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[A slightly different version of this essay, with photographs, appeared in Place Images in Media, edited by Leo Zonn (Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1990, pp. 31-61). Photographs not included in this web version because of copyright issues].


Toward a Phenomenology of Belonging:

The New York Photographs of André Kertész


David Seamon


This essay examines the New York photographs of André Kertész (1894‑1985), one of the great pioneers of modern photography.[i] Kertész's work is significant phenomenologically because it presents sensitive portraits of the way that things and people belong or do not belong to the world in which they find themselves immersed (figures 1 & 2). In one sense, Kertész's photographs are an implicit phenomenological record because they portray the fabric, style and tenor of the lifeworld—the ordinary, tacit pattern and elements of life's everydayness, normally taken‑for‑granted but given direct scholarly attention in phenomenology.


This essay focuses on photographs in Kertész's Of New York... , published in 1976 and including almost 200 pictures of New York sites and situations taken  between the early 1930s and mid‑1970s.[ii] My aim is twofold: first, to examine the underlying qualities of the lifeworld suggested by Kertész's photographs, especially the way they illustrate human immersion in the world; and, second, to identify phenomenologically the underlying pattern and process that sustains the vividness and power of Kertész's lifeworld presentations. 


Ideally, the best way to examine Kertész's photographs phenomenologically would be to assemble a group of people interested in his work and have them examine the feelings and experiences they gain from his photographs. Here, I present only my experiences and interpretation of Kertész's work. In this sense, the interpretation is tentative and eventually needs confirmation, correction, and extension in terms of other beholders' experiences.


This chapter offers my personal understanding of Kertész's photographs from the viewpoint of what they say about peoples' relationship with world. First, I discuss the phenomenological interpretation of the person‑world relationship, drawing particularly on philosopher Martin Heidegger's picture of human immersion‑in‑world.[iv] Second, I examine several Kertész photographs to illustrate variations of this person‑environment immersion. Third, using Heidegger's notions of "readiness‑to‑hand" versus "presence‑to‑hand" and "belonging together" versus "belonging together," I seek to understand phenomenologically the underlying dynamics that make Kertész's photographs so powerful.[v]



A major focus of phenomenology is the way people exist in their world. Perhaps the most thorough explication of people‑in‑the‑world has been provided by Heidegger, who argues that, in conventional philosophy and psychology, the person‑world relationship has fallen into idealist or realist prejudice‑‑either world is said to be a function of person; or person, a function of world.[vi] A dichotomy arises between person and world, and the result is a misunderstanding and misphrasing of how human existence is in relation to world.


Heidegger argues that people do not exist apart from the world but, rather, are immersed in it. This situation‑‑always given, never escapable‑‑is what he calls being‑in‑the‑world or Dasein. Heidegger believes that we can discover intellectual ways to become more aware of our existential immersion in world. Here, I argue that a phenomenological study of Kertész's New York scenes provides one means for probing and clarifying the nature of this immersion.


When I first saw Kertész's photographs, they said something to me that I didn't understand. Yet I felt close to them and sensed they could reveal something important if I gave them attention. As I began to study the photographs, I realized that, in one sense, they provide a visual articulation of human being‑in‑the‑world.[vii] Kertész had the ability to present situations in which the taken‑for‑grantedness of themes like nearness and farness, form and space, aloneness and togetherness, and individual and multiple worlds are brought into question. His photographs suggest that, in some way, there is a binding in the world beyond its parts and beyond spatial and temporal qualities that we normally take as given and inescapable.


The simplest way in which Kertész gets us to question and to see afresh our relationship to the world is through incongruity, either perceptual or in terms of things unusually juxtaposed (figures 3, 4 & 5). We know the world that Kertész portrays is as it is but because of unusual reflection, vantage point, or relationship that is‑ness is momentarily suspended, and we are both in and out of that world at the same time. This simultaneous experience of separation and reunion evokes in us, the beholders, a tension between "yes, it is" and "no, it isn't." We feel surprise or amusement in the less powerful examples and wonder and compassion in the photographs‑‑generally involving people‑‑that evoke a deeper version of this tension.


One example is a photograph portraying a puddle reflecting the Empire State Building (figure 3).[viii] When we first look, we are not sure what we see‑‑an up‑side‑down building? A collage? An error in printing? We are puzzled and look at the photograph more attentively. Suddenly, we realize that the seeming confusion is a reflection in water. We are both relieved and surprised. We say, "How clever!" and may laugh as disorder suddenly makes sense.


