Written by Jennifer Stoots

André Kertész was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1894, the same year of Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s birth in France.[1] By the time he was 18, he had a camera and was capturing pastoral moments of daily life in Budapest and the Hungarian countryside.  Recruited to arms in the First World War, Kertész was one of the many soldiers to take his camera with him to the front.  The images from that period are no less serene than the photographs he produced throughout his career.  (Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom, 1917 is a foreshadowing of Kertész’s later distortions; this image was taken while convalescing in Esztergom from a field injury.  The photographTransport, 1918, of a soldier resting against a supply wagon watching a dog and her pup, presents a sweet interval, despite exhaustion and ordeal.)

After the war, Kertész returned to civilian life in Budapest.  The daily grind proved to be just that, a dull repetition.  His source of escape, or solace, was his camera; Kertész continued to photograph charmed moments with friends, family and in the community.  In 1922 he made the commitment to become a professional photographer.  He knew, at the very least, that he was not particularly keen on studio work but found little else in Hungary.  And so, in 1925, he moved to Paris.

There was significant migration to the French capital in the 1920’s.  Kertész found himself in the Hungarian enclave of Paris soon after his arrival and Café du Dôme was a regular meeting place.  It is known that, among the Hungarian photographers at least, Kertész came to know Brassaï, Robert Capa and Lucien Aigner in his decade long stay in the city.  From his portraits, it is plain that Collette, Sergueï Eisenstein and Piet Mondrian were a part of his inner circle, among many other writers, painters and musicians.[2]  Paris had replaced Berlin as the center of the avant-garde between the two world wars and the cultural and ideological mix was abundant.  In Paris, Kertész was more experimental as well as more intimate in his work.  During this period we begin to see his exploration of vantage point (shooting from heights), concentration on patterns and distortions, and portraiture.  Paris is the era that Kertész produced many of his most memorable and famed photographs: Stairs at Montmartre, Paris, 1925-1926; Satyric Dancer, 1926;Mondrian’s Pipe and Glasses, Paris, 1926 Chez Mondrian, 1928; The Fork, Paris, 1928;Shadow, The Eiffel Tower, Paris,1929.

Prior to leaving Paris in 1936, Kertész was commissioned to do a series for the humor magazine Le Sourire.  The publication requested that he photograph a series of nudes-an unusual subject for him.  Having already toyed with using a fun-house mirror to photograph friends, he got two mirrors from a local amusement park and recruited Najinskaya Verackhatz and Nadia Kasine as his models.  Twelve of the Distortionswere published in the March 2, 1933 issue of Le Sourire and he was successful in getting another selection of them published in the September 15, 1933 issue of Arts et métiers graphiques.

In October of 1936, André Kertész, with his wife Elizabeth, moved to New York.  Upon his arrival, he opened a studio devoted to fashion photography.  His partner turned out to be of ill-repute but it was probably just as well, considering that Kertész found no greater satisfaction in studio work than he did prior to leaving Hungary in 1925.  His freelance work did no better; his subtle aethetic was considered incompatible with the American flavor of the time.[3]

His ill fate in the United States is clearly evident from the solitary, isolated images he produced in the subsequent years:  Lost CloudNew York, 1937 (considered by him to be a self-portrait); Arm and Ventilator, New York, 1937;   Melancholic Tulip, 1939 (also defined as a self-portrait).  New York, however, remained their home, for reason of the growing tensions in Europe and Elizabeth Kertész’s commitment to her fledgling business.

Kertész had left many of his negatives from Hungary (and some from Paris) with a friend in Paris for safekeeping.  At the onset of the Second World War, he had not only lost contact with the custodian of his archive, he was classified as an enemy-alien by the U.S. Government and was instructed not to photograph in public.  On top of all that his career was stagnant.  It was at this time that Kertész began suffering attacks of vertigo in the darkroom and eventually refrained from personally producing prints thereafter.[4]

Life became a little brighter for Kertész in the 1960’s.  In 1962, after he was hospitalized briefly, he decided to pursue an “amateur career again.”[5]  In 1963 he was given an exhibit at the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris.   Several important exhibitions followed: 1964-John Szarkowski curated a solo exhibit for Kertész at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; 1968-Kertész’s work was included the group exhibit The Concerned Photographer, organized by Cornell Capa.

At the opening of the Bibliothéque National exhibit, Kertész was reunited with the friend to whom he had entrusted his negatives-his archive of negatives, prints and correspondence was returned to him intact.  Many of the negatives were badly oxidized by this time and in 1972, the artist used the funds from his Guggenheim Fellowship to restore them.  By this time, Kertész had met Igor Bakht, who would become Kertész’s personal printer for the remainder of his life.[6]

More keenly since the 1960’s, the work of André Kertész has come to be revered by photographers, coveted by collectors and honored by academics.  Each image he made was carefully crafted and his greatest skill was in devising simple, elegant compositions.  Despite the ease of segregating each distinctive pocket of his life-Hungary, Paris, America-his voice was singular.  André Kertész received numerous accolades, honors and exhibitions prior to his death in 1985.[7]  The deserved tribute has continued since and the National Gallery of Art’s retrospective is unlikely the last.


[1] Other photography luminaries born in the same decade: 1889-Edouard Steichen in Luxembourg and Weegee in Poland; 1890-Man Ray in America and El Lissitsky in Russia; 1891-Alexander Rodchenko in Russia; 1895-Lázló Moholy-Nagy in Hungary; 1896-Martin Munkácsi in Hungary and Josef Sudek in Czechoslovakia; 1899- Brassaï in France.

[2] A short list of some of the other formidable photographers in Paris at this time: Bernice Abbott, Philippe Halsman, Florence Henri, Horst P. Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, Germain Krull, Man Ray, Lisette Model and David “Chim” Seymour.

[3] Robert Gurbo, curator of the Kértesz Foundation, New York

[4] Kertész was diagnosed with Meunier’s Disease later in life, which is an inner ear imbalance. (Gurbo, Robert)

[5] Gurbo, Robert “André Kertész: Lost in America,” Lenswork Quarterly Issue No. 23, November 1998 – January 1999, p. 38.

[6] Ibid., p. 39.

[7] Too many greats died between 1983 and 1986:  Ansel Adams, Brassaï, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Clarence John Laughlin,        Lisette Model and Garry Winogrand.