When paintings and sculptures depict a man or woman with a book, this usually signifies that they are studious, saintly, noble and wise – persons of substance. Kertész’s approach is different. Apart from one semi-surrealist shot of Peggy Guggenheim, with an open book in the foreground, he has no interest in the great and good. The Bowery bum retrieving a newspaper from a wastebin; a woman kneeling over a text in a Manila market; gondoliers, circus performers and street vendors snatching time between work duties to peruse a book or magazine – Kertész’s subjects are often people you wouldn’t expect to see reading. What the camera captures is their thirst for knowledge or hunger to escape their circumstances. One memorable image features a boy sitting in a New York doorway in 1944, amid a heap of newspapers left there to alleviate the wartime shortage (“Paper is needed now! Bring it at any time,” reads the poster behind him). Times are hard yet the boy looks perfectly happy: amid the detritus, he has found a page of comic strips.
Whereas books are traditionally thought of as an indoor pursuit, most of Kertész’s subjects are caught reading outdoors. The venues aren’t just parks and beaches. There’s a whole sequence of images taken in Greenwich Village in the 1960s and 70s, showing people reading high above the street, on tenement rooftops, penthouse balconies, metal stair-ladders and window ledges. Enrapt as they are, the readers seem indifferent to the chimneys, ventilation pipes and washing lines that surround them: away from the crowds, each has found a space to be alone. The setting is tough and urban. Yet there’s a spiritual quality, too – reading as a stairway to heaven.