Photography

An understated world of wonders

David Livingstone June 2 1980
Photography

An understated world of wonders

David Livingstone June 2 1980

An understated world of wonders

Photography

The recent history of photography has been of busy and blunt acquisition. Photographs have grown so esteemed, coincidentally as art and commodity, that even at a young photographer’s very first show one sees assuring spiels to prospective buyers that prints are of museum quality. Esthetic and monetary values seem to have hybridized, so that a collection of significant Canadian work gathered by the Banff School of Fine Arts is known, somewhat seedily, as the “Banff Purchase.” In light of all this, the exhibition of 25 vintage prints by pioneer and master André Kertész at the Jane Corkin Gallery in Toronto in May, is a significant departure from this atmo-

photograph, Satiric Dancer (1926), in which a jovial woman lies insouciantly arranged, a Catherine wheel of limbs, Kertész took the stuffing out of such preordained concepts as art, sex, comfort and dignity, capturing the timeless, priceless spirit of making fun. And he has never been worried about meeting conventional expectations. Famous for his revolutionary breaking with painterly ideals early in the century, Kertész the cashless came away enriched

group show ever of vintage pictures (original prints, usually no more than three, made near the time the film was developed) by Kertész, it was not only the first chance to see images that, in some cases, were not known to exist but also the first opportunity for private and institutional collectors to purchase, for sums ranging as high as $15,000. Such is the artistry of Kertész, however, that even the most casual viewer did not feel inhibited and even the most cashless came away enriched.

In perhaps his most popularly known

was one of the first photographers to turn his small camera onto the street, to address, as critic Janet Malcolm has put it, “the adventitious and discrepant elements of experience.” Born in Budapest in 1894, he worked in a stock exchange, served in the Hungarian army during the First World War and abandoned commerce in favor of the camera, enjoying the recognition and friendship of other émigré artists in Paris where he had his first one-man show in 1927. In 1936 he moved to New York, where he free-lanced commercially until 1962, and where he continues to make pictures.

Choosing images from the wealth of Kertész archival material that has been entrusted to her in the past year and a half, Corkin, who has enjoyed a per-, sonal and a professional association with Kertész since she sought him out in the mid-’70s, managed a selection that reflected the artist’s unpredictable diversity. An untitled print from 1933 illustrates his felicitous regard for the happenstance. A funeral procession moves along a clammy, cobbled street, horse-drawn hearse and veiled mourners filing toward eternity, while on the sidewalk, a lone pedestrian, hatless and with purse clutched in two hands, seems embarrassed to find herself going about worldly affairs and heading in the opposite direction. Kertész’s gift for abstrac-

tion is evident in one from the Distortions series he completed in the ’30s in which, by some technical virtuosity, human arms and legs appear as stretched taffy, their grotesquerie contradicted by beautiful, swirling lines. Similarly remarkable, but more geometrically composed, is a horizontal sliver of a photograph in which a serious-faced man stands on a ladder fetching a book from library shelves, his crooked elbow as much an architectural detail as the moulding on the ceiling behind him.

Among the familiar and uncele-

brated, Kertész discerned delicate, understated drama, in still lifes as well as street scenes. A typical overhead shot of Paris street vendors depicts a cluster of customers around a tableful of wares, while next to it two merchants sit neglected, looking begrudgingly upon their neighbor’s good fortune. Even in his unpeopled vistas, there is the urgency of life. Daisy Bar, Montmartre, one of five images reproduced in Kertész’s book J'aime Paris, shows a quiet night spot secreted in a nook formed by lamplit steps and a street empty but for two cars, one of them left—abandoned?—with its door open.

The negative for Daisy Bar, as for many of the other prints in the exhibition, no longer exists. Though its $15,000 price tag may seem high, especially to those unaware that vintage prints by Alfred Stieglitz sell for more, Corkin claims that the market hasn’t yet caught up to these pictures, some of them being worth as much as $25,000. That Kertész has granted Corkin permission to produce a book of his vintage work with a written text—unprecedented in volumes of his photographs— testifies to a faith in her which surpasses that of just a dealer. In addition to the artistry of his vision, it’s a faith in an ordinary world to yield a wonder that makes commerce seem incidental.

David Livingstone