonder of photography, hinging upon its essential character as a mirror image of the ‘real,’ is in what it captures. Yet the true marvel of the medium is in what shimmers around the edges of the photograph: the extension of a narrative, the knowledge that a moment in time has been trapped there, but that various lives converged for its creation, and then continued on. This may seem to apply only to photography of ‘real’ life, the kind that fills family albums and national geographic magazines. This kind of narrative may elude artistic photographs, which can be likened to painting in that the image presented to the viewer has been formulated by the artist, and has a message apart from simple documentation, even if that message is just in the aestheticization of form.
Yet surrealist photographs often contain some detail that makes the viewer look closer, lean in, and begin to construct a story to fill in the empty space that surrounds the image. The detail is usually something familiar, either generally to most viewers, or specifically to the individual viewer, based on her memories and experiences. The fact that the surrealist image distances the viewer through unusual and sometimes disturbing juxtapositions makes her search even more fervently for the familiar.
In André Kertész’s Meudon, taken in a Parisian suburb in 1928, the familiar is in the way the central figure, a respectable man in a dark suit and bowler hat, looks from behind his glasses out at the viewer, the way that strangers glance at one another in the street. This familiar detail, so reliant on the human capacity to read signals behind the most subtle body language, resides in a world that seems disjointed, and whose many lines and angles contribute to the sense of a convergence of what seem to be disparate events. The familiarity of the man’s gaze makes the image more accessible to the viewer, who can connect to the scene through this human stand-in.
Yet this same gaze also deepens the surreality of the image. He seems out of place in this setting. He becomes the focus of the viewer’s desire to interpret the image, searching for details that might enable her to construct a narrative around him. For example, the package under his arm has the shape and size of a framed painting, a precious commodity; yet it is wrapped in newspaper, whose value lies in its ephemeral nature and quotidian context. The train and the construction under the bridge speak to progress and modernization, and yet Kertész’s photograph demonstrates how growth can look so much like destruction. The contradictions in the photograph resist any attempt by the viewer to construct a single, clear narrative.
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