Each of the sixty photographs in Kertész’s book On Reading is a particular portrait and an interruption of a particular story which we can never know. Fortunately each image is indescribable in words. Appearances have their own language.
Yet, turning the pages of the book and watching image follow image, I learnt something which I had never noticed before and which I think I can describe.
Usually when we read a newspaper or book, we hold it in our hands. Meanwhile what we’re reading, whether it is a news item or a poem or a philosophical thesis, takes our attention and a part of our imagination elsewhere.
The child who reads runs panting into the next mystery; the old man remembers. But both of them travel.
Even the reading of a simple word like DANGER or EXIT invokes a displacement: at that moment we foresee danger or imagine following the exit sign.
When the words add up to sentences and the sentences fill whole pages and the pages tell a story, the displacement becomes a journey and the pages become a vehicle, a means of transport. Nevertheless, while reading we hold the pages very still. Thus there is a tension between the manual gesture and the travelling. Long before man could fly, this journey was like flying. Those who first read Homer flew to Troy.
Now Kertész, in photo after photo, reminds us of this. We see readers holding on to pages which are taking off into the air or which have just landed from the air.
The double meaning of the word missile (signifying both letter and rocket) is revealing. It s no coincidence that among the sixty photos in the book, no less than twelve show readers on balconies and the roofs of buildings, which are like launch pads.
The same applies, however, to the old woman reading in her four-poster bed or the wardrobe assistant sprawled on a bench or the kids (of whom we see only the knees) reading in a waiting room.
All of them hold the pages as if those pages were only in momentary contact with the ground, as if they were about to defy gravity or had just done so.
The volatile act of reading!
When we ourselves read, we feel this. What I learnt from Kertész’s pictures, and what I didn’t realise before, is that this can be seen in the gestures and the body of anybody reading. And for this insight we are once again in the Hungarian photographer’s debt.
First published in German translation in Die Weltwoche in 1996 and published in English for the first time in the new collection Understanding a Photograph, edited and introduced by Geoff Dyer. Published in Penguin Modern Classics as part of the ‘Penguin on Design’ series in paperback and eBook in the UK and other territories, and in hardcover by Aperture in the US. Read more.
John Berger was born in London in 1926. His acclaimed works include the seminal Ways of Seeing and the novel G, which won the Booker Prize in 1972. He left Britain permanently in 1962 and lives in a small village in the French Alps.
Understanding a Photograph brings together groundbreaking essays and previously uncollected pieces in which Berger probes the work of leading photographers – and the lives of those photographed – with intensity and tenderness. The cover features ‘The Kiss’ by Kertész, of which Berger states “What makes it an uncommon photograph is that the special coherence of everything we see in it… instigates the idea of the stroke dividing decorum/desire, clothed/unclothed, occasion/privacy. And such a division is a universal adult experience.”