Moments of being: André Kertész photos at the DIA

Arts / Article

If you haven’t been to the Detroit Institute of Arts’ photography gallery lately, stop by and check out the current show, An Intuitive Eye: André Kertész Photographs 1914-1969. This generous exhibition of elegant black and white images traces the influential modernist’s career from Hungary, where it began, to Paris in 1925 and New York in 1936. The work from each period is distinct, but consistently displays an extraordinary sensitivity to shadow, light and geometry, a sensitivity that DIA associate curator Nancy Barr describes as “unique in [Kertész’s] time.”

As one of the first street photographers, Kertész captured spontaneous moments of urban activity while emphasizing the lines, shapes, planes and textures that such moments consist of (visually, anyway). The show features many of these remarkable, candid shots, but also draws attention to his still life and portrait work, which is no less riveting.

Melancholip Tulip

One of my favorite pieces on display depicts the novelist Colette, who was among the many artists Kertész befriended (and photographed) after moving to Paris. Her direct gaze is heavy and inscrutable (Is it ennui? Sadness? Boredom from posing?), and she sinks into the background while a sidelong burst of flowers, better-lit than she is, dominates the frame.

It’s the street photography, however, that dominates the show. Kertész’s Paris in the ’20s and ’30s is misty, bustling and curvilinear. Later, his New York is heavier, boxier (and snowy). But his camera draws similar frames around both cities, finding a kind of cross-continental symmetry in the dynamic points of contact between built environments and the people who inhabit them.

Photo:  Washington Square, New York, 1954

Kertész’s work couldn’t help but remind me of Bill Rauhauser, the gifted local street photographer who just published the book 20th Century Photography in Detroit. Rauhauser has a similar concern with the geometry of everyday urban life, and it’s no surprise that he counts Kertész as a major influence. I was surprised, however, to find that the show includes a portrait of Kertész taken by Rauhauser in New York in 1980.  It’s an illuminating shot, not only because it gazes frankly at a face that was more often behind a camera, squinting.  It also makes a little clearer the constellation of human connections that allow styles and sensibilities to pass through geographic borders, even of cities as distinctive as Budapest, Paris and Detroit.

An Intuitive Eye: André Kertész Photographs runs through May 29, 2011 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit; (313) 833-7900; dia.org.  The exhibition is free with museum admission.