January 13th, 1999
Andre Kertesz
About Andre Kertesz

Known for his extended study of Washington Square Park and his distorted nudes of the 1930s, Andre Kertesz was a quiet but important influence on the coming of age of photojournalism and the art of photography. For more than seventy years, his subtle and penetrating vision helped to define a medium in its infancy. Though he spent most of his life in the United States, his European modernist sensibility is what made him great, and that is what he is remembered for today.

Born in Budapest in July of 1894, Kertesz was one of three brothers from a middle-class family. Soon after getting his bachelor’s degree from the Hungarian Academy of Commerce in 1912, he found a job as a clerk at the Budapest Stock Exchange. Though the work seemed far from his deeper aspirations, it did provide him with the resources to purchase his first camera. When, in 1914, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army, he brought along his camera. The photographs he made during the war represent the beginnings of his formation as a serious artist. Unlike other war photographs, Kertesz’s concerned themselves with the lives of soldiers away from the fighting. Part of Kertesz’s genius was his ability to cast attention on images seemingly “unimportant.” These subtle images of the moments of joy and contemplation away from the front were a revolutionary use of the newly invented hand-held camera.

Though he sold a handful of pictures to magazines and had a number of others made into postcards, Kertesz was not yet able to support himself with his newfound talent, so in 1918 he returned to the stock exchange. He remained there for seven years, supporting his recently widowed mother. Then, in 1925 he made the fateful decision to move to Paris. Excited about an opportunity to participate in the bohemian artist’s life, he worked as a freelance photographer. Working for dozens of different European magazines, Kertesz found Paris a welcoming and artistically inspiring place. Within a short time he met and made portraits of some of the great artists living in Paris, including Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Alexander Calder, Constantin Brancusi, Sergei Eisenstein, and Tristan Tzara.

By 1927 Kertesz’s scenes of the streets of Paris were beginning to attract a great deal of attention, and he had his first show at an avant-garde gallery. His humor and subtle humanity seemed to personify even the stone walls of Paris. Throughout the 1930s he remained in Paris studying the people and their inhabitation of the streets, and the play of light and shadow that so dramatically filled the urban landscape. In 1936, after the death of his mother and his marriage to Elizabeth Saly, he moved to New York, where he had been engaged by the Keyston Agency. Though he canceled the contract only a year later, the progress of the war made his return to Paris impossible. Unable to leave and treated like an enemy by the government (which prevented him from publishing for several years), Kertesz was caught in tragic uncompromising circumstances. When the war ended Kertesz had lost the momentum of a supportive artistic community, but continued to live in the States due to health and familial considerations.

For nearly twenty years his gifts remained relatively unrecognized in New York. It was not until 1964, when John Sarkowski, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, organized a one man show that Kertesz’s career was reawakened. Over the preceding years, art photography in the United States made serious leaps and began to recognize the advances of earlier European artists. It was this renewed interest that eventually brought an otherwise forgotten genius back into the public eye. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kertesz was shown regularly at the major international museums — having one-man shows in Paris, Tokyo, London, Stockholm, Budapest and Helsinki. In 1983 the French government awarded him the Legion of Honor, and the following year he passed away in his New York home. Very few artists are able to witness the formation of their own artistic medium. Kertesz was not only able to witness much of the beginnings of hand-held photography, but had a profound effect on it. With subtle and whimsical artistry, he took full advantage of a medium not yet sure of its own potential, and for that, contemporary photography remains in his debt.

  • Nathaniel Burkins

    Simply, the greatest photographer that ever lived. And with the advent of digital photography, the greatest photographer that will ever live.

  • David Foster aka Ragman

    Kertesz was an inspirational photographic artist with many memorable images which we have learnt many lessons from ~ An absolute Master of Monochrome

  • jack curtis

    II almost agree with Nathaniel with then exception that he is second only to Cartier Bresson

  • Brendan Lee

    “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.” Cartier Bresson on Kertesz, the “we” refers to his self, Capa and Brassai.

  • YAGO

    Cuando en la calle encuentra algo especial que detiene su mirada, sin excesivas prisas sin buscar un instante sino recreando el momento, concentrado y de frente, compone la imagen con extremo cuidado, cuida la luz como si estuviera en un estudio y congela un momento de emoción que queda para siempre en un papel.

  • Stan Kulesa

    - When I first met Kertesz [in 1985], at Susan Harder’s gallery on 57th Str. in Manhattan, NYC, I approached him with curiosity, awe and mystique. He & I were the only 2 in the exhibition space, and I then spoke to Andre Kertesz, saying that he was my #1 favorite photographer of all time.
    - He graciously thanked me, and asked if I was a photographer.
    - “Oh no, I’m only an amatuer”, I responded.
    - His response floored me when he said, ” I’m an eternal amatuer”, which was the biggest compliment one could ever expect, because it vicariously put me on an upper plane somewhat where he resided.
    - Of course that was presumptious to equate me with him, but he made me feel like a million dollars, if for a moment. Now, (then) I felt & sensed the real Kertesz, the truly humanitarian photographer, which he was.
    - Priceless experience !

  • Polad

    That’s so good, thank you for this.
    artfact.mihanblog.com

  • Kevin Moloney

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE issue this episode on DVD. It was wonderful.

  • michael j. lavin

    Yes, André Kertész, is one of the finest photographers ever and very few know about his work. His WWI photos are exemplary.

  • Don Bright

    It is so wonderful to know of something that is so universally agreed. Andre Kertesz, through his Photographs one can see how much of a nice person that held the Camera. Humor, a story in one frame, double entendre, the ability to celebrate life through glass, and many other attributes I leave to someone else to articulate better than I. What is happening in our modern world that keeps this kind of sensitivity from rising ? How would Kertesz respond to this comment. Think of the adversity that he had to overcome to make the pictures that are the gifts to us all. Possibly there is always adversity, whenever, or whatever period in time one is born. If you are a Photographer, and your’e feeling bankrupt creatively, Think of Andre Kertesz. Study his work. His work is at least something to feel good about.

  • Kenneth Poli

    Brendan Lee pegged it: HCB said that Andre did it first. He saw the importance of the small moments in life that have lasting meaning and used the camera’s instant ability to capture them forever. Our debt to his vision, empathy and kind vision of the world is being recognized too late.

  • Dandle

    Way cool. This was broadcast on American Masters and all I can find a link to is this short blurb that cannot even equal wikipedia. Where is the video, or how can I order? These are things that might actually be worth the time, trouble, and bandwidth to place here.

Inside This Episode

  • About Andre Kertesz

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