New York, US
Summary of André Kertész
André Kertész was a Hungarian-born photographer best known for his lyrical, elegant and formally rigorous style. One of the most inventive photographers of the twentieth-century, Kertész (and while he would work across different formats including the polaroid in later years) is regarded most highly perhaps for the way he explored the range of use for the new Leica handheld camera. Less well known by name perhaps than contemporaries (and admirers) such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï, Kertész, who advocated spontaneity over technical precision - "photographs can be technically perfect and even beautiful, but they have no expression" he once said - created a highly distinctive body of work that reflected his commitment to poetic and geometric forms. Kertész travelled the avant-garde road from Budapest, to Paris to New York. His feelings of isolation and rootlessness, exacerbated by his reluctance to learn French and English, respectively, would manifest in a body of work that often reflected a quiet mood of melancholy.
- Kertész is revered for the clarity of his style and his emotional connections with his subjects. Reared on the languages of rational and irrational modernism - Mondrian and Surrealists for instance - his compositions often sought out and the geometric lines and patterns that would complement and/or alter the picture content. He used his camera lens to freeze time and to turn and opportune street scene, or staged, fixed, object(s), into something metaphorical and permanent.
- Kertész felt that intuition was the best ingredient for creating poetic substance. "The moment always dictates in my work" he said. Though he became an accomplished and successful commercial photographer, especially in fashion photography, Kertesz felt that "professional virtuosity" was the enemy of art photography. He made a clear distinction between the two spheres believing that there must be something honest and innate in art photography: "As soon as I find a subject which interests me, I leave it to the lens to record it truthfully," he declared.
- One of the most important and revered Parisian street photographers was Kertész's compatriot Gyula Halász, better known to the world of photography as Brassaï. Kertész arrived in Montparnasse, Paris in 1925 speaking no French. He made the acquaintance of the bi-lingual journalist and picture-editor who was looking for photographic source material for his and other magazine articles. While working together on the weekly French pictorial VU, Kertész became Gyula's mentor, teaching him the techniques of photographing at night, and nurturing in his student a feeling for the range of artistic possibilities offered through photography.
- Kertész was highly regarded as a still-life photographer. Nothing was too ordinary for his lens since he did not document so much as interpret what was in front of him. He composed many still lifes with the aim of transforming the mundane - such as utensils, eyeglasses and pipes - into something ethereal and poetic. He advocated the use of bold monochrome lines and the use of reflections and shadows as a means of rendering a still life as a simplified geometric abstraction. Though his still life's can be viewed as abstractions, the identity of the object(s) is never hidden.
Progression of Art
Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom, Hungary
Kertész took this photograph (of which his brother is probably the subject) when he was a young man, convalescing after being shot during WWI. It has been named as one of the most influential photographs of the twentieth century. The photograph takes an ordinary subject - a man in a swimming pool - and elevates it into a subject worthy of artist's contemplation. Kertész's use of the distorting ripples of the swimming pool's surface is revolutionary in the history of photography, freezing time through the camera lens in a way that makes use of a transient phenomenon to create a permanent image. Curator and Kertész specialist Mirjam Kooiman argues that "throughout his career he had this interest for mirroring surfaces, reflections and distortions - as a reflection on life."
Underwater Swimmer demonstrates Kertész's early interest in these compositional and metaphorical concepts, which would inform the rest of his career and influence a generation of photographers after him. Indeed, Underwater Swimmer catalyzed an interest in depicting swimming pools and people swimming underwater that can be traced forward in modern painting through the likes of Henri Matisse (The Swimming Pool, 1952); David Hockney (A Bigger Splash, 1967); and Samantha French (Rise Up, 2017); and in installation art too, through Leandro Erlich (Swimming Pool, 1999).
