February 4, 2011

“On Reading” and the On-Going Project

This past December, during a visit to my hometown of Pittsburgh, I made a trek to the Carnegie Museum of Art to see the fantastic “André Kertész: On Reading” exhibition. As a photographer, I was particularly intrigued with the fact that the work presented in the show was the culmination of a life-long pursuit of the artist.

Early in his career Kertész found himself fascinated with the curious nature of solitary individuals reading in public places. And so he set out to try and capture the myriad of gestures and expressions made by people who appear so completely absorbed in the printed matter held in their hands, that they achieve a sort of detachment from the realities of the world surrounding them. He would spend the next 50 years documenting these intimate moments.

I can only imagine the patience and foresight Kertész must have had in allowing this project to evolve over the course of so many decades. He could just have easily spent a few months photographing enough examples to declare the work complete. Instead, he understood that only by continually recording the common act of reading over the span of a great many years, could he truly begin to describe the universal nature of this simple pleasure.

As I made my way through the exhibition, I began to mentally review my own accumulating stockpile of photographs. Were there groupings I hadn’t thought of? Are there one or two single images that mark the beginning of a new story or theme?

It occurred to me that since I began taking photos I have made it a point to do “accidental” self-portraits — my shadow against a rock face; my faint reflection on a glass surface. Like an aspiring musician practicing scales & intervals, I like to challenge myself and see how many creative and unusual ways I can reinvent a simple idea.

Perhaps one day I will amass a comprehensive collection of self-portraits that combined would serve as a narrative of my growth as a photographer, or tell one story of my life’s journeys. Then again, it could just as easily end up becoming a leitmotif for something that has not yet even occurred to me. Only time, and patience, will tell.

Reflecting on the exhibit afterward, I felt inspired to think that although Kertész may not have ever left his home expressly to photograph a man seated on a park bench reading a newspaper, he possessed a keen awareness of his surroundings so that if he happened to encounter just such a scene, he was sure to be ready. He proved that time, patience, and a commitment to the on-going project are requisites for creating deeply meaningful works.

. . . . .

A photographer friend recently told me the story of how Edward Weston photographed cats continually throughout his entire career. He adored cats, owned many, and loved photographing them almost as much as he did photographing his nudes. Apparently, curators and gallery owners persuaded Weston that exhibiting these images would not be a wise career move. And so the world will never know the majesty of his feline portraiture. It is interesting to ponder if he were alive today, whether he would have a dedicated webpage devoted to his cherished cat prints? I Can Has Pepper?