Big deal. It's a guy staring at a broken bench. What makes that so great? At least that's what I thought before last week.
It turns out my friend George owns a print of this photo. Last week he brought it our monthly photo group and I got a good close look at the thing and, as some photos do when encountered for the first time in person, especially when wine is involved, it transformed.
The thing I noticed right off is that the man isn't looking at the bench after all. He's looking at the couple in the distance. I was never able to see this before on the web, and even looking at the photo in a book it's not very clear. But in a real live print his gaze is unmistakable, and it changes the whole photo.
Suddenly the couple isn't just a background element. It's the subject of the photo. The nearby bench? That's just a red herring. No, the couple is what the man is looking at. They're about 100 feet away. All of the sudden the picture's space has expanded, along with the mystery. What makes that couple so interesting? The man stopped at the bench presumably for a reason. Why isn't he looking at it? That question becomes the new twist.
Then there are the tones which I'd somehow never noticed before, probably because I'd never paid much attention to the couple. Looking last week I saw that the couple and the man's hands are small white islands in a sea of grey. What's more, these white islands form the corners of a triangle with the broken bench as sides. Like most of Kertész' best, this photo only works in greyscale.
Wow! How the heck did he see that? I'm looking at the photo years after he shot it and I can barely see it. But to approach such a scene in real life, calculate the forms and perspective, wait for the gaze and hands, and quickly whip off the frame? Dude was in a serious zone.
But the plot thickens. The day after seeing this photo I stumbled on some background info in The Ongoing Moment. According to Geoff Dyer, the couple is Kertész' wife, Elizabeth, talking to a mental patient she'd recently taken an interest in. The man with back to the camera is Frank Thomas, Elizabeth's business partner. And, oh yeah, one last thing. Frank Thomas is blind. He's not looking at anything.
So wait a minute. He knew the people? Was the whole thing a setup? Was he in a zone or wasn't he?
I'm afraid there's no black and white answer. Like the photo, any interpretation works in shades of grey. Of course those shades may shift over time.