Here, Kertész fosters a particular kind of directed attention to the world‑‑what we shall learn shortly that Heidegger calls "presence‑to‑hand." The confusion of the pattern motivates us, the beholders, to pay more heed: the photograph becomes an object of greater attention partially housed in the lack of order, which pushes us along to look more keenly, with the result that we suddenly see that the picture does in fact make sense. In the moment of clarity, there is a release of emotional energy as disorder releases itself into pattern. We feel an "aha!" experience. Suddenly, an ordinary puddle and its reflection becomes special because they have grabbed our attention and invoked a feeling of surprise.


In photographs where Kertész uses juxtaposition in a more powerful way, there is generally some relationship between people and world or people and people that gives us pause and touches deeper emotional places within us such as regard or wonder. For example, in Kertész's photograph of a midget giving a coin to a blind couple (figure 4), we feel admiration for a man who, himself no doubt sometimes the victim of prejudice, can generously give to others who also may find the world difficult. In a photograph of ballet dancers performing for children in a run‑down New York neighborhood (figure 5), we sense the unlikelihood of high art in the midst of poverty, and note the pleasure of the onlookers.


In terms of our relationship with the world, these photographs involve various tensions: between yes/no, order/disorder, like/like or like/unlike. These photographs jar our normal sense of the world and allow us to see it afresh through the emotion evoked by the unusual juxtaposition. We respond before we know it with surprise, chuckles, or appreciation. 



The photographs discussed above touch us because they break us free from our taken‑for‑grantedness. They do not, however, really expose and question the very nature of that taken‑for‑grantedness, baring its essential composition and consistency. In fact, there are photographs in Kertész's New York collection that offer such exposure, and I turn to them now. From a phenomenological point of view, it could be argued that these photographs are Kertész's most powerful because they fracture and throw into question the usual way in which we know and experience our world, particularly in terms of formal, spatial, temporal and interpersonal experiences. 


To look at the photograph in figure 6,for example, is to see space and distance obliterated as we normally know them. Taken at the base of a steep outdoor stair, this photograph generates a sense of perceptual depth and power: The space between camera and world seems immense and overwhelming; it is an invisible presence that wraps around the buildings and stair and shoots up with force into the sky.


This photograph begins with the same perceptual surprise as the puddle reflection of figure 3 ut emotionally penetrates more deeply because of the spatial force. In terms of taken‑for‑grantedness, the most striking aspect of this photograph is that physical distances dissolve as the space behind and within the buildings seems as close as the space directly in front. As in the abstract paintings of Picasso and Braque, nearness and farness exist simultaneously and, in that sense, physical space is shattered. Objects, parts, divisions, and distances are brought into question. Through the dynamism of the space, separation is transfigured into unity.


Kertész also uses this dissolution of space to portray the interconnectedness of human worlds, and one of the best examples is his photograph of the New York waterfront (figure 7). Kertész uses the bird's eye view of the stevedore to record the docks as microcosm. River, shore, humanmade elements and people are gathered through the actions and aims of this place. At one level, there is distance‑‑aerial perspective‑‑that provides Kertész the means for recording this world and showing its interconnected parts. At the same time, however, the photograph collapses the sense of space between rooftop and ground, people and ships, water and land. There is a feeling of unity and interrelationship. Ironically, Kertész has created a picture of human togetherness and fusion through distance and perspective: the waterfront world is invoked through the collapse of its physical apartness. Similar to Heidegger's picture of being‑in‑the‑world, there is the suggestion that a world is a whole that is somehow more than the sum of parts and spatial relationships.


Many of Kertész's New York photographs portray the particular ways and styles in which people are immersed in their world. These photographs illustrate the range of existential relationship through which people can be a part of or apart from place and time. The photograph of the woman in window (figure 1) illustrates deep immersion and involvement with world.


This woman converts her surroundings into a place by giving those surroundings a center. Making use of incongruity, this photograph first draws our attention to the formal qualities of the built environment‑‑a series of abstract surfaces and planes that are sharp and compositional. Suddenly, however, we see in the midst of this formal pattern, a person and her world. We are surprised, hopeful, and encouraged that a human figure can humanize this geometric environment and transform it into a world of at‑homeness and shelter.


Through our surprise that this photograph portrays a lifeworld, we loose our vantage point as on‑lookers. We look down on the woman as, at the same time, the strikingness of the photograph draws us into her world. Perspective looses its standpoint, and we view and enter this world simultaneously. We are both inside and out, and through this tension we are touched emotionally.


Other New York photographs, in contrast, portray people severed from the worlds in which they find themselves. Kertész's photograph of a solitary man on a wharf (figure 8) projects a sense of alienation and despair heightened by the bleakness of the weather and the isolated human stances, separated in thought and experience even though close physically. In the individual figure fractured existentially from his surroundings yet within them bodily, one finds a major theme in Kertész's presentations of the lifeworld‑‑isolated personal worlds within the same physical space.


