André Kertész – Photographs
Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany. Until 11th September 2011
In the caption to the first image by André Kertész in Bruce Bernard’s marvellous and indispensable, great slab-of-a-book, Century (Phaidon, 1999), in typical understatement, the author describes Kertész as: ‘…an Austrian soldier destined to become a great photographer’.
Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau in collaboration with Jeu de Paume in Paris is showing a retrospective of over 300 photographs by Kertész, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, whose early photojournalist work impacted on that of others, including writer and photographer, Brassï and Henri Cartier-Bresson, both also destined to merit the description great photographer.
Bernard goes on to tell us that André Kertész first acquired a camera in 1913 – he was eighteen years old – just prior to his drafting into the Austro-Hungarian army. Whilst on active service he was wounded and paralysed for a whole year but still managed to produce his first serious works – photographs of soldiers on the Eastern front. A few prints remain, however, the negatives of all the photographer’s early work were, unfortunately, destroyed in 1918.
Born in Hungary, to jewish middle-class parents, Andor Kertész (later André) lived in Budapest working at the stock exchange before, after the war, moving to Paris where he joined fellow emigrés, László Moholy-Nagy, Robert Capa and Brassaï.
“I interpret my feeling at a given moment. Not what I see, but what I feel,” Kertész once said, seeing photography as an instrument for describing contemporary life. In Paris, to make ends meet, he produced reportage photography for the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung and The Times (London) and made contact with the avant garde artists of Montparnasse: Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder and Brancusi, among others. He also met and discovered he had much in common with the Surrealism group led by André Breton that included the American photographer and artist, Man Ray. He had taken the famous photograph Underwater Swimmer while recuperating in 1917; the optically distorted body beneath light reflections on the surface of the water would appear to anticipate his later works – and of some of the surrealists – and it wasn’t until some 10 years later the aesthetic effects of reflection were to become popular at the Bauhaus. In 1933 Kertész went on to produce the series entitled Distortions, in which female figures, distorted by mirrors, lead a life of their own between caricature and eroticism.
Despite the often complex nature of the thinking that the photographer put into them, like the best photojournalism, Kertész’s images are always simple, uncompromisingly direct and carefully cropped to include only those elements the eye demands. One of my particular favourites, which is included in the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition is the Magritte-like Martinique, shot on New Year’s Day, 1972. The image is rich, yet so reduced that it appears almost flat, almost but not quite devoid of perspective and with the very minimal shape of the upper torso of a man, who we know instinctively is alone on the other side of the translucent, frosted glass screen that separates the balconies of this hotel near the water’s edge. I love Washington Square, too, for similar reasons: again, the simplicity, the reduction of the features of the park scene in deepest winter to almost but not quite pure black and pure white. As a photographer specialising mostly in garden and plant photography, myself – click here to access my website – I’m drawn towards Melancholic Tulip, an earlier work produced during the year that WWII began in Europe. It’s not difficult to imagine the uneasiness of Kertész, who moved to New York City only three years before.
In New York City where, struggling to make ends meet he accepted a post on House & Garden. Later, Kertész began working for the fashion magazine Look and for Harper’s Bazaar , with legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch, who was previously with VU in Paris, one of the French publications, including Art et Médecine, Paris Magazine and UHU that the photographer had contributed to. In 1942, accepting an offer to work exclusively for Condé Nast, he remained with the company until 1963. That year, on a trip to Paris Kertész discovered a large number of his old negatives that fired his enthusiasm to begin experimenting again, bringing him much wider recognition and international recognition. His work has appeared in numerous books and in exhibitions around the world.
André Kertész, most certainly a great photographer, was awarded the Legion of Honour by the French government in 1983 and died on 28th September 1985, leaving an archive of 100,000 negatives.
Images above from top:
Melancholic Tulip New York, 1939
Gelatin silver print. Printed c. 1980. Courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery
Martinique January 1st 1972
Gelatin silver print. Vintage print. Courtesy Attila Pocze, Vintage Galéria, Budapest, Hungary
Washington Square January 9th, 1954
Gelatin silver print. Vintage print. Collection of Leslie, Judith and Gabrielle Schreyer
Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century,
Brassaï, Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy, Munkácsi
Royal Academy, London, UK. Until 2nd October 2011
Are you familiar with Kertész’s work?
What do you see as its merits?
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