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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

An Explorer from the Past

Andre Kertész — Exploring the Self

The theme of this section is The Explorers: photographers who go somewhere and send back a report of what they find and see. It's easy to think of this in the physical sense as when a photographer visits an exotic location and sends back their beautiful landscape photographs. Andre Kertész' visits, and exploration, were of a different kind; he explored himself. A friend of mine is fond of saying that self-photography as a form of psychotherapy makes bad psychotherapy and bad photographs. Kertész might be the exception that proves the rule. I'm not sure I would say that his photographs are a form of self-psychotherapy as much as they are a form of self-discovery, or maybe even a form of visual diary. Kertész is one of great masters of creating in the visual form of a photograph a representation of how he feels. For me, his images are successful not because he parades himself in front of us with a greedy attitude of "look at me," but rather because he presents us with a curiously detached perspective that seems to say, "this is what I observe that I am feeling — isn't that curious?" His images are not exhibitionism, but rather an attempt at self-commentary.

The other element of Kertész' images — that helps him avoid the self-referential navel-gazing that has become so popular in current years — is that he sees himself both in contrast to and as a component part of his adopted city, New York. I've described the explorer as one who goes to an exotic location and shares with us the results of what they find and photograph. To Kertész, New York City was an exotic location. Born and raised in Hungary, and then later spending his formative years in Paris as a result of relocation before the war, he eventually came to New York City where — as his archivist and biographer Robert Gurbo so astutely pointed out — he never did quite feel at home. The exotic nature of New York never really left him, and it was against that backdrop of the unfamiliar that he found himself searching, within himself, for something comforting. It's not evident from his photographs that he ever completely found it.

The great inspiration from Kertész is easily seen when we contrast his images to those of Cindy Sherman. Cindy Sherman's self-referential images are about Cindy Sherman as a metaphor and we may or may not find her and her images interesting, let alone captivating. Because Cindy Sherman photographs Cindy Sherman, we're likely to be interested in them only if we find her commentary on society interesting. By comparison, Andre Kertész photographs Andre Kertész, but he does so in such a way that all of us can see ourselves in his images. His images are not solely about him, but about the universal emotions that he manifests in a way that we can see ourselves in his images — as well as how Kertész sees himself.

I love the advice that E.B. White gave to young writers: "If you want to be a good novelist, don't write about Man, but write about a man." I think the same can be said for photography. If our project attempts to show too large of a subject, we fail because of the very breadth of the attempt. We're better off to say one thing well about an aspect of something, rather than try to say everything (but poorly) that can be said about a topic. Kertészs does just exactly that, but he also understands the other side of the coin. If the novel (or photographic project) is only about an individual and has no universal component, then we can't relate to it— and it seems remotely detached. Kertész understood the razor's edge where we say something specific about an individual while simultaneously saying something universal that every viewer can relate to. Viewing Kertész' body of work tells us about Kertész — but it also extends far beyond Kertész, and tells us about humanity —  and that is what makes his photographs so incredibly inspiring. Whether you are a landscape photographer, a portraitist, a still life constructionist, a fanciful Photoshop maven, or a photographer of botanical still lives, if your work can serve both sides of this yin/yang puzzle — the specific and the universal — it will be a more powerful expression that connects more deeply with a broader audience.