This theme is also portrayed in the photograph of figure 9. The small human figure is overwhelmed by a dark, oppressive wall that, ironically‑‑at a purely formal level‑‑projects a certain aesthetic attractiveness. This photograph‑‑in its juxtapositions of tiny man/imposing world and formal beauty/environmental degradation‑‑offers another rendition of human alienation and, in this case, environmental intimidation and oppression.


On the other hand, Kertész illustrates the integration of many individual worlds into one world. The above photograph of the New York waterfront (figure 7) is one example of this integration, as is the picture of a war‑memorial statue, in front of which are a group of people watching a public event, probably a parade (figure 2). Distance here is collapsed between beholder and people in the photograph. We are drawn into the picture as our eye moves from the lifeless statue figures to the living human figures to a sense of selfness. At the same time, there is a temporal quality: the memorial to the soldiers and the sense of history and death contrast with the living figures, particularly the priest who stands higher and slightly apart from the people nearby. Our humanness and mortality are brought to presence and we feel a sense of warmth and connection with time and our fellow men and women.


Kertész's photograph of two men on their back patio in the midst of Greenwich Village (figure 10) presents one of his most powerful variations on the theme of worlds: private and public worlds are presented together, yet how apart they are! The viewer brings attention to how specific lives can proceed as the world beyond continues unnoticed and unnoticing. This photograph articulates peoples' individual worlds in the midst of the life around them. There is a sense of stability and place in relation to the larger world's rhythm and unconcern. One feels the sense of privacy that these two men have and can read in all sorts of stories: that they are lovers, that they are friends, that one has lost his lover and is comforted by the other. Perhaps this is the wonderful thing‑‑that in these men, we see ourselves in relation to the world. We realize in a fresh way that life can go on disinterested as our own world has its series of specific moments, all in sharp focus. Here again is this theme of multiple worlds‑‑of all sorts of worlds going on simultaneously and oblivious to each other yet coming together in environment and creating place. 



The next question to ask is how Kertész's photographs work to present immersion‑in‑world so vividly and evoke a resonance in the beholder? To explore this question, it is useful to introduce Heidegger's notions of readiness‑to‑hand (Zuhandenheit) and presence‑to‑hand (Vorhandenheit), two primary modes of being, according to Heidegger, through which people relate to their world.


In readiness‑to‑hand, the world and its parts have a direct relationship to the person through need and use. Readiness‑to‑hand is established automatically by people's everyday engagement in the world as they work, move, relax, play, converse, entertain, and so forth. My coffee cup, on the right side of my desk, is readily grasped by my hand and I drink. My word processor nearby is ready for writing, and I swing around, move my fingers on the keys, and project thoughts onto screen. Through use and need, the cup and machine have become an integral part of my world‑‑a ready, tacit extension of self. This integral, unself‑conscious relationship between self and elements of the world is readiness‑to‑hand. It first involves use that, in turn, establishes and requires a field of automatic, pre‑conscious relationship among user, things, and world. 


If one returns to Kertész's New York photographs, one realizes that many of them provide pictures of readiness‑to‑hand. In checking her plants, the woman in the window illustrates a readiness‑to‑hand in relation to home, building, and vegetation; she is bound to these things of her world; they are as much a part of her as her own self. As the two men on the rooftop talk, their building and the surrounding neighborhood are all there for them tacitly, a taken‑for‑granted part of their selfness.


In both situations, the relationship with the world is present without need for articulation. This bond with the world is exactly in tune with the needs and manifestations of the people. Person and world are in sink, and the situation can unfold with minimum planned intervention or directedness. People and world are fitted to each other‑‑they are part and parcel.


This fit between people and world is true even in the photographs that portray alienation or sadness: though the solitary figures on the wharf and beneath the wall may not be pleased with their situation in life, they are still caught up in that world, and in that sense, the melancholy or malaise is an integral part of their worlds' readiness‑to‑hand.


In the fact that Kertész's photographs foster awareness of readiness‑to‑hand, one realizes that Kertész's work intimates another mode of relationship with the world: a situation where it is an object of attention and comes forth in our conscious awareness. This mode of relationship is what Heidegger calls presence‑to‑hand‑‑situations where we meet the world as an entity separate from us, as a thing of attention or an object of study. The screen of my word processor suddenly goes blank, for example, and immediately must be given direct attention. No longer is the machine a taken‑for‑granted field through which I automatically write; rather, it has become an object in my awareness because it no longer works as it should.


