André Kertész (July 2, 1894 – September 28, 1985) born Andor Kertész, was a Hungarian-born photographer distinguished by his photographic composition and by his early efforts in developing the photo essay.
In the early years of his lengthy career, his then-unorthodox camera angles, and his unwillingness to compromise his personal photographic style, prevented his work from gaining wider recognition. Even towards the end of his life, Kertész did not feel he had gained worldwide recognition. The first photographer to have an exposition devoted to his work, he is recognized as one of the seminal figures of photojournalism, if not photography as a whole.
Dedicated by his family to work as a stock broker, Kertész was an autodidact and his early work was mostly published in magazines. This would continue until much later in his life when he ceased to accept commissions. He served briefly in WWI and began to form dreams to move to Paris, which he realised in 1925, against the wishes of his family. There he was involved with the artistic melting pot of immigrates and the dadaist movement, and achieved critical and commercial success. The imminent threat of WWII pushed him to immigrate again to the United States, where he had a more difficult life and needed to rebuild his reputation through commissioned work. He would take offense with several editors that he felt did not recognize his work. In the 1940s and '50s he stopped working for magazines and began to achieve greater international success. Despite the numerous and awards he collected over the years, he still felt unrecognized, a sentiment which did not change even into his death. His career is general divided into four periods based on where his work was most prominent at these times. They are called the Hungarian period, the French period, the American period and, towards the end of his life, the International period.
Andor Kertész was born July 2, 1894 in Budapest to the middle-class family of Lipót Kertész, a bookseller, and his wife, Ernesztin Hoffmann. Andor, known as "Bandi" to his friends, was the middle child of three sons. When Lipót died in 1908 from tuberculosis, Ernesztin was left widowed and without a source of income to care for her three children, Andor, Imre and Jenő. Fortunately, Ernesztin's brother, Lipót Hoffmann, provided for Kertész and his brothers and acted much like a father to them. The family soon moved to Lipót's country property in Szigetbecse, where Kertész was exposed to a leisurely pace of life and pastoral setting that would shape his later career path.
Lipót paid for Kertész's business classes at the Academy of Commerce until his 1912 graduation, and then procured Kertész's hiring at the stock exchange soon after. Unlike his brother Imre, who worked at the exchange in Budapest until his death in 1957, Kertész had little interest in the career. He was instead drawn to illustrated magazines and to activities like fishing and swimming in the Danube near his uncle's property. Kertész's first encounters with magazine photography where what first persuaded him to dream of becoming a photographer. He was also influenced by certain paintings by Lajos Tihanyi and Gyula Zilzer, as well as by poetry.
Kertész bought his first camera (an ICA box camera) in 1912, as soon as he had earned enough money, despite his family's protests to continue his career in business. In his free time away from work, he began taking photographs of the local peasants, gypsies and landscape of the surrounding Hungarian Plains (the puszta). His first photograph is believed to be "Sleeping Boy, Budapest, 1912", although his photographs were not published until 1917, during WWI, while he was a member of the Austro-Hungarian army; they were first published in the magazine Erdekes Ujsag. Kertész taught himself how to use a camera and even as early as 1914 (for example, "Eugene, 1914") his distinctive and mature style was already evident.
In 1914, at the age of 20, he was sent to the frontline, where he took photographs of life in the trenches with a light-weight camera (a Goerz Tenax), perfect for carrying around during combat. Unfortunately, most of these photographs were destroyed during the Hungarian Revolution of 1919. He was wounded in 1915 by a bullet and his right arm was temporarily paralyzed. Kertész was sent to a military hospital in Budapest, but was later transferred to Esztergom, where he continued to take photographs, including a self-portrait of himself for a competition in the magazine Borsszem Janko. Of this period of work, his arguably most famous piece was "Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom, 1917", the only surviving photograph of a series depicting a swimmer whose image is distorted by the water. This photograph sparked Kertész's interest in distortions that lead to his series of "Distortions" photographs during the early 1930s.
