By Francis Hodgson
Marc Quinn's 'Untitled' (2008)
When the great Hungarian photographer André Kertész lost his wife Elizabeth to cancer in 1977, he suffered a period of intense withdrawal close to a breakdown. For some time he remained in his apartment, just north of Washington Square Park, in New York, and repeatedly photographed many of the objects that he associated with her. By chance (and by the agency of Graham Nash, the great collector of photographs) the Polaroid Corporation gave him one of their SX-70 cameras, and that is the instrument that Kertész used to help him through his pain.
The lyrical close-ups of little artefacts that resulted are among the most evocative photographs there are. Photographed against the very same window through which Kertész had timidly peered 20 and more years before to make his famous views of Washington Square from above, the Polaroids are dense with compression. One little glass figure, photographed again and again, clearly stands for Elizabeth herself, its head angled in a tender bow, its translucency enriched by complicated reflections which seem to inhabit it as memories of her inhabited the photographer.
André Kertész's 'Self-portrait, May 6 1979'
Polaroid is obsolete technology now (the use-by date on the last batch of Polaroid film was October 9 of this year) but it was once all the rage. The selling point was that it was film which could be developed instantly, in the days before digital imaging. Polaroid was a direct positive process, the most successful one by far since the daguerreotype. Everything in between had been a variant of the negative-positive process deriving from William Fox Talbot. The corollary of Polaroid's immediacy was that each print was unique no negative meant no reprinting. (Sophisticated users were able to get into various Polaroid transfer processes, but the heart of the process was the single, unrepeatable immediate image.) So those lovely Kertész studies are not in any edition they are like sketches or oil paintings as opposed to bronzes or lithographs.