The power of reading
The Guardian -2009 (B. Morrison)
One memorable image features a boy sitting in a New York doorway in 1944, amid a heap of newspapers left there to alleviate the wartime shortage ("Paper is needed now! Bring it at any time," reads the poster behind him). Times are hard yet the boy looks perfectly happy: amid the detritus, he has found a page of comic strips.
One of my favourite André Kertész photographs shows two young men sitting with their backs to a tree, each absorbed in a book.
- Both are wearing glasses;
- both use their thighs as a lectern;
- the one facing forwards is black, the other, in profile (a dead ringer for Woody Allen), is white.
- Their proximity suggests they know each other and are friends.
And given the time and place of the composition, the photo could serve as an icon of the civil rights movement – racial harmony as observed in Washington Square, New York City, 1969. What's equally striking, though, is how separate the two men are, how oblivious to each other's presence (and to the camera). They might be friends but their real companions are their books.
Kertész's subjects are often people you wouldn't expect to see reading. What the camera captures is their thirst for knowledge or hunger to escape their circumstances.
- The Bowery bum retrieving a newspaper from a wastebin;
- a woman kneeling over a text in a Manila market;
- circus performers and street vendors snatching time between work duties to peruse a book or magazine –