Yesterday, Adrienne, Marc Akemann, Stefan Peterson and I ventured over to the Grand Rapids Art Museum to view the exhibit - Andre Kertesz: On Reading. There were over 75 photographs spanning 50 years from 1925 to 1975, all related to the subject of reading. Many were focused on the act of reading, from Paris to New York, and Japan. Others presented the universality of the importance of books and newspapers in our lives. While presented as a photo-essay of a sort, and even though the images represented 50 years of work, I can't really say that I was enthralled or enlightened by the exhibit. There were perhaps a handful of images that I really liked and thought were exemplary images. I was amazed that the prints were never spotted -- and in fact, some had very distinct dust spots and defects that had they been in a Weston photograph, would have elicited horror from anyone. Perhaps, as a body of work from someone as prolific as Kartesz, it might be forgiven. I certainly feel that the images presented in the tiny book, Andre Kartesz - The Early Years are of a superior quality.
I get what the photographer was trying to do, and photographing someone in the act of reading is almost like photographing something intimate. In fact, several of his photographs are voyeuristic in composition. Others were simply street photography, and less intrusive. There is no question that Kartesz predates people such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gary Winogrand, and Robert Frank. Perhaps for that reason alone, his work is held in such regard, and there is justification for that.
Reading is a mostly individual activity, and there were several images that brought home to me why the PRINTED page (as opposed to the digital image) is important. One can take a book anywhere - no batteries, no other technology is required to support the act of reading it, save for a light -- but even then, one can read in the daylight. Once printed, the book remains there for reading, unchanged and an absolutely real thing with solidity, even if the thoughts contained within may be vacuous or weigh heavily on the reader. I'm sure Kartesz didn't anticipate today's digital world. However, he obviously did know something about how people respond to the printed page, and how the direct contact with those pages affects us, and influences our society. Perhaps that is the final lesson one can take from On Reading.
Added -- 03/23 -- I just found out about a new book that contains nothing but SX-70 Polaroid shots by Kartesz, now available on Amazon.com. From this link, it looks like a book that I'd like to own.