As we all know, the way we read is changing and digital technology is threatening to take over from dusty old books. Even the sanctuary that is the Oxford Street branch of Borders is closing down, depriving us of the best place in central London to sit and read books and magazines without actually buying them. Just behind that bookshop is The Photographers' Gallery where André Kertész's ‘On Reading’ will be exhibited and there couldn’t be a more appropriate time for these photographs to reach these shores.
Kertész's images celebrate the romance and escapism of reading in the past; from a kid engrossed in a pile of discarded newspapers on the street to an older gentleman studying a book with a magnifying glass, the quiet joy of reading really comes across. A poetic nostalgia runs throughout the exhibition, from the subject matter to the fact that these are black and white prints, and it all serves as a beautiful document of reading and the book, as object, things which are being redefined or perhaps evening disappearing in the twenty first century.
The photographer is part of that classic twentieth century tradition of capturing spontaneous, decisive moments with compositional excellence and, often, a sense of humour or ambiguity. One image depicts someone reading peacefully half inside their Greenwich Village apartment and half on their balcony with the implication that it was taken voyeuristically, at long distance. The intimacy of reading is often captured when subjects are in a public space and, like the other Leica-wielding masters, Kertész manages to connect the personal to the public or social. Three barefooted children huddle over a single book around the time of the first world war and we are enticed into the individual lives of the subjects whilst also being reminded of the political upheavals and displacement of that century, something that had a profound effect on Kertész’s own itinerant life as a soldier and emigre.
‘On Reading’ became a lifelong project for Kertész who is considered one of the greats of photojournalism and this exhibition is another example of the high quality of curating at The Photographers’ Gallery. Recent successes include ‘The Photographic Object’ and ‘Deutsche Börse Photography Prize’ and running concurrently to ‘On Reading’ is ‘You’re a Boy’, an exhibition devoted to the groundbreaking British menswear stylist Simon Foxton, which is bound to be a hit. Now established in its Soho home, the gallery continues to look to the future as well as to the history of photography.
André Kertész’s ‘On Reading’ is at The Photographers' Gallery from 17th July until 4th October 2009.