Two hundred prints by the late, more than great Andre Kertesz are displayed as “Mirroring Life” at the fotomuseum of Amsterdam (FOAM). The exhibit appears in coordination with the Jeu de Paume in Paris (the government of France owns Kertesz’s massive estate of negatives and prints). Kertesz was born in Budapest in 1894 and died at his home in New York in 1985. In between he helped create the language of photography, so that, in viewing Kertesz’s work, one thinks, “Ah, I’ve seen that before! I must have taken that photo!” – because Kertesz TAUGHT one to see that way, whether it be a small tree covered with snow, or a man sitting on a park bench, or a middle-aged couple peeking through a knothole to see a circus behind the fence. There is the sad tulip and the pair of still life compositions that bring Mondrian’s studio to life without Mondrian in it.
These are photographs that make us richer and happier even when they are steeped in melancholy. For me they are photographs that make life even more worth living, by showing me moments of the miraculous quotidian. Even this cloud takes on a coy personality.
Like all photographers, Kertesz trained his eye throughout his life – but his early photos, as a teen and young man in Hungary, already demonstrate the compositional genius and feeling for depicting human love and longing that characterize his oeuvre.
There is a photo of a soldier sitting in a quiet barracks in 1915, writing a letter. The very tilt of the man’s eyelashes – I kid you not – suggest that whatever else he has viewed, he is able to enter just a moment of quiet with his pen and paper.
Kertesz was wounded in the war; I have to say, as a historian, that he was damned lucky to escape that way. He continued after the war to develop his photography, and in the 1920s he gave in to the artist’s inevitable and moved to Paris. I’d say that his Paris photos are the most joyous of his large oeuvre, but maybe that’s because his biographers depict him as happiest during the Paris years.
Along with Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson , and more than Brassai, Kertesz leaves us a vision of Paris in the twenties that, yes, makes us long to have been there. (In fact, he was a bit older than any of those three photographers.)
In the mid-thirties Kertesz and his wife, Elizabeth, migrated to the United States so that he could take up a contract with a New York photo agency. The relationship with the agency was unsatisfactory, and Kertesz broke the contract after a couple of years. He longed to return to France, but initially he didn’t have enough money, and later the war broke out, making travel foolhardy. In any case his work seems to have been suspect in Nazi eyes, despite its neutral content. Meanwhile Elizabeth founded a very successful cosmetics company that helped support the couple while Kertesz found his New York legs.
Apparently he never felt successful or appreciated in the U.S. until quite late in life, despite a succession of high profile magazine contracts. Perhaps this feeling of neglect is understandable, as he was unaccountably left out of several important mid-century lists and recognitions, including the Family of Man exhibit. A solo exhibit in Chicago in 1946 changed his mood and led to further notice. But not until his discovery by John Szarkowski of New York’s MoMA in the early sixties did he feel that his work had been recognized as belonging at the center of the world photographic tradition.
This assessment makes Kertesz sound a bit vain and self-important. First, this is not reflected in his contemporaries’ assessment of him. Another fan, Stan Kulesa, reflected a few years ago that when he met Kertesz and told him Kertesz was his favorite photographer, Kertesz asked him if he too was a photographer. Only an amateur, Kulesa responded — to which Kertesz remarked that he himself was an eternal amateur. Further, there is nothing about the prima donna in Kertesz’s work, in which the photographer does not call attention to himself or his genius, but rather lets the subject take center stage. This sounds a bit subjective, but consider the boy and his puppy.
This picture misses “cute” by a mile, in my view, and allows both the love and anxiety of the moment prevail.
Kertesz’s personal work in New York does convey a kind of melancholy solitude – at least the selection on view at FOAM. The curator suggests that this was because the city’s bustle and size left him behind, and the subjects who held still long enough for his eye to catch them were those who similarly had time on their hands. But aren’t those persons as much part of Manhattan’s daily life as the stockbrokers, among whom he began his professional career in Budapest? Still, after he and Elizabeth moved to an apartment overlooking Washington Square, he created some of his best known works from his apartment window, looking down at the island’s artistic and intellectual core.
At least one of the photos in this exhibit – a joyous image of a black guitarist, his head thrown back in song — reminds us that Kertesz lived above the lovely hurdy gurdy life of lower Manhattan in the sixties, when every weekend saw Washington Square taken over by folk musicians. I can’t find the image online, doggone it; but Kertesz photographed a fair amount of performing arts. I love this photo of a string quartet. No player’s face is visible, but they are all present.
With recognition came additional invitations and exhibits around the world travel in Kertesz’s fifties, sixties, and seventies. His beloved wife died of cancer in 1977, an event of great sadness for Kertesz. He lived on until 1985. In his last years he started working with a Polaroid camera, and this produced most of the color photographs he has left.
Those photos remind us that a precise focal plane can be way less important than a photo’s overall composition. But it is the black and white photos that draw us in and make us feel, well, accompanied in life. The tonal range is perfect; the blacks are rich, the whites escape surrealist blow-out. Ah, what else is there to say? I love this work. I have gone to school to this work forever and will continue to do so.