André Kertész - Biography and Legacy
New York, US
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. He had become a well-known and respected figure and his artistic successes meant that he was able to bring Erzsébet out to Paris to join him. The couple finally 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."