Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 08 Aug 2018

Exploring a photographic homage

Between 1915 and 1970, the great photographer, Andre Kertesz, took photographs of people doing something deeply self-absorbed and essentially personal – reading. He took these photographs in countries across the world and in any place that suggested itself – including roof-top spaces and doorways. It was a collection he would call ‘On Reading’. Robert Gurbo, curator of the Andre Kertesz estate describes the photographer’s quest in this way:

“Perhaps in memory of his late father, who was a bookseller, or more likely because of his deep understanding of the transformative nature of the printed word, Kertesz began taking pictures of people absorbed in reading when he first started photographing early in the twentieth century in his native Hungary. He continued to be intrigued by this theme later in Paris and New York and in his travels throughout the world.”

The volume I have is a reset and reprinted version and it is not a big, flashy coffee-table book but an elegant, hand-sized production which presents the original plates in duotone printing which puts right the slightly washed-out prints of the first edition that so irritated Kertesz when it was released in 1970.

The majority of the photographs featured in the collection are gathered naturalistically, perhaps through happenstance or diligent hunting – capturing what Cartier-Bresson called ‘the decisive moment’. But there are several which are clearly posed. I don’t mind the fact that some tableaux are set-up because they are essentially faithful to the reality and spirit of a moment that would have occurred and which the photographer could not have witnessed in real time without taking up residence in the subject’s house.

This is a lovely portfolio, you might even call it an extended photographic essay, that treats the issue of people lost in reading with warmth and respect.

When I spotted that Phaidon had published Steve McCurry’s 2016 collection of photographs also entitled ‘On Reading’, I was immediately alerted to the echo of Kertesz’s classic. When the book arrived I was delighted to see that my instinct was right – McCurry’s book is a direct homage to the 1970 original. On one of the volume’s opening pages, McCurry makes the following statement:

“I met the legendary photographer Andre Kertesz shortly after I moved to New York in my early thirties. We lived in the same building, and I still enjoy looking at his images displayed in the lobby. Some of his most intriguing pictures were photographs of people reading. They were taken over a fifty-year period, and were collected in his book, On Reading, published in 1971(sic). This collection is my homage to Kertesz’s talent, his influence, and his genius.”

McCurry’s plates are bigger than those of Kertesz and the whole book is set in a landscape format. They are also taken in the saturated colour that McCurry has made famous rather than the luminous black and white of the original collection.

However, beyond these obvious differences the portfolio he has collated bears a strong resemblance to Kertesz’s aesthetic. We have the same mix of captured moments with posed, a fidelity to the ‘privacy’ of the reading experience, the sense of self-containment and the global nature of the phenomenon.

Perhaps what marks the two collections out as different is McCurry’s penchant for the portrait study. This tends to make McCurry’s work look cleaner and somehow less cluttered than Kertesz’s work which, on the whole, maintains more distance between the photographer and the subject.

As a bonus, the McCurry collection is prefaced by a really delightful short essay by Paul Theroux who has written passionately about the importance of books and the significance of reading.

It’s delightful to see two artists working in a conjoined way with one willing to acknowledge a debt to an earlier pioneer and not be afraid to take someone else’s good idea and develop and run with it. That’s not plagiarism but homage and it should be applauded and encouraged because good ideas aren’t the property of any individual but belong to us all.


Terry Potter

August 2018

(Click on any image below to view the images in a slide show format)