During the Depression my grandfather ran a bar and pool room at the Sokol Hall on Pine Street in Jersey City. The family of five lived upstairs. My grandfather was a gregarious fellow, not above spotting a countryman a drink, and allowing others down on their luck to run a tab. Naturally, this led to financial distress, and it was around this time that he sold the business to a friend. More than thirty years later I had the opportunity to watch my grandfather shoot a game of eight-ball, and he still handled the cue stick with authority.
This picture was probably taken by my mother and it immediately makes me think of the photographs of Andre Kertesz, the great Hungarian photographer, and Josef Sudek, my grandfather’s countryman, who became known as “The Poet of Prague” for his lyrical photographs of the city. While Kertesz and Sudek both served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I, my grandfather escaped to the United States several years prior to the war. Sudek, incidentally, lost an arm in the war, but afterwards continued his photographic work undaunted, living until 1976. My grandfather survived him by five years, and Kertesz, in turn, outlived him by another five. I only wish my grandfather could have met the other two, especially Kertesz, because from what I know of his character I think they would have gotten along famously. Both men had warm, gentle, and for the most part, optimistic personalities. I also believe my grandfather might have cultivated his interest in photography if he had had the opportunity to study it. It is because of his humble but meticulous efforts stretching over six decades that the album containing this image survived.
The viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the brightly lit area on the wall. Given the opportunity to reprint this image, many photographers might darken, or “burn,” this section slightly so as to focus attention on the subject. To my mind, it still works pretty well, to say the least. The Rembrandt-style light streaming in diagonally through the window creates a palpable texture on his shirt sleeves while also contributing to the mood. A shadow line falls just above his Josef’s brow, while his face is bathed in a softer light, which in many ways is the key to the success of this image. Also of interest are the parallel lines formed by the diagonal edges of the shadows on the wall, echoed by his left arm across his torso.
In addition to the handling of the subject within the space, which probably could not be improved upon, the dynamic tension of many different lines works greatly to this picture’s advantage. The line of his cuff extending up into the line of his vest serves to return the viewer’s eye to the subject’s face, rather than the “hot spot” up on the wall. Even there, the gods of geometry and photography graced the photographer, with the Josef’s head lining up near the point, just under the hypotenuse of the right triangle in the bright area. The top rail on the wainscoting behind him is also perfectly placed, serving as the backdrop for Josef’s chin while the lighter wall above provides contrast for the outline of his head.
Josef’s solemn glance up and out the window could be assigned to any number of fanciful imaginings, but let’s just say he is shown as the thoughtful individual he was. The ability of a great portrait to describe the subject’s character is evident in this work, which was snapped by a nineteen year-old girl with a box camera. Such images give all the weight necessary to the position that it is not the camera that matters, but who is in front of it and, more importantly, who is behind it.