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photo-eye Book Reviews: André Kertész

André Kertész, Photographs by André Kertész
Edited by Michel Frizot and Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq.
 Published by Editions Hazan, 2010.
André Kertész
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.

André Kertész, by André Kertész. Published by Editions Hazan, 2010.
Frizot's arresting enthusiasm for Kertész is immediately apparent in his introductory essay. Reading like part manifesto, part monograph, declarative sentences ("Kertész is a seer;" "Kertész is a poet") begin swiftly paced paragraphs that address what Frizot sees as the photographer's defining qualities. He sites the earliest attempt to define Kertész's photography, a short poem written by Belgian poet Paul Dermée for the photographer's first exhibition in Paris in 1927. "Kertész, the eyes of a child, whose every glance is his first/Kertész is a seeing-eye brother." Kertész's primary tool, Frizot argues, was not just his camera but the innocence of his vision. While Kertész never called himself a poet, photography was the poetry of his experience expressed in images. When asked about how photography influenced his life, he explained that the real question was how life influenced his photography: "It is very much a tool, the same way poets or writers describe their life experiences...I interpret what I feel at a given moment. Not what I see, but what I feel."

André Kertész, by André Kertész. Published by Editions Hazan, 2010.
Expression through felt images, not words, is partly understandable considering the problems Kertész had with language. Though he lived in France for eleven years, he never really learned French and in his almost 50 years in the US, Kertész never mastered more than broken English, beginning all of his interviews with American journalists by asking, "You speak Hungarian?" Yet even Kertész's spoken Hungarian was reportedly sparse and fragmentary. "Photography," he said, "is my only language." According to Frizot, it was a language deeply influenced by Hungarian culture. "Kertész" means "gardener" in Hungarian and in an imaginative if not wholly persuasive argument, Frizot describes Kertész as a cultivator of images as contrasted with the "hunter" photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He concludes the book's most provocative essay by siding with philosopher Roland Barthes, who discussed Kertész in Camera Lucida (1980), "Kertész's images make us think," Barthes wrote. "Photography is subversive not when it brightens, repels or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks."

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.

André Kertész, by André Kertész. Published by Editions Hazan, 2010.
The essays that follow the collection are historical in focus, following Kertész from his birth as Andor Kertész in 1894 into a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest, to his 1925 move to Paris where he changed his name and developed a lifelong love of France while struggling to make ends meet and photographing the city in his free time, to his photojournalistic work for VU and other magazines, and his 1936 move to New York City to work as a commercial photographer, repeatedly described by Kertész as "an absolute tragedy" because of his cultural alienation and professional setbacks and the "lost years" working as a photographer for House and Garden, which he called "slave work." Though Kertész photographed New York City constantly while working at Condé Nast, he did not feel liberated until he retired in 1962 and had time to devote to his real love, street photography.

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.

André Kertész, by André Kertész. Published by Editions Hazan, 2010.

"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.