On Fame and Photography: The André Kertész Story

andre kertesz fork

In brief:

  • Fame can be a fickle thing: sometimes the ones who would deserve it the most go without it in their life and only get recognition posthumously. For André Kertész, acknowledgement did come during his life but he felt under-appreciated regardless.
  • The photographic career of André Kertész is usually divided into four periods: The Hungarian period, the French period, the American period and the International period.
  • André Kertész’s first camera was a 1912 ICA box camera. He also photographed with a Goerz Tenax folding camera before switching to a 35mm Leica camera. At the end of his career, in the 70s, Kertész was donated a Polaroid camera by the Polaroid Corporation itself. He used the camera to make remarkable images that were a continuation of the themes he’d explored all his life: simplicity and distortion.
  • André Kertész was the first photographer ever to have his own solo exhibition at an art gallery. His show at the Sacre du Printemps gallery in Paris in 1927 was received favourably by critics. Throughout his career, Kertész’s photographs were exhibited in dozens of galleries all over the world.

Info box: Early Cameras Used by André Kertész >>

Why does fame come too late for many of us? Why are some talented people not recognised before their death and others never?

The lack of perceived esteem was something that plagued photographer André Kertész (1894-1985) all his life. Despite being one of the pioneers of photojournalism and having been admired by such preeminent fellow photographers as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Brassaï, Kertész still felt that he didn’t get the respect due to him.

Whether he was underestimated by his contemporaries or not is a question which requires understanding of history as well as psychological insight to unravel.

Any amount of publicity and accolades may not be enough for a person whose innate sense of worth has been compromised at an early stage of life. On the other hand, an overly inflated ego will demand more and more, regardless of circumstances.

In Kertész’s case, the recognition was there, almost from the beginning. It continued all through his long life in the form of photo assignments from newspapers and magazines as well as exhibitions by the world’s top museums. The acknowledgements even included honorary doctorates from many colleges and universities.

The fickleness of fame should not surprise anyone who’s striven for perfection in their work and finds it superseded in public perception by inferior outputs. Contemporary opinions are always unpredictable and untrustworthy; the true value of an artist’s work can only be seen from a historical perspective.

Thirty years after his death, André Kertész has well and truly secured his place in the 20th centrury Photography Hall of Fame.

In fact, his standing as a world-renowned photographer had been uncontested long before the end of his career.

The fact that it took Kertész decades to appreciate the admiration his work received was perhaps a personal tragedy for him, as well as a lesson in the importance of gratitude for all of us.

Early Life and the Hungarian Period

andre kertesz sleeping boy

André Kertész was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary on 2 July 1894. His father, Lipot Kertész, was a literary man infused in classics who supported his family, with varying success, by selling books and working at the stock exchange. Kertész’s mother, Ernestin Hoffmann, supplemented the family income by selling coffee at a market square in Budapest.

André – whose real name was Andor and who was nicknamed “Bandi” – was the middle child of three sons. From early on, Kertész was drawn to arts and photography but managed to finish his studies at the Academy of Commerce in Budapest in 1912.

After graduating, Kertész found work at the Giro Bank of the Budapest Stock Exchange. He acquired his first camera, a 1912 ICA box camera, with which he photographed peasants and gypsies of his native country, as well as the landscapes on the Hungarian Puszta.

One of his earliest photographs, the Sleeping Boy, was made in 1912. His first published photograph appeared in the Hungarian magazine Érdekes Ujság a few years later, in 1917.

Kertész had been enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army since the beginning of World War I. He photographed the war scenes with a Goerz Tenax, a cheap folding camera manufactured by the German camera maker Anstalt C.P. Goerz AG in Friedenau, Berlin, between 1912 and 1926.

The young photographer was wounded at war in 1915, suffering a temporary paralysis in his left arm. He convalesced at a military hospital in Budapest from where he was transferred to a North-Hungarian town of Esztergom, some 45 kilometres northwest of Budapest.

In Esztergom, Kertész continued photographing. The well-known photograph “Underwater Swimmer” – the only surviving example in a series of photos – is from this period.

andre kertesz underwater swimmer

After the war, Kertész returned to his job at the stock exchange where he met his fiancee and future wife, Erzsebet Salomon, also known as Elizabeth Saly.

In the 1920s, Kertész briefly tried his hand in beekeeping but soon returned to work in the stock exchange. He spent his spare time honing his photography skills by photographing Elizabeth and his brother Jeno, among others.