Kertész remained off the frontline until peace returned to Europe in 1918, after which he reluctantly returned to the stock exchange. However, he did meet his future wife Erzsebet Salomon (who changed her name to Elizabeth Saly) at the exchange, where they both worked, and began to pursue her romantically. During this period of work and throughout his whole career, Elizabeth would be a model for his photographs. Continuing to devote his spare time to photography, he took numerous photographs with his brother Jenő as the subject. Still unsatisfied with his life at the stock exchange, Kertész left his career to try his hand at agricultural work and beekeeping during the early 1920s. This venture was short-lived due to the advent of political turmoil and communism in the countryside. Again returning to the stock exchange, he finally decided to leave Hungary altogether, primarily to escape his current life, but also to join one of France's photographic schools. Despite the allure of Paris, Kertész was eventually persuaded not to go by his mother for the time being. This dream of leaving Hungary would not be realised for many years to come, so in the meantime, he silently continued to work at the exchange and take photographs only in his spare time. In 1923, he was offered a silver medal by the Hungarian Amateur Photographer's Association for one of his photographs, but with the condition that he had to print the photograph in bromoil. Kertész refused and turned down the medal for a diploma from the association instead. He was rewarded, however, when one of his photographs was used on the cover of the Hungarian news magazine Erdekes Ujság on its June 26, 1925 issue. The magazine had already printed one of his photographs in its March 25, 1917 issue, but this was the first time Kertész's pictures had ever been placed on a front cover. By that time, he had already made his decision and was determined to photograph the sites in Paris and use the city's artistic elements.
Kertész emigrated to Paris in September 1925 against his mother's wishes, leaving her behind along with both his brothers, his wife and his uncle Lipót, who died shortly thereafter. Jenő also left Hungary to live in Argentina, but Elizabeth remained until her husband was well established in Paris and could live together. Kertész became one of the many artists who had left the Austro-Hungarian Empire for another country, such as François Kollar, Robert Capa and Emeric Fehér, and was certainly not the only artist emigrating to Paris; Man Ray, Germaine Krull (who also took part in exhibitions with Kertész) and Lucien Aigner all emigrated there during this period. In Paris he found critical and commercial success with magazine publications after doing commissioned work for several magazines across Europe from Germany to France to Italy to Great Britain. Kertész was the first photographer to have a one-man exhibition when Jan Slivinsky organised to have 30 of his photographs presented in 1927 at the gallery Sacre du Printemps Gallery. Over the next years, Kertész would appear in many solo exhibitions and shows with other artists. In one show at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York in 1932, the price of Kertész's proofs was set at US$20, a large sum of money during the Great Depression of America.
Kertész changed his first name to André soon after arriving in Paris, and would keep that name for the rest of his life. At that time, Dadaism was beginning to attract numerous photographers and was becoming a large movement amongst artists, especially in France. Kertész quickly became acquainted with the movement's members and one of them, Paul Dermée, dubbed him "Brother Seer" and "Brother Seeing Eye" during Kertész's first solo exhibition in 1927; this was an allusion to a medieval monastery where all the monks were blind bar one. Kertész continued for the entirety of his time in Paris to contact and visit various other Hungarian photographers and artists, and would eventually star in exhibitions with some of them later in his life. Indeed, he enjoyed visiting many of his sculptor friends, and was impressed by the Cubism movement. In his spare time, he created portraits of, among others, painters Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, writer Colette, and film-maker Sergei Eisenstein. In 1928, Kertész switched from the usage of cameras with plates and moved on to a Leica, which he became accustomed to quickly. This period of work was arguably one of his most productive, when he took photographs every day and had some of them published in magazines throughout the late 1920s, carefully dividing his time between commissioned work and his own personal photography. In 1930, Kertész was awarded a silver medal for services to photography at the Exposition Coloniale in Paris where he attended.
