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Andre Kertesz (1894 - 1985)

Andre Kertesz is one of the 20th century's most original and accomplished photographers. Throughout his very long career, he remained loyal to a vision and style that was uniquely his, despite the frequent pressures, both commercial and artistic, to conform to a more familiar approach.

Kertesz was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1894. By the age of 18 he had been prepared for a career in business, and that is indeed the course he pursued for the next 13 years. But his work at the stock exchange was rather stuttering, chiefly because he had discovered photography, as an 18 year-old, and it was his constant pre-occupation.

During this period, Kertesz steadily refined his skill as a photographer, and eventually saw his images printed regularly in national publications. But despite being surrounded by an early 20th century photographic culture characterized by rather 'naf' salon portraits and landscapes, Kertesz's only creative influence was his own eye, and the camera itself.

He experimented with the camera and what he could achieve with it. He was never fooled into thinking that there was 'good light' and 'bad light', but took pictures in sunny, cloudy, rainy and foggy conditions, with equally interesting results. After 13 years of photographing Budapest and the surrounding area, he had compiled a wonderful portfolio, and developed a passion for the medium.

His Hungary images are snapshots of the day-to-day goings on in the final throws of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There are family portraits, pictures of friends, street musicians, gypsies, village communities and so on. The minutiae of life in a time of big social and political change. Many of these images are taken from a high vantage point, a favourite technique of Kertesz, which seems to create a strong sense of the rootedness of people in their physical place.

At the age of 31 Kertesz knew that he was a photographer and not a businessman. So he felt the time was right to move to the centre of the universe for anyone with an artistic disposition: Paris. He arrived in the French capital as an outsider, but felt immediately that he belonged there.


The challenge he faced, both creatively and financially, in making something of himself as a photographer, was magnified by the contemporary attitude towards photography, to the extent that it made claims as an art. But in time, it was his unique eye, unlike that of anyone else, that enabled his work to gain traction with the rebellious, forward-looking artists and critics of inter-war Paris.

The images that Kertesz began producing in Paris were ostensibly street photographs. But that term usually describes a documentary perspective: a close-up, hard-hitting recording of real life with a sociological eye. Kertesz, instead, photographed the streets as formal structures, with the coming-and-going of people relevant only insofar as they featured in this visual scheme.

His images were far from lifeless, though. He was very much concerned with freezing moments of decisive action, but the action itself was not the subject. Passers-by, cyclists and horse drawn carts were merely utilized as accessories to perfect formal compositions, and the interplay between shadow anlight. These were moments of artistic order and beauty plucked from the passing events of everyday life. Kertesz's Paris street scenes pull together all available objects, buidlings, people and events in the creation of precisely organized and beautiful images.

Homing Ship
Homing Ship

Before long, favourable critical reaction and increasing interest amongst galleries saw Kertesz become part of the avant-garde of Parisian artists. He refined his style over the following years, drawing from the work and ideas of his friends like Mondrian, Chagall, Lurcat and Vladminck. His fascination with form led him to an extended experiment with distorting mirrors, culminating in the publication of his second book, Distortions in the Sourire. He would position models and still life objects, typical representations of beauty, in front of the mirror and photograph their elongated, disrupted forms.

These images were light-hearted, many of them first published in the humour magazine Le Sourire, but they were also experiments in Kertesz's lifelong fascination with objectively beautiful things, and the quest for formal perfection.

Kertesz was offered a contract by American picture agency Keystone Studios in 1937, which he accepted, against the counsel of many friends in Paris. 8 months later the contract had been fulfilled, and Kertesz found himself in New York, with the prospect of returning to Paris on the brink of war. He chose to stay in America for the time being, and re-forge his career and reputation there.

Although the USA embraced photography wholeheartedly, its potential as an artistic medium had not been recognized to the extent that it had been in Europe. Fascinatingly, when Kertesz sought work with the wonderful LIFE magazine, he was told that his image "spoke too much". At the time, most American publications wanted images that accompanied text, and for that to be their primary purpose. Even though the editors could see the originality and depth of Kertesz's work, they were not prepared to afford the photography that they published with a voice of its own.

It was some 20 years befor attitudes began to change in a big away in America. So for much of the time that Kertesz lived in New York, he worked to the instructions of magazine editors and agencies. Conde Nast Publications awarded him a contract, which enabled him and his wife Elizabeth, to live relatively comfortably, with a secure income.

But he never abandoned his real photographic vision and passion. He would often work with 2 cameras, 1 for an assignment and the other, his old Leica, for personal use. As a result, his time in America did yield some interesting work. The extraordinary sense of form and space that he had refined in Paris was brought to bear on the bold, high-rise skyline of New York.

Kertesz had to wait until he was 70 years old before critics and curators in America responded to his work in the way that their Parisian counterparts had done all those years earlier. During the 1960's his world was given a great deal of exposure, particularly by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which hosted a large one-man exchibition in 1964.

Chez Mondrain
Chez Mondrain
André Kertész

Andre Kertesz died in 1985 at the age of 91, in New York. The work that he produced remained original and fresh, from the age of 18 right through to the end of his career. His ability to conjure perfect compostions from the real world of moving, changing things helped photography as a whole gain recognition as a viable art form.

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