André Kertész is one of the great photographers of the 20th century although he did not get the fame and recognition he well deserved in his lifetime. His eye was exacting in structuring the elements in the frame and extremely curious in finding elements to photograph. His subjects ranged from a simple fork resting on the edge of a plate to extreme angles of the Eiffel Tower; from street views from high above to the distorted nudes; any many things in between. In this post, I would like to talk about one of his best-known photographs, the Melancholic Tulip.
You probably have seen his Melancholic Tulip many times, it is one of his most recognizable photographs. Have you really looked at it carefully to read it and read it right? It certainly has a sense of melancholy, a bit of sadness. I have seen attempts to replicate it without really coming close. I have read about it on various Web sites and they tend to equate the bent shape of the tulip to the broken feeling Kertész felt when the assignments diminished and he had not achieved the acclaim he well deserved. The photograph is seen as a self-portrait of “representative of his disillusionment over a stalled photographic career and difficult transition to life in America.” (Detroit Institute of Arts Blog)
Let us take a closer look at the photograph and state what appears to be obvious, click on the images to see them larger:
- The main subject is the elegantly curved tulip where the head of the flower is almost touching the base
- It seems to be placed in a cylindrical glass vase
- They stand against a neutral background which appears to have the qualities of brushed steel
Do you agree so far? Let me continue with the less obvious …
- The vase appears uneven about 2/3 of the way up from the base
- This makes the cylindrical vase to appear a little rippled
- What appears to be air bubbles stuck to the inside surface are neatly round at the top and the bottom of the vase but more and more elongated towards the middle
- The background has some kind of sheen and appears almost in front of the vase
- The mouth of the vase is angled as if the vase is curved, look at it in relation to the base of the vase
- And the most striking part of the photograph is the water surface which appears to stand at 45° angle, an impossibility
Kertész has produced a large body of work called Distortions which mostly used nudes as the main subject. Here is one which also shows the photographer as a tiny sliver of the image.
Notice the extraordinary distortion which creates a cubist delight. The model seems to be stretched in three directions and the light background areas show stretch marks similar to the middle portion of the vase above.
I think you have an idea where I’m going with this. The Melancholic Tulip is one of the distortion series photographs although I have not seen it presented in that context despite my reasonably good attempt to find that evidence. The post in the above link clearly identifies it as a photograph done with mirrors as in the distortion series. Despite the extreme bend in the stem of the tulip, I suspect most viewers take it as a long-stemmed tulip that could not resist the attraction of the gravity.
All the photographs in the Distortion series have surrealist, cubist, and whimsical elements which are probably hard to avoid. I have a sense that he truly relished the unique art he was creating and found the experience a total delight, if in nothing else, in the puzzling creations he presented to the viewers. Search for Kertész distortion and view many others and see if you share my sense of his joy in creating this body of work. He claimed that he had always been an amateur, he enjoyed looking around, finding what most missed, and presented them in his inimitable style.
Hungary has produced many great photographers, Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, Martin Munkácsi. Among those on this list, Kertész may be the only one who did not get the attention, admiration, and acclaim he well deserved in his lifetime. You will be well-served to know him, his work, and his other fellow countryman.
I am adding one of my photographs from 2007. I took it while watching the workshop participants play with a sheet of Mylar with highly reflective but easily bending surface. The sunflowers in the vase were bent in different directions depending on the buckling of the sheet and the camera angle. This is a very rough explanation of his far more refined technique. Kertész probably used a variety of surfaces that would bend to his will.
Addendum July 27, 2015
I have found another, more informative photograph by Kertész and am including it below.