La Fourchette (The Fork), 1928 by André Kertész
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I've often used this photograph of an example of how one can make a successful image without involving some famous scenic viewpoint, famous beautiful woman, famous moment from history, or naked babe. It is graphic simplicity at its best.
There are three parts of this photograph that make it interesting, at least to me. First, there is the graphic line and shadow. Classic design stuff. Bauhaus all the way. Quintessential early 20th century European aesthetics.
Second is the metaphorical rising line of hope in contrast to the empty bowl. The shadows of the tines descend down the slope into that white nothingness. Screams symbolism from the heights.
But these characteristics pale in comparison to the simple power of the moment. The harsh light casting the delineated shadow plays against the metallic surface; the angular shadow and tonal inversion of the tines is so yin/yang; and that out-of-frame point where we know the fork touches the table and provides stability in the point of the handle — at least the illusion of stability in that we know will not last. Perhaps I place too much emphasis on the projection of my emotions, but in the light of history and what we now know was to unfold in the coming years after this photograph was made, how can we look at this image as anything else? If were dated 1955, I know I would think differently about it.
Kertész personal history influences how I see this image, too. He was in transition, moving from his native Hungary to Paris in 1925. At that time, Paris was the center of so much of European culture and art — and Hungary was, well, not. Kertész found himself in a world that both fascinated and alienated him. He was in but not of the scene. Have you ever been in some place where you felt you just didn't quite fit in? It's as though everyone there is staring at you, seeing the odd duck that you are, under the glare of an inescapable spotlight. Kertész is the fork — balanced, but just barely, holding up through the strength of spine and will, but nonetheless tilting.
Perhaps all of this is — as the old Zen saying goes — merely putting legs on a snake. Maybe it's just a fork and a shadow. But if it were only that, I suspect it would be a forgettable image. Something in this composition strikes a chord with viewers that has kept it in the public eye for decades. Surely that must be more than merely what we can see, but must extend to what this photograph makes us feel.
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