Gelatin silver print - Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid
Soon after moving to Paris, Kertész photographed the cabaret dancer Magda Förstner in the studio of Hungarian sculptor István Beöthy. He encouraged Förstner to imitate the posture of a Beöthy's sculpture (placed on a stand by her feet) next to which she models. Kertész later recalled: "I said to her, 'Do something with the spirit of the studio corner,' and she started to move on the sofa. She just made a movement. I took only two photographs." The resulting image captures the dancer's body as a set of geometric shapes, emphasizing the sculptural qualities of body and movement. While the photograph might be termed a fluid, or unrehearsed, portrait, it also has some of the compositional qualities of a modern still-life photograph, playing as it does with our assumptions about what is familiar and what is unfamiliar. The triangles made by Förstner's arms and legs are echoed in the overall composition, which uses a trio of formulations of the human body to draw the viewer's eye around the image: Beöthy's sculpture, a framed photograph of a female nude on the wall to the right, and the central woman's body. The use of a vertiginous camera angle shows Kertész's radical use of perspective, while the juxtapositions of the composition can suggest a Dadaist influence.
Gelatin silver print - J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Mondrian's Glasses and Pipe
Kertész took this photograph as part of a series of "portraits" of his friend, the painter Piet Mondrian, most of which do not feature the artist himself. Through using reflections, transparency and shadows, Kertész creates his portrait through absence, drawing the viewer's attention to Mondrian's "presence" through his abstracted possessions. The use of bold monochrome lines also evokes a sense of Mondrian's characteristic paintings, and Mondrian's advocacy for a simplified geometric aesthetic.
The photograph epitomizes some of the key concerns of modernism, particularly through its espousal of radical new forms of expression and its attempts to capture beauty in mundane objects. The art critic Maria Morris Hambourg summed up the impact of the image in the following statement: "Kertész photographed only the table, cropping the top of the image and blackening the corners through overexposure, leaving only the emblems of their leader's concentration and rigor [...] The strictness of the abridgment, the harmony of the geometric elements, and the human character clinging to the spare, personal attributes, made this photograph an icon of European modernism from the first time it was exhibited, at Galerie Au Sacre du Printemps in Paris, in 1927."
Gelatin silver print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York
In this iconic photograph, shown at the 'Salon de l'Escalier' in Paris in 1928, and at 'Film und Foto' Stuttgart in the following year, Kertész parallels beauty with simplicity. He used a strong light to both illuminate the subject of his photograph - a simple fork - and to cast dramatic shadows below it. The composition feels abstract, and yet the identity of the subject is not hidden; it is in fact highlighted. The fork is presented as something beautiful; not merely a utensil but an object with the potential for transformation through photographic abstraction. Susan Sontag went so far as to describe the work (and Modrian's Glasses and Pipe) as "a wing of pathos" in the way that the image(s) "elevate seemingly trivial details into quite meditative poems." It is an interesting fact that The Fork was featured in an advertisement for the artful silversmiths Bruckmann-Bestecke.
Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In this enigmatic photograph, Kertész used a Leica camera to capture what is at first glance a simple street scene. The Leica appeared in the 1920s with Kertész bearing one from 1928, three years before Henri Cartier-Bresson. The camera was light and easy to handle and soon favoured by photo-journalists. However, closer inspection reveals a snapshot of considerable compositional complexity. Meudon creates a sense of movement and speed moving in different directions: through the steam-train at the top of the frame, and the man carrying a package - possibly the German painter Will Baumeister (carrying a canvas) - at the bottom.
The leader of the Surrealism movement, André Breton, described the image in terms of an "opportune magic" and a "convulsive beauty" and here, Kertész freezes the "opportune" moment in a way that would also captivate Cartier-Bresson. As a meta-narrative, the image tells a visual story of the encroachment of modernity into everyday life in the 1920s; here, the march of machinery and construction quite literally dominates the more traditional street scene unfolding in the foreground.
Silver gelatin print - J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Distortion #49, Paris
This image comes from Kertesz's important Distortion series made in the early 1930s. Clearly showing the influence of the Surrealists, Kertesz created these photographs by capturing the reflections of a female nude figure in a convex or concave mirror. The work builds on his awareness of the visual effects of distortions demonstrated in his early 1917 photograph of a swimmer underwater. The series was taken in a studio, which is unusual amongst Kertesz's practice as he more often than not used a documentary style of photography on location.
As the art historian Professor Øivind Storm Bjerke argues, it is Kertesz's use of the mirror that is particularly radical in terms of the vernacular of photography: "Kertész's use of mirrors contradicts the traditional understanding of mirrors as something that recreates a motif - reflects it. In Kertész's mirrors, the motifs are rather partly unrecognisable, even if you don't lose touch with the recognisable, as bodily details are recreated with utter precision and draws the spectator back to the motif. Kertész plays with, and partly ionises, the idea that what we see in photographs is real. Rather than seeing the images as studies of the body, we may see them as studies of how the conditions in which we study an object affects our perception of it and how vulnerable we are also in our meeting with the photograph."
