This commentary grew out of the assignment to write about a photograph that has a fight in it.
In 1945, Swiss photographer Werner Bischof began a bicycle tour through the countries of Poland, Germany, France, Italy, Hungary and Greece to document the struggles of people after the war. In a Christmas letter in 1947, he wrote: “You don’t understand, Father, that I am making this journey not to fulfill a desire for new experiences but to experience a complete transformation in my humanity. You say now would be a good time to return and take up more stable work. But Father, I can no longer take pictures of pretty shoes.”
     He was at the train station in Budapest, 1947, when he took this photo. There is the fight going on between outside and inside, between the reflection of the station in the train window and the people we see inside, with their hopes and fears.

Werner Bischof, photo taken in Budapest Train Station 1947
The train is about to leave the station, and a young girl stands at the window, stirred by a deep, immediate feeling. Reflected around her is the grand, fragmented architecture of the station. There is a relation to what this child must feel as her country recovers from the shock of war. As she holds her breath, her shoulders square, she looks both frightened and brave. One definition Eli Siegel gave of courage was “The belief that things as such are not against one and should not be gone away from.” The sign about her neck is rumpled, but it has clear writing on it and is one of the brightest things in the photo and related to the bright geometrical shapes in the reflection.
     Seated next to her, another child appears far away in her thoughts, and there is a young woman, Show More...
who must be a Red Cross worker. She is there to provide support to these children, but the reflection hides her face. She stands very much for the unknown.
     In “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?” Eli Siegel writes:
IS there to be found in every work of art a certain progression, a certain indissoluble presence of relation, a design which makes for continuity?—and is there to be found, also, the discreteness, the individuality, the brokenness of things: the principle of discontinuity?   
    There is an effect in this photo of three people alone in their thoughts, but the geometry reflected in the window relates them, as if to say, “No! You will not be separate.” A horizontal goes from one side of the window to the other. It runs under the arches, through the folds of the sweater and below the sign, and contradicts the feeling of separation. The girls are scarcely aware of each other, but they are joined by a diagonal that begins in that patch of sky in the upper right corner of the window. Through this they are uplifted and appear stronger. The curves of their foreheads are related to the arches that open up in back. The white squares worn by the girl and the young woman are like the parallelograms between the crossbeams of the roof that show the sky.
     The photo is dreamlike in the way the elements come together and also fight. A stark triangular form, with a white background and elements of the cityscape, seems to be coming through the window from the other side of the train car. It sits just below the curve of the central arch, like a wedge pushing the two sides of the photo apart. It also joins them, creating the effect of an expansion from a vanishing point out to the top corners of the photo. The delicate child who appears so lost sits close to this point and has a similar geometry in the outline of her face.
     A ghostly figure that may be from a poster floats in the dark space upper right. The expression appears lively, even happy, but the image is so dark. Is there a future for these children? Fighting the dark is the succession of geometric shapes admitting light. I think of a crucial question Eli Siegel asked that has strengthened me in times of difficulty: “Is this true: No matter how big a case one has against the world: its ugliness, its disorder, its confusion, its meaninglessness, must one do all one can to like it or one will weaken oneself?”
     I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the world has a beautiful structure that can honestly be liked. The world is in this photo through the opposites. It shows itself in the geometry and in touches that relieve the sadness – a stray lock of hair mingling with the tears, a jaunty bow, a cheerful pin in the shape of a little dog.
     These children are my contemporaries! At the time they were boarding this train to Switzerland, I was in high school. My life after the war was comfortable, and I gave little thought to the plight of people in other parts of the world. Thanks to Aesthetic Realism this has changed. I wonder what has become of these people and how are they meeting the world now. I am so glad that their lives touch mine through the art of the photographer. I thank my consultants for this assignment and Werner Bischof for what he has added to my feeling about the world.
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