The Up and Down Life of André Kertész
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, October 1983 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
In 1982, the most recent of André Kertész’s twenty-four books of photography, Hungarian Memories, was honored as one of the top photography books of the year; a vintage 1926 contact print, with the unassuming dimensions of 9×12 cm, sold for $15,000; France awarded him its coveted Prix de Photographie; and he was profiled in Newsweek. As one of the first photographers to wield a Leica, Kertész (1894-1985) pioneered small-format photojournalism and sequential reportage and was one of the first to experiment with night photography. Cartier-Bresson and Brassai are among those who acknowledge his influence.
With these not exactly trifling credits, one would assume Kertész, now eighty-nine, to be a photographer long known and revered in the world of photography. In fact, the role of a celebrity is not unfamiliar to him; fifty years ago, Kertész was one of Europe’s most celebrated art photographers and photojournalists. Then he moved to the United States, only to discover that America, enamored of the sharp-focus precision of f/64 photography and coolly objective photojournalism, was not at all receptive to his distinctly different style. Only within the past few years has his work gained prominence here, allowing Kertész his rightful place in the international pantheon of great pioneer photographers.
Kertész now lives in New York City, in a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Washington Square Park, where he has lived alone since the death of his wife Elizabeth five years ago. Pushing ninety, he’s yet lucid and industrious. A hearing impediment caused by an illness he suffered shortly after his arrival in the U.S. makes the standard interview difficult, but Kertész is a practiced storyteller, and little more than a shouted word is necessary to send him off on a tale. Even after almost fifty years in America, his English is still heavily punctuated with French and his native Hungarian. “I tell you my story,” says Kertész. “I made my biggest mistake in the moment I came to America. And I tell you frankly. All the best things what happened to me was in Paris and in Hungary. All the worst things happened here in America.”
Kertész was born in Budapest, Hungary, on July 2, 1894, the second of three sons. His father was a successful tradesman and one of the accouterments of the family’s comfortable, middle class existence was a camera with which family gatherings were ritually recorded. At six, Kertész discovered his vocation. On a visit to relatives in the country, he unearthed an old magazine illustrated with intriguing woodcuts in a musty corner of the attic. “Instinct tells me maybe I can do this with photography,” says Kertész. Too proud to ask his parents to buy him a camera, Kertész began looking at the world as if through the camera viewfinder, practicing for the time when he could buy his own. It was a good education. Shortly after receiving his baccalaureate from the Academy of Commerce in 1912 and taking a job as a clerk in the stock exchange, Kertész bought an ICA box camera with twelve 4.5x6cm glass plates. “In the very first moment I had my own personal camera in my hand, I made immediately the composition perfectly right. Balance, timing, everything was right.”
Kertész worked on the stock exchange during the day and printed the photos he took on weekends at night, learning developing and printing by trial and error in the darkroom he set up in the big family armoire. In those early days of photography, it was fashionable to make photographs that resembled paintings or etchings. Exposures were blurred, and prints were processed to create a diffused, “painterly” image. From the very beginning, Kertesz’s style rebelled against this tradition. He shunned the large format cameras favored then for more portable smaller cameras that allowed him to capture candid poses and trained his camera on scenes few other photographers would have bothered to record: two cocks on a cobbled street, a young man snoozing open-mouthed over this morning newspaper.
When World War I started in 1914, Kertész joined the Austro-Hungarian army, taking his camera, then a Goerz Tenax, with him. Even if it hadn’t been dangerous to haul a camera up to the front lines, Kertész wasn’t inclined to photograph carnage and destruction. His camera caught behind-the-lines action: six soldiers sitting in a row on a makeshift open-air latrine; a column of soldiers marching through a pastoral landscape, the curve and texture of their line harmonizing with a stand of trees in the distance; a soldier reaching to pat a peasant girl’s behind during an off-duty stroll through the countryside.
After the war, in 1918, Kertész returned to Budapest and to his old job in the stock exchange. “I was unhappy,” he recalls. His friends had begun to drift off to Paris—“this was the place!”—and Kertész told his widowed mother that he too wanted to go. His mother disapproved. After all, photography was a more suitable hobby than a profession. Loathe to contradict her, Kertész stayed on, switching to a job in an agricultural office, hoping field assignments would give him more opportunities for photographing, then trying farming, an endeavor that flopped when Hungary’s farms went communal.