Kertész was published in Fench magazines such as Vu and Art et Médecine, in which he made numerous covers. His greatest journalistic collaboration was with the French editor and publisher of Vu, Lucien Vogel, who ran his photographs without explanatory prose and let him report on various subjects. Kertész enjoyed travelling in and around Paris taking photographs on the varied subject Vogel set for him to capture. Kertész was commissioned to create one of his most famous series of works, the "Distortion" photographs, in 1933: a series of about 200 photographs of two nude, female models in various poses with their reflections in a combination of distortion mirrors, similar to those found in a carnival's house of mirrors. In some cases the models, Najinskaya Verackhatz and Nadia Kasine, were so distorted that only certain limbs or features were visible in the mirror's reflection. Some of the images appeared in the March 2 issue of the so-called "girly magazine" Le Sourire and later in the September 15, 1933 issue of Arts et métiers graphiques. Kertész published the book Distortions later that year containing the photographs.
After his first book of photographs Enfants in 1933, which was dedicated to Elizabeth and his mother, who had died earlier that year, what followed was a series of other book publications. His next book, Paris, was published in 1934 and dedicated to his brothers Imre and Jenő. Nos Amies les bętes ("Our Friends the Animals") was released in 1936 and Les Cathédrales du vin ("The Cathedrals of Wine") in 1937.
Unknown to his family and indeed most people, Kertész had married a French portrait photographer by the name of Rosza Klein (although she used the name Rogi André) in the late 1920s. The marriage was short-lived and he never spoke about it until his dying day, so as not to upset his wife Elizabeth. In 1930, he ventured back to Hungary to visit his family. After returning to Paris, Elizabeth followed him in 1931, despite firm opposition from her family, to be with the love of her life. Elizabeth and André were never separated again. Despite his mother dying that same year, Kertész married Elizabeth on June 17, 1933. Following this, he is said to have spent increasingly less time with his artist and photographer friends to favor his new wife.
At the time of Kertész's marriage, the Nazi party was growing in power in Germany. This prompted the magazine industries to publish stories about political topics and many stopped publishing his work due to its neutral demeanor and unpolitical subject matter. From then on, Kertész received increasingly less commissioned work and, with Elizabeth's consent, made plans to move to New York to work at the Keystone agency owned by Erney Prince. So in 1936, amidst the threat of World War II and lack of work, Kertész and Elizabeth boarded the SS Washington bound for Manhattan.
Kertész arrived in New York with his wife on October 15, 1936, intent on rekindling his inspiration and finding fame as a photographer in America. He and his wife lived out of the Beaux Arts Hotel in Greenwich Village. From his arrival, Kertész found life in America harder than he had imagined and thus started what he would refer to later in his life as the "absolute tragedy". He was now deprived of his French artist friends and the people in America did not respond as kindly as in Paris when their picture was being taken. Soon after his arrival, Kertész approached Beaumont Newhall, the Museum of Modern Art's photographic department director, who was readying a show entitled Photography 1839–1937. But when Kertész offered Newhall some of his Distortions photographs to display, Newhall criticized them, which offended Kertész, who never forgave him. Despite this, Newhall took the photographs and displayed them; Kertész went on to star in his own solo December 1937 exhibition at the PM Gallery. The final nail in the coffin for Kertész was when the Keystone agency, who had offered him offsite work which would take him to various locations for his photojournalism, instead made him spend the entirety of his work day in the company's studio. Kertész tried to return to France to visit, but had no money, and when he had saved enough, World War II had broken out, making travel to France nearly impossible. His struggles with English only compounded his problems. He had coped with his inability to speak French while in France, but in New York, where he already felt like an outsider, the language barrier was debilitating.
Growing more and more frustrated with the city, Kertész left Keystone to look for other work after his boss Erney Prince left the company in 1937. He was commissioned by the magazine Harper's Bazaar for an article on the Saks Fifth Avenue department store in their April 1937 issue. The magazine continued to work with him in further issues and Kertész took commissions from Town and Country to supplement his income. He was invited by Vogue to work for the magazine, but turned the offer down, fearing he could not enthusiastically photograph a set studio series as seen in the fashion world. He instead opted to work for Life magazine, starting with a piece called The Tugboat. However, despite orders, he photographed more than just the subject matter of tugboats, instead photographing the whole harbour and its going ons. Due to this, Life refused to publish the photographs and Kertész was once again frustrated with the constriction of the city and its photographic industry.
