A lyrical fork

WHILE developing his craft in Paris during the late 1920s and early '30s, that most fecund period in 20th century cultural history, the late Hungarian-born photographer Andr'e Kert'esz also developed a preoccupation with shadows. His photographs from this period are typically of ordinary objects, people, or street scenes, and often the very banality of his subject -- a chair, a streetlamp, a storefront -- focuses the viewer's attention even more acutely on its shadow -- as if the shadow were the repository of the subject's secret life. In ``Fork,'' one of the most celebrated and influential of his early photographs, Kert'esz not only treats a common object aesthetically, as an abstract sculptural phenomenon, but also imbues it with a lyrical, romantic quality. The key to the photograph's impact is the fork's shadow, which seems to have a life of its own, a reality separate from and perhaps greater than the object it reflects. The shadow of the fork, for example, is distorted in the manner of all shadows, and yet the shadow better exposes the subtle tension between line and curve, straightness and sinuosity, than the object itself. It is the shadow that animates the fork, and without it the photograph would be lifeless.

Kert'esz uses the shadow positively, as a symbol for inner meaning despite its history of negative connotations. Plato, for example, in his ``The Myth of the Cave,'' uses shadow to distinguish between his ideal of the Good and its counterfeit. Like echoes and dreams, shadows commonly represent illusions, yet some philosophers and theologians have taken the symbolism a step further by equating life itself, the physical world of appearances, with the mere shadows of higher spiritual reality. Shakespeare, in Macbeth's anguished soliloquy during Act V, implies that life is no more ``real'' in time than in space by using the shadow as a metaphor for life's ephemerality:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. . . .

In refreshing contrast with all this doom and gloom, Robert Louis Stevenson projects the child's wonder and whimsy on shadows in his poem, ``My Shadow'' from ``A Child's Garden of Verses'': I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, And what can be the use of him is more than I can see. He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head; And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The work of certain visual artists, like Kert'esz, also reflects a far more positive attitude toward shadows. The shadow puppet theater of Southeast Asia, for example, concentrates the audience's attention on the abstract essences of shape, silhouette, and gesture. The American Surrealist artist Joseph Cornell described his shadowboxes as ``poetic theatres or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime.'' In his boxes the shadows infuse the objects with an aura of mystery and memory.

Kert'esz's fascination with shadows suggests a similar interpretation. In his photographs he treats shadows as the correlative of the creative process itself -- the work of art is the shadow of substance, its effect, its residue, its meaning. He not only records but selects the shadows, and in that conjunction of chance and choice the shadows acquire their power of revelation. Diana Loercher Pazicky

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