By this time, Kertész had published a few photographs in local newspapers, and in 1923, he entered four photographs in an amateur photographers’ competition. The ensuing anecdote is one Kertész loves to tell as illustrative of photographic fashion in the early Twenties and his own stubborn refusal to compromise his divergent artistic standards. When the competition’s judges contacted him to say they would award him the silver medal if he would turn the photographs into bromoil prints, Kertész told them thanks but no thanks. “The bromoil is an artificial gravure. What I give them is pure photography. I don’t want to imitate nothing a la Steichen and company. Playing with the photo material is different than making the photo.” In place of the medal, Kertész received a mere diploma, but to his gratification, the prints were exhibited just as he had made them.
“Not long after, my mother decided to let me go to Paris.” The deciding factor was the publication of a Kertész photograph on the cover of Erdekes Urjsag, an illustrated magazine that he had contributed to intermittently since 1912, when he’d taken a selection of photos to the editors for their professional criticism. “Alors, this worked on my mother. She said, ‘My boy, you are right! This is not the place for your work.’” Kertész was off to Paris.
With savings to sustain him for at least six months, Kertész, then thirty-one, rented a garret apartment in Montparnasse and happily took to the street with his camera, shooting what he liked. He began to frequent the Café du Dome, a favored gathering place of artists and intellectuals who met to swap achievements.
Artists began asking Kertész for prints from which to paint, which Kertész gladly gave them, undoubtedly influencing their work. They, in turn, influenced his. He continued to pursue candid, humanistic scenes, but with an even more discerning eye to graphic composition, and began to work seriously on the surreal distortions he had begun making in Hungary. Kertész’s reputation spread, and by the end of 1926, strangers began to purchase prints. On March 12, 1927, fourteen months after his arrival in Paris, his first one-man show was mounted at the Sacre du Printemps gallery.
Among the artists and writers with whom Kertész associated then were Mondrian, Colette, Brancusi, and Chagall, all of whom he immortalized in now-famous portraits, as well as Brassai, whom he met shortly after his arrival. Of the latter, Kertész remembers, “He was an excellent writer, excellent sculptor, excellent designer, philosopher too, but not interested in photography. There were daily money difficulties for artists and intellectuals then, and he was struggling. So one day I tell him, ‘This is absolutely ridiculous. You are an intelligent man. You should begin photographing. With the money for the photo, you can paint or sculpt.’ Mais non. He don’t wanted. So I tell him, ‘You come with me, you want or you don’t want.’ He came with me, and I give him every possible instruction, technically and from an artistic point of view too. Including the night photos. I made the first one in 1914. Ten years later, it was my first cover.”
Kertész anticipated photographic fashion by championing the small format 4.5x6cm cameras over the cumbersome large format cameras most other photographers used, and when the 35mm Leica was introduced, Kertész was naturally one of the first purchasers. Using the lightweight camera to photograph what one observer described as “the significant background of world-shaking events,” Kertész began freelancing for Europe’s top magazines and periodicals, including the Frankfurter Illustrierte, Le Matin, Le Nazionale de Fiorenze and the London Times. Museums and libraries began buying his prints, and in the years between 1933 and 1936, Kertész published three collections of photographs—Les Enfants, Paris Vu Par Andre Kertész, and Nos Amis les Betes. In 1928, Lucien Vogel began publication of Journal Vu, an illustrated magazine on which Life was later modeled, and Kertész was its star photographer. Alexander Liberman, who went on to become one of the most successful publishing potentates in history, and under whom Kertész would later work at Conde Nast Publications, was then fresh out of art school, working in the art department.
At the height of his European success, in 1933, Kertész married Elizabeth Sali, whom he’d known in Budapest, and who, like many young people with artistic inclinations, had arrived in Paris in 1931 to become part of the international community of artists. She ultimately devoted herself to Kertész; theirs was a lifelong love affair. She figures affectionately in many of Kertész’s photographs, and most of his books are dedicated to her.