In the October 25, 1938 issue of Look, the magazine finally printed a series of photographs called A Fireman Goes to School; but credited them to Erney Prince, Kertész's former boss. Infuriated, Kertész considered never working with illustrated magazines ever again. He did however appear in the magazine Coronet in 1937, but was snubbed in 1939 when the magazine published a special issue containing a selection of Coronet's "Most memorable photographs", none of which were his. He later severed all ties to the magazine and its editor Arnold Gingrich. This was repeated in the June 1941 issue of Vogue, which was dedicated to photography in honour of Condé Montrose Nast, head of Condé Nast Publishing. Despite having contributed to more than 30 commissioned photo essays and articles in both Vogue and House and Garden, Kertész was omitted from the list of photographers. In the same year, since he and Elizabeth carried Hungarian passports, Kertész was designated an enemy alien due to World War II and was not permitted to photograph outside or anything to do with national security, and was later fingerprinted. Not wanting to be arrested or get in trouble with the police because Elizabeth had started a cosmetics company (Cosmia Laboratories) with a Hungarian friend, Kertész ceased to do commissioned work and disappeared from all photographic work for three years.
Elizabeth became a US citizen on January 20, 1944, followed on February 3 by her husband. Despite fierce competition from other photographers such as Irving Penn, Kertész thrust himself back into commissioned work. Although he was left out of the 63 photographers listed in Vogue's "photographic genealogical tree", listing important photographers of the era, he was hired for Christmas commission work by House and Garden, which he had worked for before. He was offered a position teaching photography to students at the New Bauhaus - American School of Design in June 1944 by its director László Moholy-Nagy. Despite the honour, he turned the offer down. He also released a new photographic book, Day of Paris in 1945, composed of photographs taken just before he left Europe. The book gained critical success. With his wife's cosmetic business booming, Kertész agreed when the new art director of House and Garden offered him a long-term, exclusive contract in 1946. Although the contract restricted his editorial abilities and forced him to spend many hours in the studio, the pay of at least US$10,000 per annum was satisfactory and all photographic negatives would be returned to him within six months.
Although his subject range was limited, Kertész was sent to many famous homes and places, and indeed overseas, passing through England as well as Budapest and Paris once more. During that 1945 to 1962 period at House and Garden, more than 3,000 of his photographs were published in the magazine and he created a reputation for himself in the industry. However, Kertész made few personal pieces during this time and was starved for artistic creativity.
Later life and death
In 1946, Kertész was again placed in a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, which was composed mainly of photographs from his Day of Paris series. Kertész often refers to this as one of his greatest moments in America. Afterward however, it was not until 1962 that his photographs were in a public display again, when they were shown at Long Island University. During this dormant period spent working for House and Garden he was insulted once again when his work did not appear in Edward Steichen's famous The Family of Man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Thus towards the end of 1961, he broke his contract to Condé Nast Publishing after a minor dispute. Kertész, now feeling liberated from the confines of the magazine, thrust himself back into the international photographic scene. This later period of his life is often referred to as the "International period", where he was able to gain worldwide recognition and held many exhibitions in many countries. He appeared in an exhibition at the IV Mostra Biennale Internazionale della Fotografia in Venice in 1963 after his 1962 exhibition and later appeared that same year at the Bibliothčque nationale de France in Paris. The gold medal he was awarded in Venice for his dedication to the photographic industry gave him a feeling of recognition he had never felt whilst working for House and Garden. He later visited Argentina to see his brother Jenő.
During this period, Kertész experimented with colour photographs, but only produced a few of them. In 1964, soon after John Szarkowski became the photography director at the Museum of Modern Art, Kertész was featured in a solo show set up by Szarkowski. The show, and ultimately Kertész himself, were critically acclaimed and he was soon known within photographic circles as an important photographic figure, but still not quite at the level he had been hoping for all his life; he still believed that the world did not truly appreciate him and stood by this until his death. Kertész and Elizabeth moved to a 12th floor apartment near Washington Square Park in 1952, where he took what were to be arguably the best photographs he had taken since his arrival in America; the series depicts a snow-covered Washington Square with numerous silhouettes and tracks and was taken using a telephoto lens. Kertész appeared in numerous exhibitions throughout the world in his later life, even into his early nineties. In 1965, due to his newfound success, Kertész was appointed as a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers and was later awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974. In the years to come, in addition to appearing in numerous exhibitions, Kertész also received a number of awards: in 1974 he was made a Commander of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, in 1977 he received the Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture in New York, in 1980 the Medal of the City of Paris and the first Annual Award of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers in New York that same year. He received in 1981 an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Bard College in New York, and again received the Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture that year. Kertész produced a number of new books during this period and also recovered some of the negatives he had left in France decades before.
