György Kepes: a Polaroid and a Reminiscence

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György Kepes, With Braille, color Polaroid, 20" x 24", 1984. The Polaroid Collection..

This hypnotic light graphic, which was commissioned by the Polaroid Corporation, was done using a 20″ x 24″ Land camera.

It illustrates a few intriguing things about color perception in Polaroid technology and Mr. Kepes’s unique insight about how to make it effective within his own artistic methods and intentions. If the colors that are being photographed are somewhat achromatic, i.e., neutral, they appear to be more “real”, i.e., because the viewer is not searching his color memory to decide whether the colors resemble the vividness of a rose, for example. The gray gridded background, crossword puzzle on paper, ink-on canvas, Braille sample, half-silvered prism, reflections and cast shadows are virtually achromatic, in spite of the fact that this is a color photograph.

This is perhaps the most insightful use of what Edwin Land had envisioned with his Retinex Theory of Color Vision- which demonstrated that a surprisingly complex gamut of colors can be displayed using only red, green, and blue filters. This so-called color constancy allows us to remember and compare colors in changing illumination.
When combined with the fact that the images are nearly a 1:1 ratio to the objects being photographed, the objects look astonishingly real.

Mr. Kepes also said to me that the distribution of light, shade and shadow in this photograph was like a visual game of “peek-a-boo, and hide-and-seek”. So a material equivalency is made among the two and three-dimensional objects, textures, and patterns that make it up.

Finally, although Kepes was an exemplary modernist, his use of axial and elliptical spatial organization in this and some of his other pictures have their roots in the traditional composition of Hungarian icon painting.

Another image from this series is a montage of a technical illustration of a dissected frog from a text book paired with a dichroic prism. I asked Mr. Kepes whether the prism stood for an internal organ of the frog, or was perhaps emblematic of a biological or chemical process such as chirality in sugars, i.e., dextrose, maltose?

“Something like that.”, he replied.

I lent some of the objects in the pictures to Mr. Kepes for his use. The slide rule, the dichroic prism, plexiglas objects, etc.
I had been introduced to Mr. Kepes by Michio Ihara while I was working for Mr. Ihara who had been his student at MIT. Mr. Kepes asked me to work as his studio assistant for certain projects, and I gratefully took him up on his offer.
He was elderly but mobile at that time, and it was clear to me that he was a nonpareil genius’s genius.

György Kepes
György Kepes

He also had a very droll sense of humor. While taking the Polaroid pictures, I had helped him to carefully set up the objects in front of the camera. He then moved behind the very large camera, and carefully looked through the view finder, from which there was only one vantage point where everything was in focus. I was standing directly behind him and could only see the back of his head.

He asked me: “What do you think?”
I replied jokingly: “If there was a hole in your head I could tell.”
He didn’t think it was funny, but that was sometimes his brand of humor.

I was married to a Hungarian woman from Budapest, whom I nicknamed Tojas. She used to tell me that I was nem normalis— He wholeheartedly agreed with her dim assessment.

I visited him many times in his home, and enjoyed sharing whiskey and pork rinds when Julia wasn’t there.

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