Soon thereafter, in 1936, Kertész and Elizabeth arrived in New York at the invitation of Ernie Prince, head of the Keystone Agency. Prince had lured Kertész away from Paris for what he thought would be a single sabbatical year spent in America doing reportage. The day before he left, a State Department representative called on Kertész to offer him French citizenship for artistic merit, a rare honor. Kertész thanked him emotionally, offered his regrets that he was leaving the country, and promised to accept the award officially on his return. Circumstances would prevent him from keeping that promise. “I made my biggest mistake the moment I accepted this one year,” Kertész says bitterly, “Details, better if you don’t know. The most dirtiest things happened, one right after the other.”
It began one evening shortly after his arrival, when Kertész received a call from Dr. Agha, then art director at Conde Nast, who was eager to work with him. Kertész told him that if he wanted anything, he should contact Prince. “’Ernie Prince?” asked Agha. “Andre, I hope he hasn’t cheated you.’” Prince, it turned out, had a reputation for publishing other photographers’ work under his name. Sure enough, several photographers appeared in Look with Prince’s credit. Moreover, the reportage Kertész had been promised had turned out to be “ordinary commercial work and advertising photography. Malheureusement, in the time I discovered this, in the third month, my money was not in my hand, and I couldn’t return to France.”
There followed a numbing series of bewildering personal and professional disappointments. When Beaumont Newhall, the Museum of Modern Art’s young curator, asked Kertész to contribute several of his photographs, including some of his nude distortions, to the museum’s first international exhibition of photography, Kertész was delighted. “I was very glad he wanted to use. The distortions I did only in the last three of four years, and Paris accepted nicely. Germany accepted, and they began going around Central Europe. I hoped America would like them too.” But Newhall felt there was too much blatant nudity in the photographs, and asked Kertész to tone down the sex. “He said, with the sex is pornography what you did. Without the sex is art.” In the end, Kertész complied. “I felt completely confused. The representative of the big Museum of Modern Art in America talking this way? And so I give in.”
Kertész experienced a different form of censorship from American magazines. In 1937, Life, Journal Vu’s American progeny, was in its first year of publication, and Kertész went over to pay a friendly visit. Life’s staff greeted him enthusiastically; they knew his work well. For Life’s purposes, though, they told him, he talked too much with his pictures. “This is a mistake!” This is an illustrated magazine. You should talk with illustrations.” But Life had an editor to elucidate the photographs through captions. “Alors! I make document and talk too. Comme reporter I want to talk. I should talk.”
The idea that photojournalism should be objective was something that Kertész would come up against repeatedly. “I feel I have no place in America. Documenting. Is not for me. I try to do some, but it was impossible. Everybody had two cents. Do this. Do that. In Paris, we did not do it this way. In the real reportage style, you read the article and go out with your personality. Not everybody two-centing.”
Kertész was stuck in the United States. Not only was his money gone, but World War II had started, and as a Hungarian, he was considered an enemy alien. He was fingerprinted and restricted to photographing indoors. “In street with camera, I was spy.”
To earn a living, Kertész made “ordinary commercial photographs” for Harper’s, Vogue, Town & Country, Colliers, and House Beautiful. But one month, he found himself short on cash and unable to pay the rent for his residential hotel rooms. “I lived in this hotel for two years. And I paid regularly. The manager knows me. I tell him, look, maybe this month I am three or four days late with rent. This was maybe eight or nine days before the end of the month. I have the right to stay to the end, but that night I come home, and the door was locked.”
Abruptly, without preparation or plan, Kertész and his wife found themselves literally on the street. As they stood wondering what to do, Kertész began to feel nauseous and dizzy. Then he collapsed. “I lost myself. Elizabeth began desperately asking for help. It was 11:00. There were a few people on the street, but no one helped. Around midnight, after one hour, slowly, slowly, I became stronger.”
Kertész had a rare syndrome called Meniere’s disease, and he lost most of his hearing during those hours on the street. He continued to experience spontaneous dizzy spells for almost three years. He told no one of the illness and kept on taking assignments, never knowing if he would be able to complete them. Fortunately, the spells came only during non-working hours, and he was able to keep his illness to himself.
