By Ken Tanaka
André Kertész: The Polaroids
Introduction by Robert Gurbo
128 pages. W.W. Norton, 2007.
$35 ($23.10 at Amazon)
The recent announcement of the discontinuation of Polaroid’s consumer films sent me on a search for notable Polaroid photographic art works. I did not have to search long. It seems that there has been a small but devoted group of photographers and artists with a strong affinity for Polaroid film. Of all of the Polaroid work that I’ve found thus far, however, none has touched me as strongly and deeply as a group of recently published Polaroid images by the late André Kertész.
Like any of Kertész’s images these would stand strong on their own merits in the absence of any context. But a spot of back-story, as provided by Robert Gurbo, the book’s author and the curator of Kertész’s estate, makes the collection all that much richer.
It was the 1970s and Kertész was nearing the end of his nearly 70-year career, much of which had been spent in relative obscurity. He was deeply mourning the recent death of his wife and lifelong closest friend, Elizabeth. Approaching 80, Kertész’s own health was also failing. One day musician and photographer Graham Nash, whom Kertész had befriended during this period, gave him a Polaroid SX-70 camera as a gift. Kertész found the new technology of "instant film" to be liberating. (A balance disorder had kept him from doing his own darkroom work for nearly 40 years. Being able to shoot and develop his images autonomously was a revelation to him.) Indeed, by all accounts the transformational effect of the Polaroid photography on Kertész was rather remarkable. In his introduction Robert Gurbo remarks, "...a sad old man waiting to die had become one who could not wait for the next click of the camera."
The 65 images presented in this book, dating from the late 1970s until shortly before Kertész‘s death in 1985, were all captured in, or from, his apartment near Washington Square in New York where he and Elizabeth had lived since 1952. Many are still lifes, some are golden hour shadow play, others are casual portraits of visitors to his home. Together and individually they present a striking and very touching reflection of an immensely talented, but lonely, photographer nearing the end of his road. But these images also show that same creative talent embracing and exploring a new medium. This was clearly a man far more devoted to results rather than methods. We can only wonder how Kertész might have embraced digital photography.
In today’s "bigger is better" world of photography this little book of Polaroid images, reproduced in full size, serves as an important reference point regarding the intrinsic qualities of good images. To be sure, the world has many images featuring rich, essential detail that require enormous prints. But as a stroll through many photo dealers’ galleries will confirm today, size is most often being used to fraudulently suggest quality and importance (and to inflate prices). Kertész’s little Polaroids, like most of his images, are so far above today’s feet-by-feet images selling for seven figures that it’s laughable. The quality of these images would endure at any size, but they’re particularly special and precious at the size of a Polaroid "instant" snapshot.
I am personally grateful to Robert Gurbo for bringing this mostly unseen body of André Kertész’s final work to print, and to the recent exhibit which it accompanies. (The quality of the printed images is also outstanding.) It’s become one of the books that’s always on my desk serving as an almost-daily visual drinking fountain of inspiration and instruction.
Featured Comment by Stephen Gillette: "On my birthday in 1981 my dear wife presented me with From My Window, a book of SX-70 images made by Kertész. She knew my great esteem for his work, and I had been shooting with an SX-70 myself.
"For some strange reason, I recall being ambivalent about the book. The images were not exactly classic Kertész: these were color, square, and reproduced actual size (small). I expressed polite thanks. The book found a spot on the shelf, and there it patiently waited.
"Over the years, like a lapsed friendship rediscovered, this book has provided unexpected delight. It has returned to my ripening attention and appreciation, year-after-year. What a marvel of emotionally-potent delights!
"Kertész has stated that he sought to create 'atmosphere' in his photographs. The mystical potential of art is no better displayed than in his Polaroid images, created with such a simple, reduced camera system. (Simple, but elegant, the SX-70.)
"I look forward to seeing this new book, and to being freshly inspired by this old friend."
Mike adds: And may I just point out that the retail price of From My Window in fine condition is currently about $200 to $250. Photography books are not only great to have, they're great to collect.