The potential danger of viewing the world in terms of presence‑to‑hand is that the world becomes our conception of it, and that conception may be out of touch with what the world really is. Readiness‑to‑hand, in contrast, is always established by life as it actually happens. Therefore, meanings established through readiness‑to‑hand are necessarily so because the working of the lifeworld would collapse if those meanings were not accurate.


For this reason, Heidegger argues that presence‑to‑hand is a less fundamental mode of being‑in‑the‑world than readiness‑to‑hand because the latter, through its usage quality, establishes the original meaning of things and the connections these things have with their  world. I would not normally, for example, make my cup an object of attention if first of all its "cupness" were not established in the world of everyday usage. 


Readiness‑to‑Hand and Presence‑to‑Hand in Kertész's Photographs

            Kertész's photographs present portray readiness‑to‑hand through a particular kind of presence‑to‑hand that has an emotional force. Through direct attention evoked by the photograph, the viewer discovers readiness‑to‑hand, which in turn becomes a focus of meaning. In figures 1.2 and 6.1, for example, we see the worlds of the woman and spectators through directed looking‑‑that is, a readiness‑to‑hand. We have a relationship with these worlds much different than if we, in our own everydayness, looked down from our own apartment and watched the woman at the window or the parade spectators. Because these worlds of taken‑for‑grantedness have become objects of attention for us the beholders (as well as, originally, for Kertész) we see them in a new way even as their subject‑matter relates to readiness‑to‑hand.


Before we examine the exact relationship between presence‑to‑hand and readiness‑to‑hand in Kertész's photographs, we must clarify more exactly the nature of presence‑to‑hand evoked by Kertész's work, since it seems different from Heidegger's notion, which emphasizes a cognitive, often disinterested, relationship with the world.


Heidegger makes no claim that his particular kind of presence‑to‑hand and readiness‑to‑hand are the only ways of being in the world.[ix] Considering Heidegger's discussion of presence‑to‑hand in relation to Kertész's work suggests another mode whereby, even as we are separate from the world, we feel it more deeply. In other words, there is a means of objectifying the world through a strand of emotional involvement. Ironically, we become closer to readiness‑to‑hand through a distancing generated by a concernful presence‑to‑hand. Somehow, Kertész's photographs foster both farness and nearness at the same time. Though awareness and presence‑to‑hand, there is a reunion with readiness‑to‑hand in a heightened way.


As some aesthetic theories claim, art may concretize emotional experience and therefore be a language of feeling.[x] The artist is touched affectively by a particular thing, event, or situation; this emotional force leads to an art work that may evoke a similar emotional resonance in the beholder. The mode of presence‑to‑hand generated through Kertész's photos involves this emotional strand and joins us with readiness‑to‑hand.


The winter wharf scene (figure 8) is one clear example of this mode of presence‑to‑hand. Our attention moves to the solitary man and we sense a mood of melancholy and solitaire. The bleakness of the weather, the isolated stance of the human figures, their separation in thought and world even though close physically‑‑all help evoke a feeling of blueness and draw us, the beholders, into this emotional sphere as, at the same time, we look on, perhaps relating the scene to a similar moment in our own lives or imagining the inner situation of the man on the wharf. In the same way, we enter the woman's world of plants in the window or the two men's world of intimate conversation. Through these worlds' becoming objects of intellectual and emotional attention, we feel the presence of these worlds and become more attentive to them.


A central dimension of Kertész's photography, therefore, is an affectionate on‑looking that leads to heightened awareness of everydayness. Through looking at worlds of readiness‑to‑hand via an affective mode of presence‑to‑hand, we see those everyday worlds through a field of empathy. Phenomenologically, it can be said that Kertész's photographs promote a special kind of bracketing‑‑a particular way of separating from the lifeworld and seeing it afresh. Kertész shows us that the wonder of the tacit is always present, but we‑‑caught up in our own everydayness and obliviousness‑‑don't normally notice it. Kertész brings this wonderment to our attention, and we feel surprise, pleasure, compassion, or gladness.


Throughout the comments Kertész made about his work, he emphasized the crucial value of emotion in supporting and guiding his ability to identify special moments in the world and to photograph them. In one interview, he explained that "My work is inspired by my life. I express myself through my photographs. Everything that surrounds me provokes my feelings."[xi] Later, in the same interview, he pointed out that each event or situation that drew his interest evoked a particular emotional sense that underlay and directed the moment of photographing. This moment is impossible to analyze because it happened in its own particular moment in its own particular way: 


You have different feelings with each happening‑‑good ones and bad ones: a killer can be an artistic person; wars are fought in beautiful landscapes. But I cannot analyze my work. People often ask, "How did you do this photograph?" I do not know, the moment came. I know beforehand how it will come out. There are few surprises. You don't see; you feel the things.[xii]


Belonging Together vs. Belonging Together

            I have spoken of Kertész's ability both to distance and to draw together the viewer's experience of photographed lifeworlds through an emotional presence‑to‑hand that reveals everyday readiness‑to‑hand. Immediately, however, one realizes that the readiness‑to‑hand and the lifeworld are a crucial focus for many artists. One thinks of such lifeworld presentations as the light‑filled home interiors of Vermeer or the world of the rural South portrayed in Flannery O'Conner's short stories.