“In the time this happened, the doctor was telling me no more darkroom. If I go in, the red light makes me dizzy. You can imagine. I was desperate.” Kertész began sending his film out for processing, but was invariably unhappy with the results.” After I became a little better, I try cheating the doctor. I try for fifteen years. Go in the darkroom and try and try and try.” Eventually, Kertész found Igor Bakht, a printer with whom he has now worked for seventeen years. Kertész pays Bakht the highest compliment a photographer can offer a printer: “He is doing exactly what I would do.”
Kertész continued freelancing, and in 1946, he had his last one-man show for almost twenty years at the Art Institute of Chicago. It attracted virtually no critical attention. “I tell you,” says Kertész, speaking retrospectively of his lack of support from the American artistic community, “if Newhall exhibit, if Steichen exhibit, then maybe I could have come out. But in America in the time I came, the biggest thing was f/64. You know what is f/64? I explicate. f/64 is perfect technique. But it’s like writing. You can learn to handwrite beautifully, but what’s more important is what you are writing. f/64, this means the minimum was the maximum for America.” Feeling drained and defeated, Kertész signed an exclusive contract with Conde Nast publications in 1949. “It was not interesting what I did for Conde Nast—just illustration,” Kertész dismisses the next thirteen years.
World War II had uprooted the Journal Vu staff, depositing both Lucien Vogel and Alexander Liberman in New York, where Conde Nast gave his old friend Vogel a small office and the title of advisor and Liberman the job of art director. He replaced a recalcitrant Dr. Agha. “In the moment he became art director, he called,” says Kertész. “‘Andre, can we working together?’” I told him, ‘Alex you know very well I am reporter. This is not for me.’” But Liberman was persuasive. Kertész took the job of revamping House & Garden. “You understand French?” asks Kertész. “It was merde.”
“I changed House & Garden in one year. Then the other magazines began calling for me. My idea was gaining some money, some independence, and going back in Paris. I brought it up and they said, ‘Andre, please don’t go. We give you contract.’ And I was there thirteen years. It was, believe me, suffering.”
Kertész photographed for all of the Conde Nast publications, even trying his hand at fashion for Vogue. Meanwhile, he watched Liberman succumb to the pressures of directing consumer publications, which, to attract the advertisers who support them, must cater to mainstream tastes. “All my respect for Alex,” says Kertész. “He tried to do intelligent, honest, artistic, and literary work. He tried months and months. He became sick. Sick and nervous. And the moment came when he decided: America wants the other side, so I do the other side. And he don’t have the courage to tell me, ‘Andre change too.’
“Several times he give me assignments. I did the subject in a way I thought was sensitive and interesting. When I presented the work, he say, ‘Andre, very nice. But can I ask you please go back. And make an ordinary presentation.’ I ask him, ‘Alex, why? Why send me? Anybody from the street can do this.’” Liberman quietly insisted.
By the early Sixties, Kertész was thoroughly frustrated with his work for Conde Nast. During that time, he went into the hospital for an operation, and in the course of a lengthy recuperation period, he came to a decision. “I think over my American existence, and I decided I don’t want to give in, even if I have nothing to eat. Is more important with this son of a bitch life to hold on and do what I want, honestly, humanly, artistically. In cents and dollars, I have a difficult life, not making the big money a la Avedon and company. It was more important for me to be honestly artist.”
Kertész terminated his contract with Conde Nast in 1962 and began concentrating on selling his own work, this time around with positive results. In 1963, he landed a one-man show at Long Island University in New York, and in 1964, the Museum of Modern Art’s John Szarkowski, impressed with the abundance of fine photographs Kertész brought to show him, mounted a one-man show at MOMA that met with critical acclaim. He’s since exhibited internationally and is represented by galleries through the U.S. His prints sell for a minimum of $1,000.
One evening in the early Seventies, Kertész encountered Liberman at a MOMA reception in Lord Snowden’s honor. “‘Andre,’ he asked me, are you still photographing?’ ‘Yes,’ I tell him. ‘I am only photographing.’”
© 1983, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman