The Greats: How André Kertész Helped Define European Photography

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Throughout a far-reaching career that spanned several genres and art scenes, André Kertész’s vast oeuvre laid the groundwork for a generation of photojournalists and fine art photographers. Learn how the pioneering artist rose, fell, and rose again across 70 years of almost unparalleled creativity.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by André Kertész

Hungarian photographer André Kertész didn’t achieve widespread acclaim until later in life, but it’s safe to say our understanding of photography wouldn’t be the same without him. Born in Budapest in 1894, Kertész spent his childhood immersed in early magazines featuring full-page illustrations and biological sketches. However, his keen interest in the creative world was put on hold following the death of his father. To help provide for his family, Kertész was sent to study at Budapest’s Academy of Commerce, where he graduated as a banker and soon found work in the industry. 

At the age of 18, he used his first paycheque to buy an ICA box camera. Despite Kertész coming from a middle-class background, he spent much of his time surrounded by Hungarian peasantry. As he captured hillside villages and portraits of friends and family, his early work reveals a profound interest in his immediate surroundings – one of the few consistent themes running through Kertész’s 70-year career. With the outbreak of WWI, Kertész used his time in the Austro-Hungarian army to develop his photographic artistry. Situated on the perilous Polish and Russian frontlines, he carried a modern handheld camera to document the lives of soldiers away from the battlefield.

“His early work reveals a profound interest in his immediate surroundings.”

While other early wartime photographers focused on the chaos of the trenches using burdensome equipment, Kertész was already innovating within the medium. As he did in Hungary, he used his lightweight camera to draw attention to the subdued, contemplative moments taking place around him. Capturing soldiers resting in the fields, climbing aboard trains and writing letters to loved ones, Kertész’s pioneering approach to photojournalism set the tone for the genre moving forward.

After he was wounded in 1915, Kertész was sent to recover in Budapest and Esztergom. Here, he photographed his regiment and published selected images in local magazines. It was also during this time that Kertész produced one of his landmark photographs, Underwater Swimmer. In capturing his brother, Jenő, gracefully dipping beneath the surface of the water, the rippling and reflective undulations subtly warp his silhouette. This perfectly frozen moment later became symbolic of Kertész’s work, as he continued to use mirrors and contorted surfaces to create experimental images throughout his lifetime.

“He used mirrors and contorted surfaces to create experimental images throughout his lifetime.”

Making Paris His Own

Although Kertész never went back to the frontlines of the war, he also struggled to make a living as a photographer and returned to work at the stock exchange. Feeling limited by Hungary’s creative scene, Kertész decided to take charge of his photographic career and move to Paris in search of the growing avant-garde movement. Following his arrival, Kertész explored the streets like a flaneur and used his skills to capture the underlying emotions of the city. He also loitered around the renowned artist hangout of Le Dôme Café, where he met and organised portraits with celebrated figures such as Alexander Calder, Constantin Brancusi and Marc Chagall. 

Despite his limited understanding of French, Kertész used this position on the fringes of Paris’ social scene to develop his slightly removed gaze. As his images caught the small lyrical and comedic moments happening on the city’s streets, his artistic reputation quickly began to flourish. “I carried on with what I had imbibed in Budapest, and that spirit suited the French perfectly,” explained Kertész. “They put what I was doing down to the Parisian spirit; they don’t know it’s half Paris, half Budapest.”

“Kertész used his position on the fringes of Paris’ social scene to develop his slightly removed gaze.”

Kertész career was given a boost when he was introduced to his Hungarian compatriot and fellow artist Gyula Halász, aka Brassaï. The pair formed a lasting friendship and professional collaboration, with Kertész teaching him the art of photography before he produced his acclaimed ‘Paris by Night’ series. By 1927, Kertész had emerged as one of the foremost photographers of the time, working for a slew of leading magazines and holding the first solo photography exhibition in Paris. 

Alongside his newly purchased Leica 35mm camera, Kertész developed a masterful appreciation for light and shadow. With his innate ability to frame fleeting moments of humour and melancholy, Kertész’s aesthetic inspired countless others – including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith – to push the boundaries of photography further. 

“He often used a zoom lens to isolate different details in the streets.”

Rising From the Lost Years

After more than a decade in Paris, Europe’s shifting political tides caused Kertész, a Hungarian Jew, to leave behind his glowing reputation and start again in New York. Although he had lined up a lucrative role at a large fashion studio, his thriving career quickly stagnated as his style failed to make an impression on American audiences. Unable to return to Europe as WWII spread across the continent, Kertész’s momentum as a flourishing artist was lost as he spent the next two decades working as a largely anonymous commercial photographer. 

Described by Kertész as his “lost years”, this long period of personal and professional struggles eventually ended in 1964 when MoMA curator John Szarkowski discovered his talents and organised a solo exhibition. Now aged in his 70s, Kertész was reinvigorated to create personal work at a time when the American market was gravitating towards European art and culture. Despite accolades, global exhibitions and coveted photobooks giving Kertész the stellar reputation he deserved, much of his final work expressed the estrangement he felt from the artistic community and his homeland. 

As an increasingly isolated and fatalistic figure, Kertész’s emotions are reflected in his extensive New York archive. Here, the dense urban landscape provides a distinct counterpoint to the often lighthearted scenes he captured on Paris’ street decades earlier. Across smoggy rooftops, twisting railway lines and desolate parkland, Kertész captured many of his images with a long lens from his apartment window. Although his creativity and eye for hidden details never lessened, Kertész’s unmistakable solitude left behind a stark final chapter in a lifetime spent with a camera.

As Szarkowski described: “[Kertész’s] work, perhaps more than that of any other photographer, defined the direction in which modern European photography developed.”

Developing A Style Like André Kertész

Whether it was photojournalism or fine art, André Kertész’s outstanding array of work speaks for itself. Draw inspiration from his imagery and consider the following tips to enhance your own perspective.

GET ELEVATED & LOOK DOWN

As Kertész searched for unexpected perspectives on the cityscape, many of his best-known images were captured from vantage spots like clock towers and apartment block rooftops. Across famous images of Paris’ inner city, the Eiffel Tower and Washington Square Park, Kertész often used a zoom lens to isolate different details in the streets. Like Kertész said: “If you are on the same level, you lose many things.”

FOCUS ON LOOKING

Kertész frequently captured people just as their attention was caught by something out of frame. Using this method, the viewer innately wonders what special moment they are missing out on. Replicate this effect and see if you can capture your audience’s imagination. “Technique isn’t important – technique is in the blood. Events and mood are more important than good light, and the happening is what is important,” said Kertész. 

EXPERIMENT WITH OBJECTS

To create some of his most celebrated work, Kertész experimented with a wealth of manipulated objects. For his landmark series Distortions, he used curved mirrors to warp his nude subjects. Later in life, Kertész used a newly released Polaroid SX-70 and a range of small glass figures to pay tribute to his late wife.

“The moment always dictates in my work – what I feel, I do,” said Kertész. “This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see.”

FREE YOURSELF FROM LIMITATIONS

Spanning his immense career, Kertész didn’t limit himself to a specific genre, aesthetic or piece of equipment. Instead, he constantly adapted his technique to bring new perspectives to his work. He also actively avoided any singular art movement, while remaining up-to-date with technological innovations like telephoto lenses and polaroid cameras.

“I am an amateur and intend to remain one my whole life long,” said Kertész. “The photographer’s art is a continuous discovery, which requires patience and time. A photograph draws its beauty from the truth with which it’s marked.”

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.

2020-09-21T05:37:59+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: , , |