|André Kertész, Photographs by André Kertész. |
Edited by Michel Frizot and Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq.
Published by Editions Hazan, 2010.
Reviewed by Joscelyn Jurich
André Kertész André Kertész
Photographs by André Kertész. Edited by Michel Frizot and Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq
Editions Hazan, 2010. Hardbound. 360 pp., 500 color illustrations, 10x12-1/4".
"I am an amateur," photographer André Kertész said in 1930, five years after he had left his native Hungary for Paris. "And I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life." In 1961, a year before Kertész retired from what he described as eleven "lost years" working as a magazine photographer on contract to Condé Nast, Kertész reiterated his declaration. "I still regard myself as an amateur today and I hope that's what I'll stay until the end of my life. Because I'm forever a beginner who discovers the world again and again."
The notion of Kertész as an amateur may seem disingenuous. By 1961 he had worked for influential international publications such as Vogue and VU, the French photojournalism magazine whose contributors included Robert Capa and Man Ray, had published five books of photography and had exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum. But as this exquisite collection reveals through text and image, the self-taught Kertész remained true to the dual definition of amateur throughout his tortuously successful career.
The book accompanies a major retrospective of Kertész's work that is touring internationally. Though the books' size and scope might make it seem a coffee table collectable, this exhibition catalogue stands alone as a work of art criticism and art history. Replete with images and a considerable amount of text (500 superbly reproduced photographs and seventeen critical essays), neither overwhelms the other. The meticulous scholarship of authors Michel Frizot and Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq is matched by a vital and vigorous writing style both passionate and persuasive.
Kertész said he wanted "to give meaning to everything" and only through looking at his photographs can one begin to grasp the multiplicity of this meaning. Uncomfortable with the spoken word, Kertesz used advertisement text in his photographs to juxtapose their jubilant promises with the often lonely realities of urban existence as in "Buy" Long Island University (1962) and Boulevard de la Madeleine, Paris (1917). He used titles to dramatic, ironic effect in Hotel de l'Avenir (1929) ("Hotel of the Future"), where a prosthetic leg lies on a soiled rumpled bed and his desire to de-bunk and de-mystify iconic structures is clear in Eiffel Tower, Paris (1933) where the crevices in stacks of bricks in the foreground mockingly echo the scaffolding of the Eiffel Tower, blurred in the background.
The text covers Kertész's career in copious detail but leaves some significant questions unasked, specifically regarding his identity, relationship to Europe and commercial photography, and his feelings on critical characterization of his work by theorists like Barthes, given his personal insistence on photography's emotive power. Perhaps these omissions exist because the entire collection is more a lover's discourse than a critical inquiry into the narrative Kertész self-consciously constructed to explain his own life and art. Frizot and Wanaverbecq know the most meaningful homage to Kertész is to observe and feel his remarkably diverse oeuvre, carefully reproduced in this collection to reflect the images' original scale, printing and color. Many of Kertész's most moving photographs are his most personal: Lost Cloud, New York (1937) shows a small cloud floating alongside a hard angled skyscraper, its soft edges almost pierced by the building's sharpness -- a photograph Kertész would later describe as a metaphor for himself adrift in the "alien world" of New York City. The book's final images are similarly metaphorical and melancholy, small color prints from Kertész's stunning Polaroid series, all shot in the Greenwich Village apartment he shared with his wife Elizabeth for thirty-five years until her death in 1977. Many are photographs of a small glass bust that reminded him of her, positioned in different places in the apartment -- against their window overlooking a view of the Twin Towers or placed on the floor encircled by sunlight and shadow. Others are self-portraits of Kertész in complete shadow, sometimes so far removed in the frame that he is barely visible.
"I am a lucky man," Kertész said while creating the Polaroid series and just a few years before his own death. "I can do something with almost anything I see. Everything is still interesting to me."
The quotes from Kertész not included in the book were taken from the National Gallery of Art catalogue of André Kertész edited by Greenough, Garbo and Kennel—Joscelyn Jurich
Joscelyn Jurich is a freelance journalist and critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, Publishers Weekly and the Village Voice. Jurich is currently a Fellow at the Writers' Institute at the City University of New York.