Silver gelatin print - Private Collection
Lost Cloud, New York
In this photograph, taken during his first years in New York, Kertész's plays with the concepts of abstraction and figuration. While the simple geometric composition points to a quest for an abstract photograph, the work is, unusually for Kertész, given a full and even poetic title, suggesting that the cloud is the ostensible figurative subject of the work. Next to the monolithic façade of the Rockefeller Center, the cloud looks impermanent and somewhat fragile. The epithet "lost" applied to the cloud gives an emotional element to the work; it has been seen as a visual metaphor for Kertész's own sense of displacement and isolation on his arrival in New York. Kertész's feelings of dislocation were explained in the book Andre Kertesz: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum: "He once said that the cloud represented himself - something without control over its own destiny and subject to the prevailing winds. Rockefeller Center stood for America - a fortress that he as a newly arrived immigrant felt helpless to penetrate."
Silver gelatin print - J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Washington Square, Winter
During his later years in New York, Kertész spent a lot of time photographing the city from the high-angle vantage point of his apartment window, often with a zoom lens. In this photograph, he uses a recent snowfall to create a stark monochromatic contrast between the ground and figuration of the photograph, creating an elegant composition of curving lines. In this image, as in other similar works, Kertész plays with the role of the voyeur (an element of street photography that must be negotiated); his subjects are unaware of the photographer's lens. Robert Gurbo, curator of Kertész's estate, argues that "Surveillance is a technique he used. While the pictures are somewhat voyeuristic, they are really about observing intimacy."
Art historian Graham Clarke on the other hand sees works like this as more concerned with the representation of a city through photography, while drawing on the tension between public and private that inevitably plays out in urban spaces: "Kertész remains very much a photographer of the city as a spectacle which cannot be resolved. The city remains an enigma. As a photograph, it is an endless source of imagery; as an experience, it is endlessly complex and ambivalent. Rather than create a visual space which insists on his own personal identity, he photographs precisely that dangerous ground between urban confusion and private negotiation."
Silver gelatin print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Broken Bench, Long Island
This photograph, from late in his career, is unusual in Kertesz's oeuvre as it contains figures from his personal life. The man in the foreground, apparently surveying the broken bench, is Kertesz's friend and Erzsébet's business partner, Thomas Frank. The man lost his sight, and on the occasion of this photograph Kertesz and his wife had taken him to visit another friend who was in a hospital. The friend can be seen sitting next to Erzsébet on the bench in the distance. As it is argued in the book Andre Kertesz: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, "Kertesz composed this portrait of his extended family quite deliberately. It is full of symbolic meaning, but - aside from its title - the photographer has provided few clues for its interpretation." The "broken bench" which is the ostensible subject of the photograph imbues the scene with a feeling of melancholy and with a metaphorical sense of the breakdown of human relationships, as well as of the human mind and body. The fact that benches are often dedicated to lost loved ones also gives the scene a memorialising aspect.
Silver gelatin print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Biography of André Kertész
André Kertész (christened Andor), was born on July 2nd, 1894, in Budapest (Hungary), to middle-class Jewish parents. He was the second (between Imre and Jenő) of three sons. His father, Lipót Kertész, was a bookseller specializing in classical Hungarian literature, and a stockbroker; his mother, Ernesztin Hoffmann, in addition to raising her three sons, sold coffee in Teleki Square. The family also owned two modest plots of land. From the age of about six, Andor would often visit nearby relatives who allowed him to build a den in their attic. There he came across old copies of Die Gartenlaube, a German newspaper. Die Gartenlaube was illustrated with woodcuts and lithography and Andor daydreamed that he might one day produce images like this. By all accounts his was a happy childhood but his wanderlust showed itself at an early age when, at just 12 years old, he packed a suitcase with books (and his flute) and set off to 'discover the world'. His short-lived adventure notwithstanding, he attended elementary school on Szív Street, and later, at the Realschule on Reáltanoda Street. His father died In 1909 of tuberculosis. Following this family tragedy, paternal duties passed to his uncle, Lipót Hoffmann (Ernesztin's brother), who became the boys' official guardian. The family moved into Lipót's countryside home close to the Danube River and André spent happy hours fishing and bathing on its banks. Lipót took his new responsibilities seriously and paid for his nephew to attend the Academy of Commerce in Budapest. Andor duly graduated in 1912 taking up a post at the Giro Bank of the Budapest Stock and Commodity Exchange in the same year.
