Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Kertesz - Michel Frizot / Anne-Laure Wanaverbecq, Jeu De Paume

You know how it is, you put someone on a pedestal and then you either meet them or read about them and what you subsequently find out about them either confounds or compounds your previous view. Probably because you didn't really understand much about them in the first place and your knowledge came from too narrow a source. How does the saying go? "Too little knowledge is a dangerous thing!".
This book is a large and superbly put together tome, some 350 plus pages that delivers the 3 1/2 (I'll explain shortly) phases of Kertesz's life and 100's of his images all beautifully portrayed and sensitively curated.

Roland Barthes said of Kertesz that he he produced "a photography that thinks" preface page 238. I would be immensely proud if anyone ever said that about my photography and it was John Szarkowski who said "The vision they (Kertesz and Lartigue) share belongs to no school or aesthetic theory, but to photography itself" .  Kertesz and Lartigue were born three weeks apart in the same year 1894; both were amateur photographers - in that neither had been formally trained, Kertesz being proud to call himself an amateur through his life time.

Kertesz spent the first phase of his life in Hungary, served in the trenches in the first war, which left emotional and physiological scars for the rest of his life. But he took his camera into war and unlike virtually all other nation states at the time Hungary allowed their soldiers to take pictures. Despite initial family concerns he finally decided on photography as a means to earn a living and his family supported that decision and helped fund his move to Paris and his second phase. In Paris - where he hardly spoke any French - he fell in with a group of Hungarian artists and developed his photography and technique 'till in 1936 he moved to New York to begin the last phases of his life. He lived in Paris for only 9 years, but those years remained in his memory for the rest of his life as the most productive, the most enchanting of his life. New York was initially depressing and until he gained his US citizenship in 1944 very limiting from a work and artistic aspect. It has to be said that Lertesz never learned to speak either French or English to any great extent, indeed Hungarian contemporaries have stated that he wasn't that fluent in his native tongue  but he certainly expressed himself through his art.

Fork, 1928 (silver gelatin print) Kertesz, Andre (1894-1985) Bridgeman
This, one of Kertesz's most iconic images tended to suggest that he was aligned to the Surrealist movement - something he always refuted saying "I have never just 'made photos', I express myself photographically."

Continual searching for new expressions, Kertesz explored the Paris streets by night and certainly inspired Brassai who once, famously said of Kertesz - "Whatever we (Brassai and Capa) have done, Kertesz did first".

Notre Dame at night, Paris, 1925 (silver gelatin print)
Kertesz, Andre (1894-1985) Bridgeman

His final phase came in 1963 when MOMA, under the stewardship of John Szarkowski, awarded Kertesz with a one man show. The award was initially discussed with Steichen, Szarkowski's predecessor, but they didn't see eye to eye. Szarkowski then curated the "The Photographer's Eye" in 1964 which had 6 images each by Lartigue and Kertesz only Mathew Brady and "unkown" had more entries, quite remarkable when less than 10 years previous Steichen never even asked Kertesz to submit work for the "Family of Man"exhibition (but there have been many things said about the content of that event and subsequent publication!). Kertesz was able to live comfortably now and found a new lease of life, with shows and books and recognition.

Around Gracie Mansion, New York, 1948 (silver gelatin print)
Kertesz, Andre (1894-1985) Bridgeman

It is difficult to describe after looking at Kertesz's images through these phases how clear the melancholy  pervades his work during the American phase and how that improves when he finds "overnight success" in 1963/4. It is also curious how the patronage of one man can change a photographers fortune - the same is largely true of Lartigue post his one man show at the MOMA.

Finishing the book compounded my view of Kertesz as a master photographer who always extolled his status as an amateur photographer, who always strove to develop ideas and push his own boundaries, inspired countless subsequent photographers and is still an inspiration today. I haven't  remarked on his abstract work, nor his reportage, nor the other genre's that he seemed to excel in as well.


  1. I'm taking it therefore that you were not disappointed on exploring Kertesz's work...it must have been quite lonely and isolating without speaking the language for him...and expressing visually must have been his way of communicating to the outside world. It is also evident from what you write here that to reach the upper echelons of the artistic world, the photographs are only one contributing factor - marketing, contacts, personality and many other things can elevate their work as much as anything else or infact result in the opposite...

    Best wishes for 2012

  2. Oh blast, I thought I was clear! No I wasn't disappointed, far from it. As far as his recognition goes, if it wasn't for Szarkowski he may have found that very hard to come by. If it had ben left to Steichen their personalities may have got in the way.