March 2005

Coming out of windy streets, a sharp winter light flattening the metallic Manhattan angles, a group of modernist pictures not any bigger than daguerreotypes confront us, the legacy of a gifted photographer who died much too young in a concentration camp.

Looking at Imre Kinszki’s photographs, never before shown in New York, the game of influences and resemblances is easy enough to play: There is modernism in his extreme close-ups and angles from above, in his choice of subjects such as train tracks or a typewriter’s keys. We might think of early André Kertesz images, such as that of his brother’s shadow projected at night on a house’s whitewashed wall.

But although Kinszki was a sophisticated artist, evidently attuned to Moholy-Nagy’s writings and to the work of Brassai, Paul Wolff and Albert Renger-Patzsch (Kinszki corresponded with all of them and was a founding member of the group Modern Hungarian Photographers, a circle of artists close in spirit to the New Objectivity), these comparisons are ultimately unsatisfying. They only brush the surface of his work, missing its true singularity.

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Photography is traditionally compared to painting. Yet in Kinszki’s case the imagery has the resonance of a discreet music and the tactility of a marble sculpture by Brancusi. He looks at a world that is now disappeared, that of Budapest in the 1930s, and his profound attention, akin to a meditation, detects mystery in the quotidian.

Never before have we seen the pawn, queen and king of a chess game take on such an eerie presence, towering like monuments. A circle of winter poplars seems to dance and extend their branches towards the sky. High open windows promise a peek into a room that is denied by a white blind. The foam frothing like milk at the flank of a boat, the glistening train tracks, the paved streets are etched in ways both melancholy and almost giddy with a secret joy.

The only full-face portrait in the show is that of a gypsy girl. The other characters, absorbed in their occupations, are mostly turning their backs to us, or walking away. A small girl stands in a building’s entrance and her elongated shadow extends towards the foot of the staircase, as if ready to climb. The artists ’s daughter Judit is relaxed in sleep under a delicate net of shadows while her open-eyed doll is on guard to protect her from nighttime’s ghosts.

Kinszki has a predilection for the deepest moment of the night, when just a few windows are lit in a courtyard, letting us imagine life in the hidden rooms. He loves slate roofs, empty streets streaked with snow, or soaked in a spring rain’s dewy brilliance.

A Jew from the intelligentsia, Kinszki died at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in early spring of 1945, just before the war’s end. In retrospect his work seems haunted by a sense of life’s poignancy and precariousness. Kinszki is a poet uninterested by exoticism, excess and militancy, attuned to small miracles drawn in light and shadows. His acute epiphanies of everyday life now touch us like the light of long-disappeared stars that have tumbled into the black hole of history.

-- Carole Naggar

Klotz/Sirmon Gallery
511 West 25th Street
New York, NY 10001
On view until March 26.