Thursday, December 27, 2007

An Inside Job

The Polaroids

by André Kertész
W. W. Norton, November 2007
128 pages/hardcover/80 photographs/$35.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

The beautiful, bittersweet images in The Polaroids illustrate never-before-seen expressions of the amazing André Kertész (1894-1985). Mirroring his life and work, this little book is strong and sensitive, gripping and groundbreaking. Moreover, the unparalleled instant medium of Polaroid proves a fitting key to further understanding Kertész’s artistic intellect throughout his seventy-three year career.

After mastering photography in his native Hungary and reaching celebrity status in Paris, Kertész came to New York in 1936 with great anticipation. Instead, he endured more frustration than applause. He was plagued by illness; difficulty learning English; humiliation at what he felt was a “hack job” as a House and Garden magazine staffer; and devastation over the death of his wife and business manager, Elizabeth, in 1977.

By the end of the 1970s, Kertész fell into isolated despair. During this period, Graham Nash gave Kertész a Polaroid SX-70 as a gift, hoping to ignite a spark in his friend. It worked. As he conquered the technology he could not stop. Kertész was newly motivated; his success controlling and manipulating wild and bouncing reflections amid strange colors and irregular developing results unique to Polaroid film invigorated his sagging spirit.

Many Polaroids depict a small glass bust Kertész found in a bookstore, an evocative figurine that struck an aching chord for Elizabeth. Shooting alone in his Manhattan apartment using window light for his studies, he aligned the sculpture and other personal objects with the skyline beyond the sill, compulsively working day after day. He took bold and direct-in-the-lens portraits of special visitors and staged exquisite still life scenes: three apples on a small round tray with one perched atop a water glass is composition perfection; the delicate bust atop a pedestal in intense black-and-blue tones set against the once invincible Twin Towers is scaling precision.

The Polaroids is about the rebirth of Kertész via a largely unpublished record of his final years of brilliance. The book prompts interest in revivifying Kertész’s methods and leads to rediscovering his earlier trendsetting photographs with fresh appreciation. The Polaroids is also an essential element for anyone interested in learning about process, particularly the process of healing oneself through a burning desire to create.

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