André Kertész A Lifetime of photography

André Kertész: Life and Work

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Because his life knew such distinct phases, André Kertész is particularly well-suited to a 'life and work' approach. After the age of 70, Kertész indulged in a bit of myth-making as he resurrected his career. But a series of beautiful and scholarly publications have given us a great deal of detail about every aspect of his life. I have mentioned only a few especially significant facts.

These are brief notes compiled for the members of the U3A Genius of Photography group. It does not aim to be comprehensive; merely to give an idea of the shape of an important and unusual career. I would be happy to take comments, or queries, from anyone via email lloydspencer at mac dot com.

The work of André Kertész (1894-1985) has long had a very special, very personal significance for me. I was introduced to his photos by John Berger during a week at his home in the Alps discussing the manuscript of his book (with Jean Mohr), Another Way of Telling. John rewarded me for my work on that project by helping me buy my first serious camera and from the first Kertész was my most important inspiration.

In 1984 I had the privilege of meeting Kertész on the occasion of his 90th birthday at a celebratory lunch at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, UK. For the BBC, I had reviewed the huge Kertész retrospective exhibition at the Museum. And that opportunity had come to me as a result of an essay I had written on Kertész and Eugene Atget for the magazine New Society. The link below takes you to a presentation of that essay.

1. André Kertész, self-portrait

"I am an amateur and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life." André Kertész

The photo below (Pont Neuf, 1930) was given to the eight members of our little study group. I asked them each to offer a few lines of comment...

Each member of the group commented on something quite different...

2. Pont Neuf, 1930

Comments alluded to: texture (cobbles), the angle of view, the shapes / geometric forms, the iconic / anonymous man in the centre, dynamism, simplicity, the barely visible 6 other figures in the picture, the old-fashioned lamps, the pissoir, the bare trees (framing the picture from either edge), the use of the diagonals and corners. The dark, sullen mood of the image drew comment. Someone remarked that you could not tell what time of day it might be.

This rich harvest of observations provided everything I needed for the points I wished to make in summarizing Kertész's career. Kertész was born in Budapest, on July 2, 1894, to a middle-class Jewish family. He was the middle of three brothers.

Inspired by illustrated magazines he read as a child, he determined early on to become a photographer. Some of his earliest photos show aspects of what became distinctive about his vision. His brothers were happy to co-operate, as in the lyrical,gymnastic snapshot below.

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Left: a 1919 snapshot of his brother in the river. RIGHT: the same photo as it became known later, cropped and inverted, giving the impression that a very modernist sensibility had developed very early.

From the outset Kertész was excited about the possibilities offered by small, mobile cameras. In 1914, in order to take the photo on the left, Kertész had his brother pose for a long exposure. Once again we meet an anonymous, icon-like figure, identity hidden under hat and cloak, that recurs throughout Kertész's career.

Kertész repeated the experiment for the photo on the right, (he recalled an exposure of 8-10mins). In 1925 it was used as the cover image for a journal which covered local life.

Early experiments in nocturnal 'snapshots'.

Kertész served in the First World War, taking snapshots of his fellow soldiers, their life at the front and their interactions with civilians.

Kertész had not been very successful in school and was not particularly successful in the various jobs he tried. He continued taking photos, often in the countryside away from Budapest. He did get to know a circle of painters, poets and intellectuals.

Hungarian memories

Political upheaval in Hungary had caused many artists and intellectuals to go into exile. In the case of Kertész, it was more a personal frustration, made more intense when his beloved, Elizabeth, made it clear that he was not well-established enough to contemplate marriage. Kertész had had to spend some years living in the home of his parents.

In 1925 he made the important move to Paris, determined to try and pursue a career in photography. In this he was quickly remarkably successful. He was one of the first to adopt the new Leica 35mm camera. In 1927 the Surrealists gave him the first one-man photography exhibition at their new gallery. He quickly became a favourite in the new magazines such as Vu, Art et Médiçine, and others.

Above and below: some of the many photo essays published by Kertész during his period in Paris. All of these from Vu, although Kertész was widely published in a variety of magazines.

He was quiet, even shy, but was soon accepted within a wide circle of artists from all corners of the globe who had made Paris their home. One of his first assignments was to photograph the painter, Piet Mondrian in his studio.

Mondrian' s glasses and pipe, 1926
Realism so simplified it becomes almost abstract

Paris opened up a range of new perspectives - quite literally. Kertész exploited the mobile, small camera to take photos from unexpected angles, discovering interesting patterns and forms.

