Christopher Howse

The spur of the moment

Christopher Howse contrasts the quirky drama of life captured by 19th- and early 20th-century photographers with the banal or violent gimmickry in the work of their modern counterparts

The spur of the moment
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A memorable image by André Kertész shows a steam train passing over a high viaduct behind a row of peeling French houses next to a demolition site while a man in a suit and hat with his back to the train walks across the foreground, a mysterious painting-shaped item wrapped in newspaper under one arm. It is a moment caught.

The viewer, naturally, tries to connect the disparate elements. And to us it is not merely a moment but a moment in a place, from the past — when steam trains chuffed and men wore hats with suits — in this case 1928 at Meudon, a Parisian suburb. In this way, photography attains the highest form of art to which painters aspired in post-Renaissance theory: that of history painting. True, it is not the history of famous figures; it is a genre piece left for history to work its slow transformation upon. But it is as well to be aware that this accidental enchantment has been added to the art of photography, just as, for an archaeologist, the exciting story told by a poor pot-sherd quite outdoes its ceramic virtues. Kertész (1894–1985) did not leave poor pot-sherds, although his first proper retrospective is only now being held, at the Jeu de Paume in Paris (until February). Michel Frizot and Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq have put together the catalogue (Yale, £48).

The career of André Kertész fell into three parts: a decade in his native Hungary, a decade in France, then, from 1936, half a century in New York. Henri Cartier-Bresson called Kertész one of his masters. Some affinities are obvious. Two thumbnails in the book show his studies of the viaduct at Meudon, without train and with. It was the passing of the man with the mysterious object that provided the tertium quid of the decisive moment.

Another obvious parallel begins with a Kertész shot from about 1920, in Hungary, of a couple outside a circus, she in long coat and headscarf, he in a boater, with one hand in his trouser pocket, both of them looking through cracks in the hoarding. The same vicarious voyeurism is provoked by Cartier-Bresson’s shot, from Brussels in 1932, of two men peeping through a sacking partition, one of them apparently surprised in the act. Kertész returned to the theme in 1937 in the New World, though here the caption tells us that the chink through which the hatted man in a suit is peeping is that of a slaughterhouse.

Kertész had an abiding interest in limbs, or the lack of them. From 1930 comes a study of a seller of lily-of-the-valley, the blooms set out on a little collapsible stool, a bunch being offered to an indifferent woman in sensible shoes about to trot down some steps beside which the seller sits, lower than the stool, his stumps of thighs clad in serge trousering. There are other shots of an artificial leg on a bed, and of the legs of a shop-window dummy upside-down amid the odds and ends of a dusty workshop. To appreciate the wooden leg in the portrait of Clayton ‘Peg-Leg’ Bates (the frame of the photograph rising no higher than his hips), it helps to know that this entertainer made his career as a dancer.

Ernst Haas (1921-1986), born in Vienna, came from a younger generation, but died younger. His move to New York was post-war, his fascination with the city’s louring architectural masses sometimes expressed in colour images, such as a railway wagon in San Francisco in 1956, jammed between iron stanchions, steel ladders and wooden platforms, the scale given by a single figure, viewed from above so that his hard hat looks like a soup-plate. Haas liked objects to get in the way, breaking pictures up into a geometric abstract, as with his essay in shadows in Mexico, from 1970, where corners of tarpaulins suspended by cables cut into the parallels of a street. New York becomes for him a fragmented reflection on the oily surface on a wet road.

The pocket Ernest Haas, with its 67 A6 size illustrations (Thames & Hudson, £8.95) comes in the same Photofile introductory series as Berenice Abbott, at the same price. An American born in 1898 (and living until 1991), she shared some of Kertész and Haas’s interests in the shadows and patterns of New York streets (the nightmare industrial monumentalism of the Consolidated Edison Power House, New York, 1939; the flecked sun beneath the girders of the El at the Battery, 1936).

She, like Kertész, had matured her photographic ideas in Paris. There she caught on film, in the last year of his life, the great photographer of Paris, Eugène Atget (1857–1927), whose image of a cheese-wedge of old buildings between two Paris streets adumbrated her own study of the Flatiron Building in New York from 1934. In Paris too, in the late 1920s she took portraits of James Joyce and poor old Nora Barnacle (not yet his wife). How could they not be interesting?

We think, perhaps, like the 19th-century criminologist Cesare Lombroso, that the character can be read on the face. We are also tempted to imagine, against all evidence, that the work of writers and artists can be better understood by contemplating their portraits in oils or photographic emulsion. But could we really be sure from photographic evidence alone that Joyce, in tilted hat and striped tie, chunky rings upon two fingers, his defective eyes unfocused behind his glasses, was any more likely to be the author of Ulysses than Nora, with her crimped hair, string of pearls, smock-blouse, long upper lip and a frowning focus of the kind drunk people sometimes employ?

