Click, Memory: On the Photography of André Kertész

Click, Memory: On the Photography of André Kertész
Jessica Sequeira

The Harvard Advocate
Winter 2009

New York, 1954. A man stands at the window of his Washington Square apartment, staring out at the falling snow. Nosing his telephoto lens over the sill, he chances upon a person making his way home, a small figure threading through tapering black branches and the tracks of past walkers. Click! – then silence. The snow is white, and it falls and falls and falls, drifting down into its own blue shadow. The man watches, and his own memory drifts, alighting at last on the first days.

André Kertész was born in the midst of a hot Budapest summer, near the intersection of the 18th and 19th century, to a middle-class Jewish bookseller and his wife. When he was fourteen, his father died, and the family moved to the Hungarian countryside. The plains near his home were long and low and covered in golden brush, and the Danube was deep enough to swim in. In the evenings, when night cast its first pale wash over the bowl of sky, he would come home to nurse his red mosquito bites and flip through the illustrations in old copies of Gartenlaube.

But with each year that buzz in the background of his bliss clarified into a noise more tangible, a point of practicality. School had never been more than a weary diversion from his games; now his mother glanced at him askance as he idled over his magazines in the paprika-scented kitchen. An additional hint from his uncle was enough to send him scuttling, suit-clad, to the stock exchange. Life as a clerk was for him a private hell, all paperwork and anonymity. The day he had saved enough he bought a box camera and set to wandering through the surrounding countryside, photographing peasants and gypsies, river and shadow.

How long this dreamlike state may have persisted, who knows, had it not been for another obscure young man hundreds of miles away, who – emerging from a delicatessen, seeing his chance, replacing sandwich with pistol – sent a bullet racing through the jugular of an archduke and the course of human history. Kertész thus found himself on the front lines of the losing side of a world war. Armed with his Goerz, he snapped photos of his friends in the Austro-Hungarian army in their everyday actions, from drinking to washing to using the latrines. Blood-soaked battlefields and dying soldiers held little appeal for Kertész; his talent was instead to infuse the quotidian with joy and impart to it an almost spiritual significance.

After the war, Kertész – unscathed save for a bullet wound to the arm – returned to the stock exchange, left it, and returned again. During this restless time, his camera was never idle. Wandering Violinist, 1921 captures a blind musician and two peasant children in a small Hungarian village. The richness of the imagined music, the warm spaces between the three people, and the viewer’s ability to see a scene that one of its characters cannot, make of the photo something living.

The perspectival positioning also appears ideal – a line of two children as minor notes topped in a harmonious triangle by the adult’s clear major presence. But despite appearances, Kertész never posed his photos, and rarely used more than a few takes. For him, this would destroy the integrity of a moment and transform photography from art into mere profession. “The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do,” he said. “This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see.”

Kertész, though he did not know it then, would encounter professional side of photography. Years later in America, in the lights of New York City… but better not to continue. It would be merely cruel to document what first met him there: the rejections, the pitiless apathy, the disobedience of his traitor tongue in forming those round anglicized syllables.

Because the agency which employed him did not allow him to take offsite jobs, Kertész was forced to turn to what he considered more trivial work. In the women’s magazines in which his photographs ran, his carefully figured images of houses and gardens gave way – with but a flick of licked finger – to bobbed models in roller skates and advice on the subtler points of fork order.

The experimental photographs Kertész had taken in France also proved a failure in the New World (so averse to the new). Inspired by the way a swimmer’s body appeared underwater, he had sought nothing less than to capture the essence of a thing, the whole as fluidity and movement. Take two women, photograph them naked with funhouse mirrors and altered lenses. Imagine a whole body as a leg – the curve rising sensuously above a long floating bubble – and a bi-handed arm in sweet repose on a floor streaked with light.

