André Kertész, Self-Portrait, 1926
I like, admire, and enjoy Mozart, but love Haydn. The Papa Haydn of photographers was André Kertész, who was born in Hungary but lived in Paris between the World Wars and, after fleeing the Nazis, in America, in New York. His work was somewhat limited in emotional range—I believe one writer likened it to the range a composer for piano who avoids either end of the keyboard; he doesn't go grim and he never gets sappy—but warmth and humanity radiates through his pictures. His biography is touching: his midlife years were difficult, because he was ignored in America after his emigration here, after having found success easily in Europe. But his pictures never showed his bitterness. Kertész had a wonderful heart. As with Mozart and Haydn, I like, admire, and respect Cartier-Bresson, but love Kertész. His work is gentle, humane and humanistic, and one always got the sense from it that he had a naturally beautiful soul.
Compare and contrast these two treatments of the same motif, two people peering through a barricade:
There's the difference between the two photographers in a nutshell; Kertesz's photograph is more about the relationship between the two people; Cartier-Bresson's is more enigmatic, with an edge of the surreal, and the relationship between the two figures is only visual, separated by that hard dark spearing line of the pole, which the second man's face oddly appears to be pressed against.
Kertész's reputation was at its peak in the 1980s, in the years surrounding his 1985 death. He was "rediscovered" and accorded great honor at the end of his life. The "holy grail" book of his work dates from those years—1986's André Kertész: Diary of Light 1912–1985. Crafted in Japan, it's printed by tripletone offset on a special cotton rag paper called sala. There were only three thousand copies printed. The Editions Hazan book by Michel Frizot is much more recent (2010) and should be easier to find. In any event, any decent library will have Kertész titles in its photography section, and it would be worth a visit to see what yours has.
His great love for his wife Elizabeth was especially touching; they were very close all their lives, and he adored her. In old age, housebound, grieving for her, he made a series of Polaroid photos of a small abstract glass bust on his windowsill, because the curve of its shoulder reminded him of Elizabeth.
The self-portrait at the top is from an upcoming show at the James Hyman Gallery in London, UK, which starts on May 13th and runs until the same day in June. (One of the treats of the recent Thomas Walther Collection show I got to see at MoMA was a row of original Kertész prints.)
Oh, and speaking of Cartier-Bresson, Kertész took the warmest picture of the famously camera-shy Henri, with his wife Martine Franck.
P.S. I'll be working on the Olympus 17mm ƒ/1.8 crowdsourced review for the rest of today. I'll try to get it posted tonight, but there's a lot. Could be Monday.
UPDATE: There's also a Kertész show coming on May 2 at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto, Ontario. Thanks to Larry Manuel for this. —Ed.
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Featured Comments from:
Nigel Voak: "André Kertész: Sixty Years of Photography is a book a reach for when I’m a bit down in the dumps. It always cheers me up. There is a warmth and joy of living in this photographers work that make him my favorite photographer. The photo you chose of the couple peering through a hole is a perfect example of why his work connects to me so strongly."
expiring_frog: "You echo my thoughts! Your first paragraph is exactly how I have always felt about Kertész. My favourite photographer."
Jan Kwarnmark: "When asked about Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson showed his reverence by saying: 'We all owe something to Kertész.' and even 'Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.' I found it in an article by Eric Kim, but it is easy to find in other articles about Kertész. And, referring to Mozart, Mozart was one of many who said 'Papa Haydn,' as a term of affection."
Bill Pierce: "I lived on East Fourth St. in NYC and used to wander around the Lower East Side taking pictures. There was an older gentleman who I would occasionally see shooting on the same streets. I would smile and wave, and he would smile and wave back. It took me a little while to realize that the older gentleman was Andre Kertész, who lived on Fourth St. on the north side of Washington Square Park."
John Camp: "I completely agree with you. Three other nice books on Kertész are Kertész on Kertész from Abbeville Press [that's another particular favorite of mine as well —MJ]; the big retrospective catalog published by the Jeu De Paume (the English-language version is distributed by the Yale University Press) called Kertész [that's the Michel Frizot title I linked —MJ], and the smaller Stranger to Paris published by the Jane Corkin Gallery of Toronto.