Early Training and Work
Kertész bought his first camera (an Ica-Platten-Camera Ariso No 4) with his very first wage packet (he was 18 years old). Kertész spent many free hours in the Szigetbecse region with his prized camera photographing landscapes and peasant life while learning how to develop and manipulate photographs in the darkroom. It was now 1914 and the first world war had just broken out. Kertész joined the army (accounts differ as to whether he volunteered or whether he was conscripted) and he fought on the Polish and Russian Fronts with the 26th Infantry. While engaged in combat, he used a lightweight camera to document life in the trenches, until Kertész himself was wounded in 1915. He was sent to convalesce in Budapest and then in Esztergom, where, over a broken period of two years, he took a further series of 'military' photographs. With the backing of other members of his regiment, he put together a small collection - said to be between 12 and 24 - of postcards with all proceeds going to the Red Cross. In the same year (1917) he had two pictures published - Peasants in Sunday Dress and Tale - in the magazine Érdekes Újság. Kertész did not return to the front line and after the armistice he returned to his previous employment as a stock broker. 1919 saw Hungary's second revolution in as many years as the Hungarian Soviet Republic was established. It was during these tumultuous times that Kertész met his future wife Erzsébet (Elizabeth). Erzsébet also worked at the stock exchange though the couple made earnest plans to give up their careers in finance for a new life in agriculture.
Around the same time Kertész became associated with a clique of young Hungarian artists including Vilmos Aba-Novák, István Szőnyi, Erzsébet Korb, Imre, Soós, Emil Novotny, and Gyula Zilzer. It was at this exciting time in his life that he started to dream of life amongst the avant-gardist in Paris, though that idea did not sit well with his family at that time. In the summer of 1921 he took what became one of his most well-known photographs, A Blind Musician, while a year later, two of his images, Törökbálint on a Late Afternoon in Summer and On the Way Home, helped cement his growing reputation following a city exhibition. In 1924 he became a member of the National Association of Hungarian Amateur Photographers and exhibited Kálvin Sqaure, Sping and Spring Mood at the 4th Artistic Photography Exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts. His modernist credentials were only enhanced when his award was reduced from a medal to a certificate because of his refusal to make Bromoil prints (the picture softening process that promoted Pictorialism over 'truth') from his photos. In 1925 Kertész's image The Night at Tabán appeared on the cover of a newsstand magazine. It was a night-time shot that had called for an eight- to ten-minute long exposure time.
In September 1925 Kertész (leaving Erzsébet and his family behind) headed for Montparnasse: "I went to Paris because I just had to go" he said later "I didn't know why. I had a small amount of money to keep me going for a while, I had my creative power, and I had my dreams." He would spend the next eleven years in Paris. Kertész changed his name from Andor to the French-sounding André and bought a 35mm Leica camera (from now on a camera of choice). Well versed in the languages of modernism, he sought out the Dadaists and members of the growing Surrealist movement. He became acquainted too with people such as Piet Mondrian and the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, but Kertész's very limited grasp of the French language meant that he was always considered something of an interloper; though he turned that idea - the outsider looking in - to his advantage through a photographic style that has often been labelled 'melancholic'. According to legend, indeed, the Dadaist poet Paul Dermé named Kertész "Brother Seeing Eye", after the only fully-sighted monk in a medieval monastery where all the other monks were blind.
Soon after his arrival (in Paris), Kertész was introduced the journalist and picture editor Gyula Halász. In Halász, Kertész had found a compatriot who spoke fluent French and the two men formed a life-long friendship. Moreover, Halász was looking for someone to illustrate his articles and the two men worked together on several articles for Lucien Vogel's weekly French pictorial, VU. It was Kertész indeed who taught Halász the techniques of photographing at night, and he helped nurture in his friend and colleague, an appreciation for the artistic possibilities for photography and how to create beautifully crafted compositions by respecting the natural geometry and form within the frame. Halász was so captivated by their experiences that he too became a night photographer of special renown, going under the pseudonym: Brassaï . In 1927, Kertész's growing reputation meant that he became the first photographer in Paris to have a solo exhibition.