Distortion #40 depicts a woman in fetal position, showing only legs, shoulder and head. She stares upward, hands between thighs, left calf thin and right bulging; behind her, the wall curves gently, mirroring her body. It is permeated with surreal weirdness and wonder, a dreamy question mark as to the possibilities of the medium of photography itself. But this was neither pornography nor conventional art. “You are too human, Kertész,” said his publisher. “Make it brutal.” He could not.

The pictures forced their way intact onto a museum wall, but the eyes of the ladies in high-necked silk told him all he needed to know. The gift shop would not stock posters.

Not enjoying the work he did, and not respected for the work he enjoyed, Kertész longed to leave the country to which he had traveled so enthusiastically a few decades before. But once again, a world war caught Kertész in its cross-hairs, making travel difficult. As Hungarians, Kertész and his wife were classified by the government as enemy aliens, and he was forbidden to take photos in public. The best choice was to settle down in this strange new country and make a life for themselves.

Kertész, though, would never manage to feel at home in America. One of his first pictures here was of a lone wisp of cloud floating beside the imposing metal side of the Rockefeller Center – the impermanence of the isolated individual beside the solidity of modernity. Kertész felt acutely the loss of his homeland. His spirit, like the cloud, lacked roots; one gust of wind could blow it away.

Better to fold back time then, to nestle like the doves nesting in his atelier into the Paris years. Paris had meant everything. “J’aime Paris,” he wrote in an epigram to one of his collections of photos from the period, lending the book the same title. Mondrian and Chagall, Colette and Eisenstein, the fantastically innovative artists of the Dada movement – all visited him in his little studio, sitting for portraits and learning from his technique.

In the daytime he wandered the streets, searching for angles – Paris from the top of a flight of stairs, Paris from a church tower, Paris through the hands of a clock. Under the Eiffel Tower, 1929 exemplifies this unusual point of view. Taken from some unknown window on a level with the tower, the ground seems to slant upward to touch the tower itself. The belly of the tower’s enormous frame just skims the top of the photo, projecting below the iron beams a clear shadow imprint. Below, in the Champ de Mars, people mill about; in the street, which runs parallel, two small cars are parked. Brightness and shadow, sun and shade feature prominently here, as in the rest of Kertész’s work. As Kertész himself put it, “I write with light.”

Kertész’s work as a whole possesses a rare intimacy and nostalgia. The hand-held camera had just been invented when Kertész embarked on his photographic career, yet his photos probe the effects of light and shadow with extraordinary polish. Kertész was unafraid to experiment with style – from realism to distortions to color Polaroids – to achieve different effects, while preserving his trademark charm. That his pictures are so powerful without relying on a showy style or political agenda puts his works at the forefront of both photojournalism and art. “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first,” said Henri Cartier-Bresson; another artist dubbed him “Brother Seeing-Eye.”

But this same understatedness also works against him. American photographers, the public, all wanted sharp images, made to order – “perfect technique but expressing nothing,” as Kertész put it. In contrast, his eye wandered past the obvious, finding overlooked moments. On assignment for Life magazine, Kertész photographed not only the boats requested, but also the people, harbor, and sky. Life refused to publish the pictures, but this act was very characteristic of Kertész himself.

Kertész’s work, then, is finished with a slight gloss of tragedy. His photos are a loving testament to the people’s lives he encountered, from beggars to dancers to walkers on the streets of Paris. But Kertész himself was always on the wrong side of the lens.

The man at the window develops his photo of Washington Square a few days later. A jagged tree rises from within a crescent-shaped fence in the snow, veins of black streaking through endless white. Behind the tree the silhouette of a lone man in a coat is walking: unrecognized, leaning forward with restless movement, elusive and searching as the artist himself.

André Kertész (1894 – 1985) was a Hungarian photographer whose intimate and innovative compositions were a major influence on a number of 20th century photographers and artists. “On Reading,” his 1971 collection of 68 duotone photographs featuring people across the world with their books, was recently rereleased by W.W. Norton. It will be accompanied by a two-year museum tour.

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