At the same time, it can be said that the amateur photographer taking family pictures seeks to capture personal lifeworlds and give them an objective permanence. Like much great art, why do Kertész's photographs portray readiness‑to‑hand in such a forceful way and often have the power to draw and hold us? The need is to identify the specific quality in the content of Kertész's photographs that articulates readiness‑to‑hand so forcefully and make us view his photographs as somehow special‑‑as more than snapshots of everyday worlds. Such understanding might provide a means for discussing any presentation, artistic or scholarly, that forcefully articulates lifeworlds and readiness‑to‑hand (Bortoft, l985).


To identify this special quality, I again turn to Heidegger, particularly the distinction he makes between "belonging together" and "belonging together."[xiii] In the first instance, belonging is established by the together, so that a thing belongs because it has a position in the order of a "together"‑‑i.e., some arbitrary or fortuitous framework for which any parts will more or less suffice. For example, my name appears in the local phone directory, whose entries only happen to be what they are because these particular people live in this particular place at this particular time. As people come and go, the place changes and names in the directory change. The directory has no integral constitution as a whole; its parts are arbitrary‑‑determined by the particular moment.


In "belonging together," on the other hand, the "together" is established by the "belonging" so that the parts have inescapable relationship and belong together as the organs make up the body or the creatures of a particular bioregion make up its ecosystems. In belonging together, all parts are essential and integral; to lose one or more of them is to change, weaken, or destroy the sense of togetherness and, therefore, the whole. In a way similar to presence‑to‑hand, "belonging together" is more primary than "belonging together" because the former is the basis for all genuine wholes, while the latter can be constructed artificially so that within limits any particular set of parts will do.[xiv]


From one perspective, it can be said that Kertész's photographs are effective because they record the "belonging together" of readiness‑to‑hand through the power of an emotional presence‑to‑hand. Through the strong affective presence with which Kertész sees the world, he contacts moments in which "belonging together" is present, and he records these moments in his photographs. In other words, this "belonging together," or "belonging," as I refer to it here, is the hidden cement that makes Kertész's work so powerful.


Throughout the discussions of his work, Kertész suggests a search for belonging in the everyday world when he speaks of capturing the right moment: "I always photographed what the event told me;"[xv] "I was honest o myself and the moment";[xvi] or:


The moment always dictates my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don't necessarily see. I never calculate or consider; I see a situation and I know that it's right, even if I have to go back to get the proper lighting.[xvii] (Hill and Cooper, l979, p. 48).


This sense of the right moment, which Kertész seemed to know instinctively, is essential to belonging because it is in that moment that the parts all belong and have a reliable place. There is no superfluity or lack, but a balance between the parts and the whole of meaning‑‑i.e., the photograph works as a whole in terms of elements, relationships, and meanings.


One good example of this belonging is the photograph of the two men on the rooftop (figure 10). One can imagine the amount of patience required of Kertész to wait for the right moment when the multiple number of parts in the scene before him came together in the right way to produce the sense of world that the photograph so powerfully evokes. Note the central figures of the photograph, for example: the man standing perfectly continues the background vertical of the building; his head looks down toward the man seated, who projects a sense of forlorness through his angled head resting on arm and elbow. At the same time, the figures of the larger world‑‑on the street in front on the building and in the alley below‑‑carry on their routines and are part of the flow of a larger lifeworld. Each part seems right and exactly in place. This suitability of parts and placement both grounds and creates a genuine belonging.


As his above statements indicate, Kertész did not know how he discovers these moments when all the parts are right and in right relationship‑‑he does not "calculate or consider." Rather, he saw and knew the suitable moment through right feeling. He suggested that it is through this right feeling that belonging can be discovered and recorded. In turn, such belonging resonates with the beholder, who vicariously meets the moment of feeling and seeing that Kertész knew firsthand. His photographs are wholes of belonging, to which a sense of order in us responds.


