Sunday, January 9, 2011

On Reading

Book and iPad (copyright 2011 by Dory Adams)

The photographic exhibition “Andre Kertesz: On Reading” comes at a time when technology is changing the format of how text is published and how we read it. Currently on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh through February 13, 2011, each of the 100 photographs contains a visual story of readers immersed in a textual story. Linda Benedict-Jones, curator of photography at CMOA, describes the importance of Kertesz’s work in a short film clip available for viewing at the PBS website, where you can also view some of Kertesz’s photographs.

It’s interesting to me, in light of how technology is changing publishing and how we read, that Kertesz seemed to embrace the changing technology of photography with his early adoption of small format hand-held cameras such as the Leica. Late in life he also worked with the Polaroid SX-70 camera, and I suspect that he may have even appreciated and used digital cameras had he lived a few more decades to see their advent.

Andre Kertesz (1894-1985) was born in Hungary and came to the United States in 1936 where he lived in New York City until his death in 1985. Throughout his lifetime he returned again and again to the subject of people reading. These are ordinary people deeply engaged with the written word, escaping into the private word of reading in public spaces of cities in Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Walking through the Works On Paper Gallery at CMOA yesterday afternoon, I was transported by the gorgeous black-and-white prints to a time and place which seemed to move at a slower pace. Who were these people in the photographs? What were they reading? The images show people reading on terraces and fire escapes and rooftops, in city parks, on city streets and on public transportation, and in quiet moments at the shops or places where they work. One image, which also appeared on the cover of the first edition of the book On Reading published in 1971, shows a young woman reading backstage at a carnival, a coat loosely wrapped around her, but her shoes and top hat reveal that she is one of the performers.

These are people that remind me of me – trying to find a quiet place to escape into whatever book I am reading during my lunch break at work or while waiting for an appointment. Recently, when I was waiting while my car was being repaired and reading Franzen’s Freedom which I’d been lugging around with me, I watched an elderly woman settle herself into a chair and take a Kindle from her bag to read her e-book. She was every bit as involved with the text on her e-reader as the people in Kertesz’s images were with their paper-based text.

Having watched how digital technology changed photography in the past decade, I’m excited by the changes it is bringing to publishing. I will always enjoy traditional books and paper-based text, but I will also buy e-books (and I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up buying some books in both formats). In fact, I think e-books will truly expand and open up the publication of photography books, which until now have been extremely expensive to print in traditional book format. The iPad is a perfect format to make photography books more affordable for both the reader and the publisher. The iPad is also a great way for photographers to have a portable portfolio containing a large library of their work.

Currently I’m reading Caroline Leavitt’s new novel, Pictures of You, on my iPad and enjoying it immensely. Reading a book on an e-reader is different in some ways than reading a paper-based book, but I find myself drawn into the story in new ways, less aware of what page I’m on and truly involved in the text at the level of the sentence and paragraph. However, I’m not sure that it is our relationship to the text that is truly changing, but rather that our relationship to the text format is changing. I’m every bit as absorbed by the novel I’m reading on my iPad as the readers in Kertesz’s photographs are absorbed by what they are reading.

In 2008, Kertesz’s On Reading was reissued by Norton and includes 66 of the 100 images from the exhibition. It’s a beautiful book, and I’m very happy to have a copy in traditional book format, although the reproductions in even the finest book can never match the quality of the prints in an exhibition. This is a book I will take from the shelf and admire many times over the rest of my lifetime, but I expect that I will begin to buy photography books in e-format as they become available.

I hope you have the opportunity to see this traveling exhibition in Pittsburgh or at its next stop. A portfolio of Kertesz’s photographs is available for viewing online at the Stephen Bulger Gallery website. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Each time Andre Kertesz’s shutter clicks, I feel his heart beating.” Me too. And I suspect that you will as well.

(click on images for larger view)

Bookmark and Share


julie said...

Thank you for the link to Kertesz's book... I'm not as familiar with his work as I am with his contemporaries. I'm off to check out the online gallery now.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Nice post, Dory. I'm reading your blog on my iPad right now : )

Dory Adams said...

Julie, I hope you get the opportunity to see this exhibit someday. The prints were beautiful. I'm not sure whether it has already been to San Francisco or if it's scheduled for a future date, but be sure to go if you get the chance. Great to see you here, and I love reading your blog and seeing your own photographs!

Cynthia, you make me smile. How did I ever get along without my own iPad?