Kertész’s photography career took an upturn in 1923 when he received a diploma from the Hungarian Photographer’s Association. A couple of years later, in 1925, the news magazine Érdekes Ujság again used one of his photographs, this time on the cover of the publication. As a result, Kertész gained some publicity as a photographer in Hungary.

The French Period

andre kertesz stairs of montmartre

In 1925, André Kertész moved to Paris where he freelanced for various European magazines and spent time with other Hungarian expatriots, including François Kollar, Robert Capa, Emeric Feher, Brassaï and Julia Bathony.

Kertész had his first one-man photography exhibition (which was also the first solo exhibition by any photographer ever) at the Sacre du Printemps gallery in Paris in 1927. The show was successful and received positive reviews.

At this time, he also photographed portraits of fellow artists such as the painters Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger and Marc Chagall; writer Colette, film director Sergei Eisenstein, the French-Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, and the American sculptor Alexander Calder.

In 1928, Kertész switched to using Leica cameras. As smaller format cameras, they were well-suited for street photography.

In the same year, Kertész married a Hungarian-born painter Rosza Klein who, under his tutelage, became a famous portrait photographer using the name Rogi André. The marriage was terminated four years later, in 1932, and Kertész never referred to it in his later interviews.

Kertész continued photographing for magazines. His pictures were published in French periodicals Vu and Art et Médecine as well as in the German publications Münchner Illustrierte and Bilfur.

After being encouraged to make photo essays by Lucien Vogel, the editor of Vu magazine, Kertész shot a series of female nudes. These famous photographs depict the female form in an abstract manner, reflected and distorted by mirrors. The photos were published in a book form in 1933 under the name Distortions.

Other books followed. Enfants, dedicated to Elizabeth and the photographer’s late mother, came out in 1933.

A book titled Paris, which was dedicated to Kertész’s brothers Imre and Jeno, was published in 1934.

The year 1936 saw the publication of Nos amies les betes (Our Friends the Animals).

Les Cathédrals du vin (The Cathedrals of Wine) was printed the following year, in 1937.

Marriage and the American Period

andre kertesz washington square park

Kertész married Elisabeth Saly on June 17 1933. In 1936, Kertész got a work offer from the Keystone Press Agency and the couple moved to New York. The timing was fortuitous as Europe began its rapid plunge into the darkness of World War II.

The time in New York was difficult for Kertész, however. He felt displaced, with no artistic friends and with the people on the street hostile to photography. He also had difficulty learning English, which further alienated him. His own description of the early times in the U.S. was terse: “Absolute tragedy”.

In 1937, Kertész left his job at the Keystone Agency but continued commissioned work for Town and Country as well as Harper’s Bazaar magazines, among others. He was also approached by Vogue but turned the offer down because he felt work for a fashion magazine was beneath him.

He later changed his mind and worked for Vogue for a spell. He finally severed ties with them, however, when his work was not included in the June 1941 photography issue of Vogue.

As Hungary was part of the Axis powers in World War II, Kertész, along with his wife, were “designated as enemy aliens.” He was forbidden to photograph anywhere out of doors or on any project related to national security, effectively halting his photojournalistic work for the remainder of the war.

After the war, the Kertész couple became American citizens. André started working for magazines again and, in 1946, signed an exclusive contract with an American mass media company Condé Nast to photograph for the House and Garden magazine.

As part of his job, he would spend the next fifteen or so years making about 3000 photos of famous houses and landmarks for the magazine in America and elsewhere.

During this time, Kertész continued his personal work by publishing books and exhibiting at museums. The book Day of Paris, with photos taken before emigration into the United States, was published in 1945, to a favourable response from the critics. The Art Institute of Chicago organised a solo exhibition of Kertész’s work in 1946.

In 1952, the Kertészs moved into an apartment near the Washington Square Park in New York City from where he would photograph many of his famous photographs of the park covered in snow.

The International Period

andre kertesz polaroid

Kertész ended his contract with the House and Garden magazine in 1961, embarking on his personal career with full swing again.

This move effectively started the final phase of Kertész’s career which for him meant travelling around the world to visit an almost endless stream of exhibitions. This period also brought with it the long-awaited international fame and recognition.

During his world tours, Kertész would be making new friends and “rekindling” old friendships, especially after the death of his wife in 1977.