The convention of photographic portraiture is reduced to absurdity in Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography by Susan Bright (Thames & Hudson, £28), a large-format book with more than 300 colour illustrations. But where are the portraits? Zhang Huan, in 2001, before we had heard of Lady Gaga, wrapped himself in meat, complete with a long, flayed oxtail, and crouched face-down in sandy wasteland like a scorpion. Tracey Moffatt in 2005 presented a series of herself disguised as women born under the sign of Scorpio (as if that made any difference): Indira Gandhi, Anna Wintour, Hillary Clinton. In 2007 Yasumasa Morimura produced a number of pictures of himself as Einstein, Mao and Che. In 2004, Paul Jeff spent 24 hours in a hotel room with a woman acting out 50 love scenes ending in brutal murder, only, as it happened, the murders were a pretence. Vibeke Tandberg sat down in 2008 ‘to reveal a total failure in self-portraiture’, slumped on a chair in 36 exposures, her face obscured by a wig. All this is to do with performance and concealment. The photography is incidental.

It’s fairly hit and miss too in Face to Face: Ocean Portraits (Conway, £30), with pages of A4 size, but a little wider. From 1854, there is a splendid glass-plate wet-collodion image of Captain Parker of the Hull whaler Truelove — buttoned in a thick pea-jacket and all whiskers, eyebrows and creased eyes below his shiny mariner’s hat — taken by Captain (later Sir) Edward Inglefield. More of Inglefield’s astonishing images of Eskimos and explorers may be seen in the Maritime Museum at Greenwich, which also supplied for this book the brave pose of the superannuated actor Thomas Potter Cooke, photographed in 1853, in sailor’s costume, a cutlass between his teeth, reprising at the age of 68 one of the naval roles that had brought him fame 25 years earlier. By comparison with these, and a handful more, the book’s dozens of perfectly good contemporary photos of seafarers by Rick Tomlinson and Nigel Millard lose all interest.

More coherent as an album of history pictures is Shots from the Front: The British Soldier, 1914–18 (Harper Press, £11.99), 200 well-chosen images from the first world war, from Mesopotamia to Flanders. The text is by the admirabl e Richard Holmes. It does not wallow in the horror-porn beloved of some first world war documentaries. Indeed, the ragged corpse blown up by a shell to be caught on a tree bough resembles a papery fruit — a strange fruit indeed. There is much humanity: the driver from a Devon battalion asleep beside his resting horse; a group of survivors — grimly cheerful in woollen cap-comforters, muddy-kilted, down-puttee’d — of the London Scottish, which lost 321 of its 750 officers and men in its first battle.

A curious record from 1968 is Don McCullin’s A Day in the Life of the Beatles (Jonathan Cape, £20), which is not quite that, but the product of a long photo-shoot, in colour and black and white, in London, east of the old Sunday Times building in Gray’s Inn Road. The interest comes from the identity of the subjects and the photographer. The last picture in the book is one ‘where Lennon appeared to pose as if he were dead,’ McCullin writes. ‘I’m convinced he was staging his own death.’ Certainly, with Lennon’s head on the ground and open-eyed, Ringo’s hand solicitously on his forehead and a bare-chested Paul peering over anxiously, it looks as if some bad accident had occurred. There were another 12 years left to Lennon.

If Auto Focus is an antidote to portraiture, Michael Patoureau’s Chroma: Celebrating Colour in Photography (Thames & Hudson, £38, in a larger than A4 format, with 336 illustrations) almost achieves aversion therapy by the simple method of grouping pictures together under categories of red, green, black, yellow, blue and white. ‘Nowadays,’ we are told, ‘it is difficult to think of green without thinking of plants.’ After annihilating all that’s made in a few pages of spring wheat in Tuscany, a chameleon by moonlight, a bryony tendril, a copper workshop, a golf putting-green (in Turkey for some reason) and a bottle in the water, one never wants to have a green thought again. The same goes for the pages of lemons and corn-cobs. A better question for a photographer or painter is: what colour is the river?

I had almost put one more book, The Earth from the Air (Thames & Hudson, £45) in the ‘thanks, but no thanks’ pile, for Yan Arthus-Bartrand’s collection has become very well known since its appearance in 1999. Moreover, this amplified edition, with 100 new images, brings propagandistic lectures on climate change. A caption to a spiky column of wind turbines advancing on the Danish coast warns opponents that ‘resistance is fading’. But Christmas is coming and some specially reinforced stocking must still lack this tombstone-heavy volume, for each copy of which a renewable forest the size of the Isle of Wight is felled. And the trees are grateful.