Work in Progress: Before Going to the Front, Hungary, 1916

12 Nov

I was at Strand Books the other day, waiting for none other than Andrew McCarthy (yes, that Andrew McCarthy) to read at a food and travel writing event, when I spied this little volume of photos: André Kertész: The Early Years. It’s a really beautiful little book, full of tiny works, about the size of contact photos. I’d never heard of the photographer before (I’m not that well-versed in the art world though I love photography) and I was struck by how clear and precise his images were. He later moved to larger photos (once he could afford it) but there’s something striking about these little pictures, like the cameos that the Victorians carried on their persons of loved ones. Each photo is like a little memorial. I’ve been flipping through it for inspiration.

Here’s one based on the photograph of the same name:


Before Going to the Front, Hungary, 1916

– After André Kertész

The cellist anchors his instrument
in the dirt, its tail spike finding a groove
in the rutted road side, and begins to play,
his finger pads hardened by years of this
action, the alternating bowing and picking, gentle
or savage depending on the piece,
the movement, the wavering pencil work
on his copy of the concerto.

Today he does not need to brush back
his coat tails, wing the twin swallows
of his black-polished tuxedo
before he sits. His soldier’s uniform
is utilitarian olive drab, the buttons
flat discs of wood, his shined boots
the only spangle of ornamentation.

The others, dressed like him,
their knapsacks full of rationed bread,
gather to one side, listen to the rise in his cello’s
open belly, the wild keening he coaxes
stoking their own throats.  Their swallowed
goodbyes blend into the trafficked air.

2 Responses to “Work in Progress: Before Going to the Front, Hungary, 1916”

  1. Mark Olague November 12, 2010 at 7:26 pm #

    Jhoanna, the poet George Szirtzes wrote a whole cycle of poems about these photos, several of which were published a few months back (maybe a year) in Poetry magazine. You’re right–they are amazing photos. I especially like the one with the soldiers all sitting on a latrine.


    • jhointhecity November 14, 2010 at 4:31 am #

      Mark, Is there anything you haven’t read? Thanks for connecting the pieces. I spent quite some time on the interwebs last night following the trail from Andre Kertesz to George Szirtes to some book by Geoff Dyer on art and Kertesz’s work in particular and then to Szirtes’ blog and around again. I’m going to have to get hold of THE BUDAPEST FILE, as well as Dyer’s THE ONGOING MOMENT.
      The strange thing was that last night, at another reading (about a totally different subject) at another bookstore, I happened on another book of Kertesz’ photos. Either that man really got around (haha) or he’s now like pregnant ladies. You know, you know one, you know a thousand.
      Anyway, thanks again for your comments. I’m going to try not to compare my stuff to Szirtes, though probably unsuccessfully.

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