catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 6 :: 2009.03.13 — 2009.03.27


Writing with light

They are in Paris, sitting on benches in the park while reading newspapers.  They are hourglass women on the balconies of New York, sunbathing with open issues of Cosmo.  They are fairies backstage during a play, passing the time between scenes with picture books.  They are monks, reflecting on sacred, illuminated pages in the hopes that the scales will fall from their eyes.

From the secret silence of cloistered spaces to the public noise of the city streets, the relationship between their inner and outer worlds is complicated.  The moment in which the camera captures them is private, and yet there is multi-faceted dialogue occurring-between the reader and the author, between the subject and the photographer, between the photographer and the viewer of his art.  Completing the circle, the photographer becomes the agent by which the viewer is given permission to look straight into the reader’s moment of connection with an artist, mediated by a text.  The reading subjects of Andre Kertesz’s photographs delight me, like beach glass; I want to take them home in my pockets so I can touch them often as wordless reminders of joy in the midst of brokenness.

I encountered Kertesz’s images of people reading for the first time just last Friday when my husband Rob and I accompanied a group of our students on a visit to the Grand Rapids Art Museum.  In debriefing on the visit later, one of our students remarked on how much he enjoyed the Kertesz exhibit because he had seen so much art in today’s museums that reckons with television, but not much dealing with books.  

His observation echoed something I had noticed as I edited this particular issue of catapult on books, and that was how often we feel a need to establish a position on television in relationship to books, even when we’re writing or talking about books.  Some writers are more sympathetic to “the boob tube,” as one of my high school teachers called it; others, less so. But I think we make television (or literature) into an idol when we characterize it as either the supreme savior or the supreme enemy.  A lover of good books and good television myself, I would maintain that our basic affinity for books and for television is driven by the same impulse: our voracious love of stories. Though the photographs in the Kertesz exhibit spanned 50 years of his life and career, the artist captures a timeless impulse to be immersed in narrative.  And this immersion serves all kinds of purposes: distraction, piety, play, information, curiosity and so on and so on.  Certainly not all of these purposes are equal-some are more faithful or appropriate than others-but they all share a human longing for imagery that expresses who we are and what we need in a moment of time.

Interestingly, the Kertesz exhibit on reading adds another dimension to storytelling through art.  As a photographer who had recently immigrated to the U.S. from Europe in 1936, he sought work with various magazines including Harper’s Bazaar and Town and Country.  After turning down fashion work with Vogue, he took an assignment with Life for a series on tugboats.   His series failed to impress his editors, however, when his photographs documented not just his singular subject, but the culture surrounding tugboats.  Reported to have remarked that, “I write with light,” Kertesz was using an existing art form in a new way: to tell stories.  Today, he’s acknowledged as the pioneer of the photo essay as a form of journalism. 

“I write with light,” he said.  Others might say, “I write with music,” or, “I write with paint.”  I myself happen to write with words, but also with food, with furniture, with clothing, with my bike.  Far from parenting a journalistic genre, however, I see myself as modeling an old, old way of doing things-a way that began way back when the Spirit that hovered over the waters chose a particular point in infinite time and space in which to set a scene.  Actors were formed out of dust and breath, props out of pure imagination.  And so it went, right through the climax featuring the star of the show, who burst onto the set with a singular star in the sky and proclaimed in the way we least expected that the world of the play is not a list of bullet points, but a story.  And we’re in it, so we do well to rehearse the themes upon which we now improvise-to eat, sleep, dream the themes.

I don’t know to what extent, if any, the story I consider central to my current improvisation held any importance for Andre Kertesz, but in his images-miniature love stories to the written word-I see ripples of those early chapters in which human beings were given such beautiful and terrible powers.  In one of Kertesz’s photographs, a boy sits on a stack of newspapers with an ice cream bar.  He is absorbed in the funny pages, unaware that he is also being captured in the frame of a lens. 

Is he pondering the racial slur that will open his eyes to injustice?

Is he nurturing a love of pop art that will blossom into an international visual revolution?

Or is he just a boy who is properly delighted by bright colors and clever jokes?

Something out of nothing, joy through suffering, knowing by surrendering, gaining by giving: I have to believe that anything is possible, and that even the most ordinary sequence of events can be, whether in the moment or in retrospect, extraordinary.


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