Although Kertész never spoke publicly about their relationship (probably because he remained betrothed to Erzsébet), in 1928 he was married in secret to Rogi André (née Rosza Klein). Kertész coached his French-Hungarian wife in photography and, following their official divorce in 1932, she went on to enjoy a successful career as a portrait photographer (photographing, indeed, many of the greatest artists of the modernist movement). For his part, Kertész had by now become a well-known and respected figure and his successes meant that he was able to bring Erzsébet to Paris in 1930. The couple married in Paris in 1933.
During the 1930s, the shifting sands of European politics, and the increasing persecution of Jews, left Kertész and Erzsébet feeling anxious and unsettled. In 1936, Kertész accepted an invitation from the Keystone Press Agency and the couple emigrated to New York. That decision was made easier because New York was supplanting Paris as the international hub for art and the avant-garde. Kertész had picked up a year-long contract with Keystone Pictures (a filmmaking company) but the collaboration was a failure, and he had to make ends meet through commercial photography, particularly fashion photography. The couple had only intended to visit America on a short-term visa but the crisis in Europe meant that returning to Paris was not a viable option. But New York was not an easy place to live either. After problems with passports and citizenship applications, André and Erzsébet were labelled "enemy aliens", and Kertész was unable to take photographs openly for a time in case his activities were deemed illegal. André and Erzsébet eventually gained citizenship in 1944, but by this point Kertész had, relatively speaking, fallen into artistic obscurity. Over the next couple of decades, Kertész continued to work mostly on commercial assignments.
It would be some twenty years before the now seventy-year-old Kertész would see a revival in his art. In October 1963 he travelled to Hungary as an honorary guest of the Association of Hungarian Photographers. This was followed by a solo exhibition at MoMA New York in 1964. The exhibition did much to rehabilitate his reputation and he became a newly sought-after figure for gallerists and collectors. The MoMA showing was followed by an exhibition of 68 of his photographs in the Hungarian National Gallery in 1971. Erzsébet died of cancer in 1977 and this merely compounded the artist's sense of isolation. Indeed, the fact that had never fully mastered the English language had seen him effectively annexed from the city's artistic community. He did preserve relationships with some of the most important figures in visual arts in Europe however. Kertész photographed the sculptor Henry Moore in his studio in 1980, for instance, and he maintained a close friendship with his compatriot, Brassaï. On March 16, 1984, Pál Losonczi, chairman of the Presidential Council, marked Kertész's life with The Order of the Flag of the Republic of Hungary (he was the only photographer to ever received this national Honor). Kertész died on 29 September 1985 in New York and amongst his possessions were 100,000 negatives, most of which were undeveloped during his lifetime (and many of which remain unseen to this day).
The Legacy of André Kertész
Two years after his death the André Kertész Memorial Museum was opened in Szigetbecse, the place of his childhood. It was confirmation that despite the relative anonymity through which he lived for much of his life, Kertész's influence on photography was significant and widespread. Known primarily for his poetic street photography and his transcendental still life's, his images possessed an honest artistic integrity that drew admiration from so many of his contemporaries. His work influenced photographers of no less a standing as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Kertész's one-time 'student' Brassaï: Cartier-Bresson exclaimed "each time Andre Kertész's shutter clicks, I feel his heart beating" while Brassaï observed that Kertész had possessed the "two qualities essential for a great photographer: an insatiable curiosity about life and a precise sense of form."
In 1964, on the occasion of Kertész's most important retrospective the New York MoMA, meanwhile, the photography writer and historian John Szarkowski placed his work in the bigger context of the twentieth century modernism when he wrote: "Kertész's work, perhaps more than any other photographer, defined the direction in which modern European photography developed." His influence has also been noted more recently by a popular artists and critics including the singer and photography collector Elton John, who suggested that his Underwater Swimmer (1917) might be "the most influential photograph of the twentieth century."