Despite his successes, Kertész still felt unrecognised as a photographer. His last years were spent travelling to various locations around the globe for his exhibitions, especially Japan, and rekindling friendships with other artists. Elizabeth died in 1977 from cancer and was cremated. To cope with the loss, Kertész fell back on his new network of friends, often visiting them at night to talk. By this time, he was said to have learned basic English and often talked in what his friends called "Kertészian", a strange mixture of Hungarian, English and French. In 1979, the Polaroid Corporation gifted him with one of their new SX-70, which he experimented with into the 1980s. Still growing in fame, Kertész was granted the National Grand Prize of Photography in Paris in 1982, as well as the 21st Annual George Washington Award from the American Hungarian Foundation the same year. To add to the numerous awards collected over his career, Kertész was later given an honorary Doctorate from the Royal College of Art in 1983; the title of Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in Paris in 1983, which was presented along with an apartment for future visits to Paris; the Maine Photographic Workshop's first Annual Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984; the Californian Distinguished Career in Photography Award in 1985; first Annual Master of Photography Award that same year, presented by the International Centre of Photography; as well as an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Parson's School of Design of the New School for Social Research. To add to the overwhelming amount of appreciation shown by the various institutions across the globe, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased 100 prints from him in 1984, the largest ever acquisition of photographs from a living artist by a museum.
Kertész died peacefully in his sleep at home on September 28, 1985; he was cremated and his ashes interred with his wife's. During his photographic career which had spanned for more than 70 years, Kertész had been given numerous awards for his achievements in photography. He was the first photographer ever to have a one-man show and had appeared in countless exhibitions around the world. He had travelled across the globe from Hungary and had eventually found recognition towards the end of his life and certainly after his death and is now considered one of the seminal figures of photojournalism and photo essay and if not photography as a whole.
Throughout most of his career, Kertész was depicted as the "unknown soldier" who worked behind the scenes of photography, yet was rarely cited for his work, even into his death in the 1980s. Kertész thought himself unrecognised throughout his life, despite spending his life in the eternal search for acceptance and fame. Though Kertész received numerous awards for photography, he never felt both his style and work was accepted by critics and art audiences alike. Although, in 1927, he was the first photographer to have a solo exhibition, Kertész said that it was not until his 1946 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, that he first felt he received positive reviews on his work, and often cites this show as one of his finest moments in America. During his stay in America, he was cited as being an intimate artist, bringing the viewer into his work, even when the picture was that of subjects such as the intimidating New York City and even his reproduced work printed after his death received good reviews; "Kertesz was above all a consistently fine photographer". Kertész's work itself is often described as predominantly utilising light and even Kertész himself said that "I write with light". He was never considered to "comment" on his subjects, but rather capture them - this is often cited as why his work is often overlooked; he stuck to no political agenda and offered no deeper thought to his photographs other than the simplicity of life. With his art's intimate feeling and nostalgic tone, Kertész's images alluded to a sense of timelessness which was inevitably only recognised after his death. Unlike other photographers, Kertész's work gave an insight into his life, showing a chronological order of where he spent his time; for example, many of his French photographs were from cafés where he spent the majority of his time waiting for artistic inspiration. Although Kertész rarely received bad reviews, it was the lack of them which lead to the photographer feeling distant from recognition. Now however, he is often considered to be the father of photojournalism. Even other photographs cite Kertész and his photographs as being inspirational; Henri Cartier-Bresson once said of him in the early 1930s, "We all owe him a great deal".