Street Photography Greats. Andre Kertesz

Andre Kertesz in his studio with his camera

André Kertész ( 2 July 1894 – 28 September 1985)

Another Austro Hungarian Giant of the 20th Century, Andre Kertesz started life in a Budapest before moving to the countryside having lost his father to TB. It was to be a seminal moment. Like a lot of the previous Greats we’ve covered he started off with a very simple ICA Box Camera, using the vast landscape as his pallet. This was to help him understand the basics of what was to become his dream job, and later gain him international acclaim.


But before he could even begin the First World War intervened, and he was sent to the front line where he sustained an injury while photographing what was going on. After convalescing, not returning to muddy fields of Flanders, he starting working as a stockbroker, a job which allowed him to take photographs in his spare time. Initially he stayed in Hungary, not following his dream at the behest of his mother, developing his hobby, and saving his money.


But in the 1920’s, he left his fiancé and family, and headed off to France. On his arrival in Paris, speaking only his native language, accompanied by little money, it wasn’t before long before his photographic talent started to communicate for him. In 1927, Kertész was the first photographer to ever have a one-man exhibition in Paris, when Jan Slivinsky presented 30 of his photographs at the “Sacre du Printemps Gallery”. But Kertesz was never statisfied, and strived for more. He worked for Vu Magazine, and took on commissions to pay for the new lifestyle of both himself and new wife Elizabeth, who had finally arrived from Hungary in ’31.


During the 1930’s he was to go on to create a set of photos based on ‘Distortions’ using two nude models and a lot of strange mirrors. Over 200 photographs were taken of the ladies, using mirrors you might find in the house of horrors, and it was a success. But this still wasn’t enough to promote his brand, and although it was to increase his notariety in Paris, it did little to promote his name outside of France herself.


By this stage, as a photographer, he had moved on from plate glass cameras to Leica, the camera he would stick to for most of his career. As the thirties rolled on, sadly the advent of Nazism rolled in. And with this, and fewer commissions, came their desire to get out. With his mother having passed away in ’33, and his brother having moved to Argentina, Kertesz decided to move to America, a decision he was later to reconcile with great sadness.


At first Kertesz found America a hard nut to crack, and started off by working on simple commissions while his wife set up what was to become a very successful cosmetics company. He declined work from Vogue and decided to work for Life instead. Unlike Bresson he did not return to work in the photography unit during the war, and being Hungarian, part of the Axis forces, he was treated with suspicion until both he and his partner received American Citizenship in 1944.


In 1946 his work reached it’s heights through an an Exhibition called Day of Paris. The Art Institute of Chicago organised the event in what the photographer would later recall as one of his happiest moments in America. And things continued to improve. Through the purchase of a new telephoto lens, Andre was now able to shoot from great distances. He used this to create shadows from above of different objects and people. He had come a long way from the days of minimalism in Europe, but he’d still not received the level if fame he craved from the industry. But things were to change one more time.


Fame was arrive in the sixties through a series of exhibitions held outside America and around the world. First Venice then Paris, along with a Gold Medal for his services to photography were to go some way to help him feel like he belonged in the pantheon of Greats. After his beloved wife Elizabeth was to pass away in 1977, he leaned on friend’s for support and travelled extensively.

Polaroid gave him an SX-70 near the end of his career, and he dabbled with colour for a short period, something both himself and Bresson were unable to master. Kertesz is not for everyone, but anyone who owns a camera can learn something from him, and he was particularly adapt at shadow photography.


Camera: ICA Box Camera, Glass Plate, Leica, SX-70

Where they worked: Hungary, Paris, New York, Around the World

Strengths: Incredible with shadows, exceptional early minimalist

Weaknesses: Very poor with Colour, demanded respect and expected fame which went against the thinking of the time

Quote: “My talent lies in the fact that I cannot touch a camera without expressing myself.”

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