"Stranger to Paris looks so much like Diary of Light that I thought I might own the latter, went to look, and it was Stranger to Paris instead. Both have 'Chez Modrian' on the cover.
"As a large format book of 359 pages, the Jeu de Paume retrospective is by far the most comprehensive Kertész book, to my knowledge, and includes a brief selection of his color Polaroids. I'm lucky enough to own signed prints of 'Chez Modrian' and 'Satiric Dancer' acquired through the Mayans Gallery in Santa Fe, back when photography was still affordable. The gallery owner, Ernesto Mayans, was a good friend of Kertész, and hosted him here in Santa Fe shortly his death."
Jim Hughes: "In the mid-1980s, shortly before André's death, a man named Stan Kulesa found himself face to face with Kertész at an exhibit of the great photographer's work at a Manhattan gallery. They seemed to be alone in the white-walled space, surrounded by André's prints. According to a comment he posted on the American Masters PBS online site many years later in 1999, Kulesa spoke first, and announced to Kertész that '[you are] my #1 favorite photographer of all time.'
He graciously thanked me, and asked if I was a photographer. "Oh no, I'm only an amateur," I responded. His response floored me when he said, "I'm an eternal amateur." ...He made me feel like a million dollars.
"From my perspective, I've always regarded André Kertész to be the most graceful photographer who ever lived, as I wrote in a piece for TOP in 2011. The article can be found in the right-hand sidebar under my name. Just scroll all the way down to 'Chez Mondrian and Other Small Pleasures.'
"In that piece, I quote the poet Paul Dermée, who wrote, on the occasion of André's first Paris exhibit in the 1920s: 'No rearranging, no posing, no gimmicks, nor fakery. Your technique is as honest, as incorruptible, as your vision. In our home for the blind, Kertész is 'Brother Seeing-Eye.'
"Roland Barthes evidently agreed. He called André's work 'a photography that thinks.'
"I call it poetry."
Rodger Kingston: "In February of 1973, on our wedding trip to NYC, Carolyn and I wandered into the Hallmark Gallery on 5th Avenue in what turned out to be the last hour of the last day of a large Andre Kertész show. As luck would have it, who should be there but the master himself.
"A young poet recently turned photographer, I recognized him immediately, and dashed across the street to a Doubleday Bookshop, where I bought a copy of his On Reading. I'm quite sure I gushed. He was very warm and gracious in a courtly, European manner.
"He signed the book for us, and sometime after we got home, I wrote to him that meeting him at his exhibition was one of the highlights of our wedding trip. Almost nine months later, I received the following letter in reply:
2 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10011
November 17, 1973
Dear Mr. Kingston:
This reply to your appreciative letter has been so long delayed that you may have thought the written word had by now completely succumbed to the visual image.
I am indeed touched by the fact that you feel the Hallmark Gallery exhibit will remain memorable over the years as a part of your wedding trip. You see, that way I know my photographs will have as many happy anniversaries as you and your wife Carolyn!
With every good wish for your success as poet and photographer, and my warmest regards to both of you—
"A year or two later, Kertész delivered a lecture in Boston. When I approached him during the reception, his eyes lit up; he reached out his hand to me and exclaimed, 'Ah, the bridegroom!'
"It's been over 40 years, and Andre Kertesz was right: his photographs have had many happy anniversaries with Carolyn and me."
Dave Jenkins: "I think Kertesz was probably one of the two or three greatest photographers of the 20th century. He was a seminal photographer, meaning he began ways of photographing that other photographers picked up and expanded upon. John Durniak, who was successively editor-in-chief of Popular Photography, picture editor of Time, and picture editor of the New York Times, wrote an article for the first issue of Popular Photography's 35mm Photography magazine (which soon thereafter became a long-running quarterly). In that article, titled 'Some Heroes of 35,' he said that "...35mm photography had three fathers—Oscar Barnack, Erich Salomon, and Andre Kertész...look at this photographer's work. One can see the start of what Bill Brandt later did with nudes, one can see 'decisive moments' before there ever was that phrase, one can see the basis for a solid generation of honest photography. Young men, one named Brassai...saw his pictures and in them found a whole new world of art and communication.'"