At the end of the 70s, Kertész was given a Polaroid camera by the Polaroid Corporation. The experimental polaroids, taken by Kertész during the end of a long photographic career, are a beautiful testimonial to the vision of a photographer who hardly ever commented on his work, except to say that it depicted the “simplicity of life”.

The Fleeting, Lasting Fame

andre kertesz new york 1975, photo by david_moore

André Kertész searched for recognition and appreciation throughout his life. Despite the inevitable international photography celebrity status, he remained unsatisfied with the lack of intellectual and other commentary or criticism.

The photographer – who saw his work as “writing with light” – had no political agendas at a time when political alliances made and broke friendships and fostered professional relationships.

His “timeless” aesthetic language with its nostalgic overtones may also not have been truly appreciated by the contemporaries – a common fate of artists whose work turns out to have lasting qualities.

Whatever the reason for the real or imagined slight of Kertész by the photographic establishment, his work has proven to be an inspiration for many photographers in the past and in the present.

The two other Hungarian photographers, mentioned in the beginning of this article, Brassaï and Robert Capa, as well as Henri Cartier-Bresson, all learned from Kertész. According to Cartier-Bresson, “we all owe him a great deal.”

Of the contemporary photographers, the American street photographer and blogger Eric Kim has written about the lessons he’s learned from Kertész.

André Kertész was one of the forerunners of photojournalism as well as a pioneer in the use a handheld cameras in street photography.

Many of his photographs are characterised by a high vantage point, as in the series on the Washington State Park, taken with a telephoto lens from the window of his apartment in New York City.

His photographs are always poetically constructed with a formal appreciation of the laws of composition. There is an exhilarating sense of space and freedom in many of them – as if they belonged to two different eras at once: the present and an unknown future.

André Kertész died at his home in New York at the age of 91 on 28 December 1985.

Early Cameras Used by André Kertész

ICA Box Cameras

ICA box cameras were manufactured by ICA, or Internationale Camera AG, between 1911 and 1925. The company was based in Dresden, Germany and founded in 1909. It was a joint venture of four German camera makers: Hüttig AG from Dresden, Kamerawerk DR. Krüneger from Frankfurt, Wünsche AG from Reick, and Carl Zeiss Palmos AG from Jena.

The early box cameras were most likely made of thin steel sheet metal. They had a 4.5x6cm negative and cost four Reichs Mark each, which was a very cheap price.

The cameras allowed you to load six photographic plates at a time which were then automatically advanced for exposure.

The complete camera kit, including 12 photo plates, 10 sheets of photographic paper, 10 photo frames, as well as the chemicals and the tools for developing and making photo prints cost 8.5 Reichs Marks, which would still have been relatively affordable.

Goerz Tenax Folding Camera

Goerz Tenax was a folding camera manufactured by the German camera maker Anstalt C.P. Goerz AG in Friedenau, Berlin, between 1912 and 1926. It had an aluminium body covered with leather and a bellows system which allowed for precise focusing.

This medium to large format camera utilised glass plates for photographic negatives. It came in three different formats: 9x12cm, 10x15cm and 13x18cm.

It used a variety of lenses which were all manufactured by Goerz, including the f6.8 Kalostigmat, the f6.8 or the f7.7 Dagor and the f6.8 Trilentar.


Sources:

André Kertész: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andr%C3%A9_Kert%C3%A9sz
Andre Kertesz, 91, Pioneer in Photography, Dies: https://mobile.nytimes.com/1985/09/30/arts/andre-kertesz-91-pioneer-in-photography-dies.html
André Kertész: Hungarian-born American Photographer: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Andre-Kertesz
Chronology – André Kertész and Szigetbecse: http://maimano.hu/en/chronology-andre-kertesz-and-szigetbecse-2/
10 Lessons Andre Kertesz Has Taught Me About Street Photography: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2013/09/16/10-lessons-andre-kertesz-has-taught-me-about-street-photography/
Goerz Taro Tenax: http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Goerz_Taro_Tenax
ICA: http://camera-wiki.org/wiki/ICA
Ica cameras in 1913: https://ludens.cl/photo/ica/camera.html
Ica catalogs: https://sites.google.com/site/fromthefocalplanetoinfinity/ica
Dagor: http://camera-wiki.org/wiki/Dagor


All photos copyright (c) the estate of André Kertész, except the portrait of André Kertész copyright (c) David Moore

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