Friday, October 14, 2011

André Kertész: The Hungry Photographer

Great Artists

Everything is a subject. Every subject has a rhythm. To feel it is the raison d'être. The photograph is a fixed moment of such a raison d'être, which lives on in itself.
André Kertész

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

I never know what I am doing. I am going out without thinking photographing. I am going around. . . see something that will give me the idea. I do.
André Kertész

André Kertész [1894-1985]: At the New York Public Library, 1982.
Photo Credit: Arpadi, 1982
Source: Wikipedia
André Kertész has once been quoted as saying, "I am still hungry." It might have been that this gnawing hunger made him the innovator that he became, since recognition eluded him for so many years after his move to America in the 1930s. Kertész is now recognized as one of the most important figures in photojournalism and art photography, and a pioneer in small-format photography. He influenced a generation of photographers like Man Ray, Brassai, Moholy Nagy, Berenice Abbott, and Cartier-Bresson, who said. "We all owe something to Kertész."

Even so, Kertész often complained that he didn't gain the recognition that he deserved. It's likely true, looking back in retrospect, and we can offer a few clues why this was so: It might have been the quick early recognition in Europe followed by a struggle in America.  It might have been his lack of command of English, so important in America. It might have been timing, and what all immigrants experienced moving from Europe to America. 

It took a while for his European modernist sensibility to become accepted in the United States, where  Kertész struggled for decades to regain what he had lost after leaving France. Yet, success did eventually come later in life, when Kertész was in his seventies, finally gaining public recognition for such iconic photographs as Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom (1918), Chez Mondrian's (1926), The Fork (1928), Broken Plate (1929), and Washington Square (1954). These number among the most famous photographs of the twentieth century.
Growing Up in Hungary

André Kertész was born Andor Kertész born to Lipót Kertész and Ernesztin Kertész (nee Hoffmann) in Budapest, Hungary, on July 2, July 1894. He was one of three sons born into a middle-class Jewish family, where his father worked as a bookseller.  His father died from tuberculosis, in 1908, when André was fourteen. After the death of his father, his uncle Lipót Hoffmann (his mother's brother), a stock broker, took care of the family, soon moving them to his country estate in Szigetbecse, outside Pest.

He paid for his education at the Academy of Commerce, from which he graduated in 1912, and  also arranged his first job at the stock exchange. His older brother, Imre, was already working there, and remained there his whole working life.

Not so André, known to his friends as "Bandi," who had expressed other artistic interests, having been drawn to the world of photos when he found a photographic manual in an attic. He was self-taught, and began taking pictures when he was sixteen. His first known photograph was "Sleeping Boy, Budapest," taken in 1912. In 1913 he acquired his first camera, an Ica box camera, and announced plans to his family that he wanted to leave the world of business and become a photographer.

Kertész: (right) and Robert Doisneau, at Arles in the south of France, in 1975. The photograph was taken during the 6èmes Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie.
Photo Credit: Wolfgang H. Wögerer, Vienna, 1975
Source: Wikipedia
In 1914 he served in the Austro-Hungarian army, where at the age of 20 he was sent to the front. Staioned there, he took pictures of war in the trenches with another camera, a lightweight Goerz Tenax. In 1915, he suffered a war injury to his right hand, when struck by a bullet, which left him paralyzed for some time. Convalescing at Esztergom, he continued to take photographs, including the famous distorted view of an underwater swimmer. By then, he began to consider himself a photographer, notably when his photographs were published in the magazine, Érdekes Újság.

Even so, after the First World War ended and a peace treaty signed, Kertész returned to working in the stock exchange. Although unhappy there— he left numerous times to try his hand at other endeavors, including beekeeping— he returned at the insistence of his family nodding to practicality and familial obligations. He was practical by day and took photographs in his free time. The stock exchange, however, offered one bright hope, in the person of Elizabeth Sali (Salamon), who would become his future wife and subject of many of his photographs.

In 1925, a big break came when the Hungarian news magazine Érdekes Újság used one of his photographs for its cover (June 26th), giving him widespread national exposure. It was then that he decided to move to Paris, France, arriving at the centre of artistic life in Europe in September 1925.

Breakthrough in Paris

While in Paris, Kertész changed his first name to André, and quickly established himself as a photographer. working for a number of magazines across Europe, including L'Art vivant, L'Image, and Vogue, but most notably Vu. He also rubbed shoulders with the principals of the Dada and Cubism movements, making acquaintances with painters such as Marc Chagall and Piet Mondrian and film-maker Sergei Eisenstein, of whom he took portraits. 

In 1927, he began his series Distortions, and in 1928, he started using a 35mm Leica, which became his signature camera. This was a highly productive period for Kertész, who devoted his time between lucrative magazine work and personal photography. It was also a very happy period, meeting both his artistic curiosity and financial well-being.

Kertész published Enfants, in 1933, dedicated to his fiancee Elizabeth and his mother, who had died that year. Other published books soon followed, including Paris (1934) and Nos Amies les bêtes (1936). He was both a commercial and critical success. All that he lacked was someone with whom to share that success, and that was Elizabeth Sali, whom Kertész married on June 17, 1933. They remained together for more than 40 years until Elizabeth, a successful and astute businesswoman, died of lung cancer in 1977.

A Tough Time in America

The rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s resulted in political stories and photographs becoming predominant. This was bad news for Kertész on two fronts: he was apolitical and he was Jewish, leaving him with less magazine work and few over-all commissions. André and Elizabeth Kertész decided to move to New York, boarding the SS Washington and arriving at Ellis Island on October 15, 1936.

In the PBS "American Masters" series, we read that Kertész did not achieve instant success in America.

In 1936, after the death of his mother and his marriage to Elizabeth Saly, he moved to New York, where he had been engaged by the Keystone Agency. Though he canceled the contract only a year later, the progress of the war made his return to Paris impossible. Unable to leave and treated like an enemy by the government (which prevented him from publishing for several years), Kertesz was caught in tragic uncompromising circumstances. When the war ended Kertesz had lost the momentum of a supportive artistic community, but continued to live in the States due to health and familial considerations.
Kertész was also limited by his lack of English; he had learned French while in Paris, in addition to his native Hungarian. He also found it surprising that Americans did not like to have their photos taken on the street. So, that meant one thing. He returned to magazine work, biding his time until he either transformed himself to suit the tastes of his adopted country or until they caught up and accepted his tastes. In 1937 his began his association with Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Town & Country, and many other magazines; and from 1949 to 1962 he worked continuously for Condé Nast, a well-known publisher. (He and his wife, Elizabeth, became a U.S. citizens in 1944.) 

It was a humbling experience, notes the Stephen Daitler Gallery on its site:

By 1947 Kertész, after years of frustration, accepted an offer from the renowned art designer Alexander Liberman to work as a staff photographer for Condé Nast’s House & Garden magazine, a position far below his artistic capabilities. The photographer spent the next fifteen years creating refined images of interiors and architectural details of the homes of the rich and famous.
Yet, he was not satisfied artistically, hungry for something more. Working for magazines were full of harsh constraints on his curiosity, and in 1962, at the age of 68, deeply embittered by his lack of artistic and commercial success in America, Kertész broke his magazine contract to pursue his art. That is what he did for the next 23 years, defining himself as an "amateur" in what he called his "international period." 

The International Period

In short, he wanted to re-create what he had left in Paris, says the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University:
Although he had many commercial contracts, Kertész was unable to rebuild the artistic community he had left behind in Paris. The fact that he also left his archive of negatives behind contributed to his feelings of isolation and discontent. In 1963 he recovered the negatives, which had been hidden in a chateau in the south of France during the WWII.
That must have been the catharsis that Kertész needed to once again transform himself. So, when John Szarkowski became director of the Department of Photography for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, he arranged a one-man show, and Kertész had a breakthrough. Art photography was now coming of age in the U.S. His work reflected the view of taking photos of the moment. Some of his best work was taken with a telephoto lens from his 12th-floor apartment window overlooking Washington Square Park in New York City.

By the 1970s, Kertész had established himself as the elder statesman of photography, showing his work in galleries around the world. Just when he regained his artistic balance, and was known internationally, his wife died of lung cancer. But he continued on, the curiosity leading him forward. In 1979, for example, he experimented with a then-new technology, a Poloroid SX-70 camera. 

Many awards and honorary doctorates came his way in the 1970s and '80s, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1974), a honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Bard College (1981), title of Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, France (1983), and first Annual Master of Photography Award, the International Center of Photography (1985).

The Beautiful People

had an appreciation of beauty in the world. That is no small matter, when beauty itself has become another commodity to be acquired. The childlike appreciation of beauty actually takes years of work to develop, and it is precious, because like anything truly precious it is rare. In the 1973 art book, Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski says of Kertész:
In addition to this splendid and original quality of formal invention there is in the work of Kertész another quality less easily analyzed, but surely no less important. It is a sense of the sweetness of life, a free childlike pleasure in the beauty of the world and the preciousness of sight.
André Kertész died peacefully in his sleep at his home in New York City on September 28, 1985. He was 91 After he was cremated, his ashes were interred with those of his wife, his beloved Elizabeth.