I was fortunate to have discovered the photographs of Kertesz early in my photographic life. They have inspired and nourished me for decades. Spanning a number of genres, including street and candid photography, still life, portraiture and modernist distortions, his black and white photographs are special because they contain formal beauty, lyricism, and poignant human interest all effortlessly tied together.
The photographer’s life, however, was anything but effortless.
Andre Kertesz was born in Budapest in 1895. He started to photograph in 1914 and worked until his death in 1985. He lived in Hungary, Paris and New York. At each place, he came close to fame and success but they somehow eluded him until late in his life. But everywhere he created photographs that became classics and influenced countless other photographers.
My first brush with his work was through his book On Reading. One of my favourite photo books, it is filled with touching, sensitive photographs of people around the world caught in the act of reading. Turning the pages of this book is always a rich experience because it allows me to enter worlds that readers inhabit.
Kertesz’s early photographs of Hungarian village people are also touching. These photographs are steeped in Hungarian folk traditions that also influenced the composer Bartok and his guru Kodaly. They look at the village people through gentle eyes, revealing and insightful.
Kertesz moved from Hungary to Paris in 1925 to pursue his photographic dreams. He became close to the modernist movement, particularly his compatriot photographer Brassai, and had a solo exhibition in 1927. However, due partly to his unwillingness to learn French, he did not attain the fame he deserved. In 1933, on the cusp of success in Paris, he accepted an offer from an American company and moved to New York. There, the collaboration he expected did not work out, but being Jewish he did not want to return to Europe during the tense years before the Second World War. He fell into relative obscurity, worsened by his unwillingness to learn English. During the war, Kertesz and his wife were labelled “enemy aliens” and he was advised not to take photographs in the street. For two decades he worked for different magazines, making fashion and interior design photographs, but he was little known for his art.
In 1964 he finally attained fame with a solo exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Thereafter he was sought after as an art photographer.
A committed and consummate artist, he did not stop working as the end approached. His mobility was restricted, but he photographed people on the street below from his window with his Leica. An exquisite book called From My Window was the result of this work.
Lyrical and exuberant, Kertesz’s photographs reveal special moments and were precursors to the “Decisive Moment” made famous later by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The manifestation of the creativity of great artists evolves over time and circumstances. They often leave behind works in many genres. Kertesz’s life and work is a fine example of this. They are a rich and delightful gift for visual connoisseurs and creators alike.
www.facebook.com/tangents.ikabir or follow “ihtishamkabir” on Instagram.