The Range of Emotion Fostering Belonging

In gathering moments of belonging as expressed in their art work, photographers work somewhat differently than other artists, who in one sense have more control in bringing belonging to presence. Though Monet, for example, worked from the real world in painting his pictures of London, he could manipulate that world on canvas and eventually come to a togetherness that captured essential qualities of London‑ness: the bluish, shimmering atmosphere of the city's forms and spaces. The photographer, on the other hand, must continuously be awake to the world at hand so that when the parts come together in a way in which they really belong, he or she is there to take the picture and gather this togetherness on film. 


I argue here that it is a range of positive emotions that appears to steer Kertész's uncanny ability to so often capture the right moment. In turn, as we the beholders look at the photographs, that same emotional impulse holds itself in the photograph and projects itself to us, who resonate with that feeling. These emotions range from quiet surprise due largely to visual incongruities, on the one hand; to a deep sense of compassion, care and love for people and place, on the other.


It is important to emphasize that Kertész rarely did a photograph that dwelt only on negative emotions such as despair, alienation, or hate. In some of his New York photographs, as in the pictures of the dwarf and blind couple (figure 4) or the man before the wall (figure 9), there may be a sense of alienation, poverty, or homelessness. Yet in each instance, Kertész coupled this negative emotional stance with some positive quality‑‑for instance, inspiring juxtaposition or the beauty of formal relationships, as with the indigent helping the indigent or the aesthetic beauty of the wall.


In other words, Kertész's photographs are always instilled with some positive emotional dimension, and the New York collection indicates that there are three kinds of emotions that underlie the belongingness of Kertész's pictures: first, surprise founded in perceptual incongruity; second, beauty founded in a sense of aesthetics and formal compositional qualities; third, compassion and love founded in a deep feeling for humanity and, sometimes, its suffering.


In short, there is a range of emotional depth in Kertész's work. The surprise generated by his photographs is generally momentary and often ends with laughter; it does not generally have the stronger emotional force associated with a feeling of beauty, evoked through a graceful integration of subject and form, especially in terms of composition. And deeper than beauty are care and compassion, associated with such influential emotions as love, mercy, anger, and sense of justice and injustice.


Surprise, beauty and love appear to be the three emotions behind the belongingness of Kertész's New York photographs and I want to give examples of each in turn. One also discovers that Kertész's most powerful photographs manage to layer these various feelings and to create an expressive density.


1. Surprise

Perhaps the simplest way in which Kertész uses emotion to gather and project belongingness is through surprise, which generally involves perceptual or topical incongruity. One example is the photograph of the puddle reflecting the Empire State Building (figure 3, which fosters a particular kind of presence-to-hand. The confusion of the pattern motivates us, the beholders, to pay more heed. The photograph becomes an object of attention, but that attention is partially housed in the lack of order, which pushes us to look more keenly, with the result that we suddenly see that this lack of order does in fact make sense. In the moment of clarity, there is a release of emotional energy as disorder releases itself into pattern and belonging. Suddenly, an ordinary puddle and its reflection become special because they have grabbed our attention. We feel surprised and laugh.


Some of Kertész's photographs evoke surprise through unusual topical juxtaposition, as in figure 11 hich draws together unlikely elements of the built environment. The classical style and size of the building and statue at the far right are overwhelmed by the massiveness and repetition of the modernist high‑rise office building filling the greater space of the picture. The struggling figures of the stature seem to recoil from the weight of the huge building. Kertész has discovered a situation where incongruous elements of the built environment exist together physically. The sense of weight that the sculpted figures project can not be true, yet, ironically, there these figures are beneath the "burden" of the building. We laugh at the strange juxtaposition and may also have deeper feelings that relate to modernist architecture's overwhelming its surroundings and generating a sense of massiveness and alienation. Kertész achieves belonging in this photograph through difference, contrast, and unexpected juxtaposition. An ironic set of parts coalesce to make a wry commentary on the urban environment. We are surprised and struck. For a moment, we see the city in a new light.


2. Beauty

The transition from surprise to beauty is often slight in Kertész' photographs. All of the photographs discussed so far are successful first because of their effective formal qualities: the combination of puddle, reflection and street pavement make a balanced composition in figure 3 as do the relative proportions of contrasting building elements in figure 11.


The New York photographs that involve a purer sense of beauty evoke a quiet elegance, as in figure 12 which shows the pigeon landing in front of a broken wall. Though this picture involves a real event, the beholder may first assume he or she sees an abstract collage shaped by the diagonal lines from lower left to upper right and the thinner, darker lines at the right and upper left. Almost in the center of the picture is the pigeon, whose form provides a stability point for a sense of arrested movement insinuated by the pigeon's bodily position, especially the wings and angle of the breast. In its formal qualities, the photograph evokes a sense of balance, movement and proportion; the spaces and tones made by the parts of the broken wall provide a sense of togetherness and visual grace. 


