In the history of photography and in photographic theory, there are a few icons, a few images that are discussed in almost every book on photography that exists. One such image is André Kertész’s Meudon, 1928.
Apart from approaching this piece of work – first published in 1945 in New York – from a descriptive point of view there are several other ways to understand and analyse it. And although Baque tells us “The photographic oeuvre of André Kertész resists analysis and frustrates commentary. Because it is never systematic, it seems to have been wrought haphazardly, on a chance encounter or occasion”, nevertheless theorists and authors come back to it time and time again.
A first observation about Meudon has to be made in regards to it’s relationship to surrealist art. One only needs to look at Di Chirico’s paintings to see several parallels become obvious.
At the same time, several authors try to describe the moment of the taking of the picture with “opportune magic”, André Breton’s concept, or noting “an acute sense of the “circumstantial magic” in his photographs, one of the three criteria of “convulsive beauty” identified by Breton. “Circumstantial magic” is directly present in Meudon (1928) [...]” (Baque 1994: 88).
Kertész himself might have used methods which might relate him directly to the surrealists – as Naef writes: “Kertész avoided planar, frontal compositions – which he associated with the documentary aesthetic – in favor of seeing his subjects from the unexpected angles that were highly personal to him” (Naef 1994: 24). But he does so in a very subtle manner, subliminal and never forced, “If sometimes he keenly perceived the surreal in the real, he kept it subtle.” (Bohan 1994: 22).
Kertész is the archetypical “flaneur”, the “strolling photographer” (Koetzle 2011: 134); a photographer that is using the city as a fountain of infinite photographic opportunities.
It might be easy to see Meudon 1928 as a photographic work in relationship to the “decisive moment” as Gerry Badger does. “This is clearly a “decisive moment” picture, a particular instant in time when Kertesz […] decided to press the shutter. […]” (Badger 2007: 11). However this would mean to seriously ignore the actual sequence of images Kertész produced to create the now famous final image.
These images make Meudon 1928 not a spontaneous photograph (as Kertész has described it himself (see Badger 2007: 11)). The series rather serves as evidence that the photograph was very consciously set up and composed. The background that is visible in all three existing images seems like a stage: “[...] the architecture [...] and the viaduct in the deep background, lend the picture a tangibly stage-like quality“ (Koetzle 2011: 133).
By taking the picture at exactly this moment, Kertész provides us with more than just an instant of a street. The man in the foreground (about whom a lot has been speculated, see Koetzle and Badger) and the train in the background complement each other. This image is not about freezing a moment, it is about movement and contrasts. The people are a part of the image and together with the background form the image. “[...] Kertesz preferred the relationship of the city and certain of its inhabitants: his sense of form continued to be enriched by the impact of emotion” (Bohan 1994: 25).
Through this, the image has continuous actuality, although being almost 100 years old. Clarke manages to describe the image most clearly: “This is an image full of questions and visual puzzles and places the suburbs of Paris in the context of an unsettling sense of the strange. Every detail, as much as the bizarre set of circumstances and coincidences it captures, has significance” (Clarke 1997: 95).
And another thing becomes visible if one researches this particular street. Kertész might have been influenced by a painter to go there and take this particular photograph, capturing this particular moment. In 1911, Lyonel Feininger (father of photographer and photography teacher Andreas Feininger) produced The Viaduct, Meudon.
The similarities of the painting and the photograph are striking: man in the foreground with hat, people in the mid-section of the image, moving train in the background. Painting has influenced photography, also at this early stage in the photographic history, not only through more recent photographic artists like Jeff Wall.
To answer the question of what Meudon 1928 is about is certainly a considerable task. Ultimately perhaps it can be distilled to being about modern life. About today.
References and Further Reading:
Badger, Gerry (2007): The Genius of Photography. How Photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited. (see also Sally’s article on The Genius of Photography)
Baque, Dominique (1994): The French Period (1925-1936). Paris, Kertesz: Elective Affinities. In: Borhan, Pierre (1994): Andre Kertesz: His Life and Work. Bulfinch Press Book / Little, Brown and Company. 83-196.
Borhan, Pierre (1994): Andre Kertesz: His Life and Work. Bulfinch Press Book / Little, Brown and Company.
Clarke, Graham (1997): The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History (Oxford History of Art). Oxford University Press.
Koetzle, Hans-Michael (2011): 50 Photo Icons. The Story behind the Pictures. Taschen.
Naef, Weston (Hg.) (1994): In Focus: Andre Kertesz: Photographs from the J.Paul Getty Museum. The J. Paul Getty Museum.