Andre Kertesz’s ‘Chez Mondrian’ (1926) is one of those images that can teach you how to take better photographs.
It is an attentive study of light and shade. The composition sends your eye spinning gently round as if it’s trapped in a kind of soft orbit. From the flowers on the table, to the top of the banister, out of the open doorway, down the staircase, round the bottom step and returning to the vase. As you gently spin around this photographic merry-go-round other elements appear. Lines and squares emerge in form of the doorway, the doormat, patches of paint on the walls, the table and the negative spaces around it. The intersecting lines and blocks come together to form a lattice - making a direct reference to the resident of this room. A recognisable Mondrian grid slowly emerges from the photograph.
Shape, line, texture, light, shade and form all click into place within this image. It has a kind of magic trick behind it, like it could balance on a pin or spin elegantly, rotating endlessly like planet. Everything is just right and in equilibrium. This elegant composition is the result of concentrated looking and adjustment of camera and objects. It has an impression of a meticulous still life rather than an interior. Like a little dolls house, almost too perfect on the edge of the uncanny.
I teach photography in a college, it’s the start of term and last week I dug out my old Powerpoint show on composition. ‘Mondrian’s House’ is in there under the bit where I talk about ‘balance’. We look at the slide show and discuss the ways in which photographers use visual language to create meaning and to communicate. Students are sent off to make photographs that respond to a list of headings – shape, texture, form etc. This is the same task I did on my course over 20 years ago. It’s lesson 1: How speak photography.
Thing is, you can repeat lesson 1 - as many times as you like. In Tony Ray Jones’s famous notebook list of his ‘Approach’ to photography, 8 of his 13 reminders are about composition. This famous list of notes-to-self is a reminder of the really hard work behind really good photography. Kertesz’s image acts like a visual note – one that you can pull out at any time throughout your career, ‘re-read’ and apply to your own work.
I recently returned from Budapest where a tiny print of ‘Chez Mondrian’ opened an exhibition in the Hungarian House of Photography. The show included a mind-blowing amount of famous photographs collected over the last 30 years by New York gallery owner Howard Greenberg. It included what felt like ev-ery-one……Lange, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Arbus, Rodchenko, Capa, Friedlander, Weegee, Levitt and - not just ‘big names’ but ‘big images’ too. You know loads of them - James Dean smoking a cigarette on a rainy New York street, a soldier falling back at the very moment he is shot, a worried mother touches her face and looks into the distance while her children huddle around her. It’s the kind of exhibition that makes your head spin.
Often small prints (by todays standard) and black and white they sit, mounted and framed side by side in this elegant, domestic gallery – but there was some serious weight on those walls. Most of these images have been published all over the world they are heavy with significance. Some of the images have become a subject matter in their own right for other photographers and theorists and a point of reference for contemporary photography’s thirst to examine itself.
The curator Károly Kincses describes the collection as “…integral parts of the universal history of photography. Classics. Almost required viewing for all students – beginner, intermediate and advanced”.
Phew! Rather than inspired, leaving an exhibition like this can make you feel a little flattened by the greats – the canon has sat right down and squashed you. The history of photography booms in a big joke god-like voice, ”What are YOU going to do now little photographer?” Well, I am going to take it with me and use it. Like my young students creating answers to the composition task over half term I join them in the on-going pursuit of distilling my way of looking. These images work as lessons – all we have to do is look and take notice.