This photograph is a particularly good example of belonging, when photographer and moment meet together perfectly, and the result projected is a sense of balance between parts, whole, and moment in time. A bird and decrepit environment have become the context for aesthetic display. In one interview, Kertész explains that since his Paris years he had sought the right shot of a pigeon landing:  "... one day I saw the lonely pigeon. I took maybe two or three pictures. The moment was there. I had waited maybe thirty years for that instant."[xviii] 


If figure 1 exemplifies pure formal expression in Kertész's work, one must realize that more often the aesthetic intermingles with other emotional qualities, as in the photograph of stairs and space (figure 6), which evokes beauty, but also surprise and awe. This photograph begins with the same perceptual surprise as the photograph of the puddle reflection (figure 3) but emotionally penetrates more deeply because of the force of the space, which touches one's breath and fosters a strong aesthetic sense. One might not believe that ordinary space could foster such a powerful energy, yet Kertész has the ability to be sensitive to that energy and record it so that we, too, behold it.


3. Concern and Love

As the movement from surprise to aesthetic emotions in Kertész's photographs is a continuum, so is the movement from aesthetic emotions to deeper feelings like concern and love. Just as photographs evoking surprise are also strong formally and may communicate an existential message (as with the classic sculptures burdened by the high‑rise office building), so the photographs with aesthetic emphasis can touch deeper emotional places as in the photograph that portrays the solitary man standing before the ugly, massive wall (figure 6.8). We may first notice the formal qualities of this photograph: the parallel lines of the wall and the abstract shapes made by the peeling tar paper. We also see, however, the human figure and feel loneliness and intimidation. The sense of human alienation is seen in the context of this wall with its formal attractiveness yet real‑world ugliness.


We also see in this photograph another kind of belonging that is at the heart of Kertész's most successful photographs: he is often able to incorporate layers of meaning founded in the real world but extending beyond to heart and spirit. These meanings are sometimes at odds even as at the same time the real-world elements of the photograph physically belong together. In figure 9, for example, there is contrast between the beauty of the wall's formal pattern and the loneliness of the man.  There is contrast of the small human figure with the massiveness of the wall itself. These motifs blend together in the moment to create an emotional tension arising from beauty/ugliness and immensity/diminution. In being able to recognize instinctively these moments of multiple meanings, Kertész captures them in his photographs and presents them to us, who resonate with them also.


The photograph of the solitary man on the wharf (figure 8) is the mirror image of figure 9, which begins with the formal qualities and then overlaps human concerns. In contrast, the first focus of figure 8 is the man looking out toward the river. A sense of loneliness gathers the formal elements; there is a belonging founded on melancholy and isolation. The physical environment sets the stage for these feelings as the coldness of the ice and snow makes one feel cold and blue. There is also the placement of the figures. The two men have their backs apart. They seem to be of two separate worlds in the same physical space.


In terms of emotional density, Kertész's most powerful photograph in the New York collection may well be the woman in her window (figure 1). When we look at the photograph, we may first note its formal beauty, especially the central circle of architectural planes and forms that surprise the eye and prod us to ask what is here. Suddenly, there is recognition that this is the view of a woman in apartment window. This surprise fosters amazement that a person can appropriate such an inhuman environment into her world, a recognition that triggers sadness that this woman's world is not more. 


Beyond this sadness, however, is an admiration for the endurance of this woman who, through a centering quality, transforms a bleak environment into a human place. The photograph is particularly effective because the world we first see is abstract and formal‑‑almost brutalist in its sharp angles and sparse planes. Suddenly, we see a world in the midst of this abstraction, and we are surprised and hopeful. Everydayness is transfigured through the rootedness of the woman. She seems in place‑‑at ease, sheltered, and integral to her environment. In our experience of looking, perspective loses its standpoint: we look down on the woman, yet we are present in her world. We look at but we are also there. In these tensions of form/existence, sadness/endurance, and observation/immersion, there is an emotional density that opens our feelings and provokes us to question our own world. Through a sympathetic on‑looking focused at lifeworld, Kertész brings attention to our own lives and makes us ask who we are and how we live.



Kertész's photographs portray a central aspect of Heidegger's philosophy: people's being‑in‑the‑world. Through an emotional sense that captures moments in which all the parts have a belongingness, Kertész instructs us about our place in the world and points out that experientially we are immersed in our worlds as they are immersed in us. Though this degree of immersion varies, from the at‑homeness of the woman in the window to the solitary figure overwhelmed by the huge wall behind him, we are still of the world. Kertész's photographs portray this immersion as he makes it an object of attention through the force of emotional awareness. In this simultaneous separateness/ togetherness, he opens up the lifeworld and allows us to participate and to understand at the same time.