A view from his Paris apartment
Kertész clearly felt very at home in Pars, leaving us a vast collection of images, beautiful and informative of the city before the war.
Kertész revealed the surreal possibilities of an adventurous but utterly realist photography
Clock of the Academie Francaise, 1929. A straightforward photo could be endowed with potent allegorical significance

Kertész's photos always retained the character of snapshots, moments of spontaneous, usually candid, vision. But he was quite prepared to put in the effort needed to create such moments. After he had found the perspective captured in the photo on the right (below), Kertész returned a few days later in order to wait for the right combination of elements. He may have been concentrating on the shopkeeper sweeping the pavement and the trio turning the corner when, by chance, the man in the hat entered the frame carrying a picture wrapped in newspaper.

Meudon, 1928. Famous for its unusual perspective and spontaneous combination of elements, this picture owed at least something to anticipation and preparation. In fact, that perspective had been painted in 1911 by Lyonel Feininger.

In 1936 Kertész accepted an invitation to visit New York. His wife, Elizabeth, was reluctant. Kertész promised that it would mean no more than a year-long American sabbatical. Once there, he was warned repeatedly that Europe was becoming dangerous. He had to make anew life in America.

A photo famous in both versions: a tender, but troubled original and a disjoint, mysterious crop. The comparison invites interpretation.

Elizabeth Kertész succeeded in building up a cosmetics business in the USA. Kertész's own career faltered. He faced disappointment after disappointment. The story of that failure is a complicated one. In June 1944 László Moholy-Nagy, director of the New Bauhaus - American School of Design offered him a position teaching photography. He turned it down. But the complicated story offers a simple salutary lesson: talent is never enough. Kertész ended up spending fifteen years taking unexceptional photos of interiors for the magazine House and Garden. Fortunately he never stopped taking his truly exceptional photos for his own purposes, thus giving his lifetime in photography an extraordinary continuity.

Left: a crop from a photo taken at the harbour, (1937). Right: Poughkeepsie, 1937

Kertész had always had the ability to imbue a simple photograph with mood and emotion. His disappointment and sense of isolation led him to intensify this aspect of his work. Perhaps unease and disquietude are easier to see in otherwise objective photographs than gaiety and cheerfulness, or more intriguing to the viewer.

Photos which seem particularly expressive of his mood, especially a subdued mood, often include unusual perspectives (looking down, looking up), and juxtapositions, birds, clouds, - and that anonymous, iconic individual that he had created or discovered in his very earliest experiments.

Lost cloud, New York, 1937
Melancholic Tulip, New York City, 1939
Washington Square, 1954
New York, 1962

Kertész's photos feature prominently in what I regard as the best book every written about photography, Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment. In it, Dyer has an extended riff on the theme of 'benches'. One of the pictures discussed is this strange, but characteristic, composition. Again we meet Kertész's anonymous black-coated stranger, an on-looker somewhat at odds with the scene he surveys. The dislocated wooden slat of the bench points towards the only point of human companionship. I learnt from Dyer's book that the man in black was Frank Thomas, Elizabeth Kertész's business partner, who at this stage had become dependent on the Kertészs because he had gone blind. One of the women on the distant bench was Elizabeth. She had befriended and taken in a young woman who proved to be quite disturbed and needed institutional care. The pair on the bench were on their way to deliver the younger woman to that institution.

Between 1936 and 1963, Kertész's negatives were preserved, hidden in a suitcase. The rediscovery of these in 1963 led to a new phase of his career. He was given an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale from that point on, Kertész once again knew a determined period of productivity - soon encouraged by important publications.

Elizabeth Kertész died in October 1977. Kertész acquired a Polaroid SX-70 and began taking photos in the apartment they had shared, in particular photos of glass ornaments arranged on the windowsill. They constitute a beautiful tribute to his life-long companion.

That's more or less all from me for now, folks. If you email me with your queries, I will return and amend and expand this page sometime during 2017. By the end of the year there will be a set of at least a dozen similar pages to look at, plus a few pages that look not at individuals but at themes, movements, issues. Email me at lloydspencer at mac dot com.

Postscript: One aspect of Kertész's work that I have not mentioned were his "Distortions". These were a series of nudes, photographed in a circus distorting mirror, which he took in response to an invitation to contribute to a rather salacious journal (La Sourire) in Paris. Kertész himself set great store by these. He felt that they were his 'invention'. Perhaps this was in desperation as he sought to demonstrate his originality as his career faltered. Perhaps it was a reaction to Man Ray's success with the technique of solarization. I am not keen on them. I think Man Ray's nudes and those of Bill Brandt (briefly a pupil of Man Ray's) were much more successful. I will you (with the aid of Google) to decide for yourself.

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