Heidegger explains that "we are too late for the gods and too early for Being," by which he means we can no longer believe divine word anymore, yet we are not yet able to see the world as it is.[xix] Heidegger also believes that genuine art is a gathering place through which people can better understand themselves and thereby move along one path that will lead to more lucid seeing.[xx] Kertész's work is such a gathering place because it provides a vehicle for helping us to see the world and our existential place in it more clearly. Kertész's most evocative photographs ask fundamental questions about who people are and what their place is in the world. For Heidegger, this is a major role of art today.


Joan Stambaugh writes that Heidegger's philosophy "almost boils down to a matter of `prepositions', to the Between of things."[xxi]  She goes on to say that "our consciousness by nature `spatializes' things. We cannot imagine or picture anything except as objectified in space."[xxii] What Kertész does in his photographs is to capture the betweenness of which Stambaugh speaks. Kertész helps us to break free from the objectification of world and recognize an immersion and interconectedness among space, things, place, time, and people. His photographs reconcile and transfigure traditional philosophical opposites like outside and inside, beholder and figure, far and near, object and space, environment and world. These reconciliations become the invisible net of betweenness that makes human worlds possible. 


What this betweenness means for research in the human and environmental sciences is unclear, because we have only begun to realize a radically new way of understanding our existential place in the world. Presently, as Heidegger emphasizes, we can only make rough and inexact efforts to look. Perhaps eventually we will see. In this sense, Kertész's work is invaluable in that it calls our typical sense of the world into question. For a moment, we separate from the world's usual meaning and see it through a vantage point that is new and miraculous.


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[i]. Sandra S. Phillips, David Travis, and Weston J. Naef, eds. Andre Kertesz: Of Paris and New York (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985).

[ii]. André Kertész, Of New York... , Nicolas Ducrot, ed.(New York: Knopf, 1976).

[iv]. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper and Row, 1962); idem., Identity and Difference (New York: Harper and Row, 1969); idem., Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).

[v]. Ibid.

[vi]. Being and Time.

[vii]. To study the New York photographs phenomenologically, I set myself to sit before three pictures a day, looking carefully and then recording my observations and understandings. Periodically, I reviewed these written accounts for common themes and patterns, with which I would then return to the photographs and again record observations and patterns. The fifteen photographs I use in this chapter to explicate immersion-in-world could readily have been substituted by others in the collection. I have chosen the photographs that I believe most powerfully present the particular theme being discussed. Clearly, this entire process is interpretive, and others may reach different conclusions. The ultimate test is how well these various interpretations speak to others. Only time can decide.

[viii]. It appears that Kertész did not always give titles to his photographs. For the twelve pictures discussed here, all are Kertész's titles except those for photographs 6 and 9, which are titles I have given them. I am grateful to the estate of André Kertész for kindly giving me permission to reproduce the photographs. I particularly wish to than Robert Gurbo, the archivist of the estate, who spent considerable time locating prints and clarifying titles and dates.

[ix]. Marjorie Grene, Landscape, in Phenomenology: Dialogues and Bridges (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1983); Edward Relph, Geographical Experiences and Being-in-the World, in Dwelling, Place and Environment, David Seamon and Robert Mugerauer, eds. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 15-31.

[x]. Curt John Ducasse, The Philosophy of Art (New York: Dover, 1966); Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?, A. Maude, trans.(New York: Macmillan, 1985 [originally 1896]); Eugene Veron, Aesthetics, W. H. Armstrong, trans. (London: Colliers, 1879).

[xi]. André Kertész, Kertész on Kertész (New York: Abbeville Press, 1985), p. 29.

[xii]. Ibid., p. 99.

[xiii]. Heidegger, Identity and Difference, p. 29; Henri Bortoft, Counterfeit and Authentic Wholes: Finding a Way to Dwell in Nature, in David Seamon and Robert Mugerauer. eds.  Dwelling, Place and Environment (New York: Columbia University Press), pp. 281‑302.

[xiv]. Bortoft.

[xv]. Kertész on Kertész, p. 15.

[xvi]. Ibid., p. 46.

[xvii]. Paul Hill and Thomas Cooper, Dialogue with Photography (New            York: Farrar/Straus/Giroux, 1979), p. 48.

[xviii]. Kertész on Kertész, p. 100.

[xix]. Poetry, Language, Thought, p. 4.

[xx]. Ibid.

[xxi]. Joan Stambaugh, The Real Is not the Rational (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 83.            

[xxii]. Ibid.

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