Most people with a more than passing interest in the history of photography can visualize at least one of Andre Kertesz’s iconic photographs. Perhaps The Fork, his black and white study in highlight and shadow, shape and form or maybe the whimsical Satiric Dancer or perhaps one of his many Parisian street scenes. We might be envious of a prolific artist who seemingly led a charmed life leaving behind a large body of extraordinary work. How could he have been anything but completely fulfilled in his chosen career that spanned nearly seven decades, first in his native Budapest then in Paris and lastly in New York?
After first being published in Hungary, an acknowledgement of his capabilities as a photographer, it was only natural for an ambitious Kertesz to move to Paris, the cultural capital of the Western world. Not only did he find critical and commercial success in Paris but he developed friendships with painters, sculptors, writers and fellow photographers, many like himself, Hungarian (Greenough 60). One of the photographers he befriended was Robert Capa who Kertesz called “his little child” (Borhan 10) and a painter Brassai who after seeing Kertesz’s work declared, “My prejudices were over, I fell into the trap of photography” (Borhan 17). In 1927 Kertesz was given the first solo photography show at the gallery Au Sacre du printemps (Borhan 20). His Hungarian fiancé Elizabeth joined him in Paris and they were married. In a 1978 interview for the Masters of Photography series Kertesz stated, “Paris accepted me, Paris made me.” Despite all this in 1936 Kertesz and his wife Elizabeth boarded a ship for New York.
Earlier that year Kertesz had received a phone call from Erney Prince of the Keystone Press Agency trying to lure him to New York to open a fashion studio. Kertesz refused but Prince was persistent, calling him again and again before finally going to Paris to meet with Kertesz in person. After hearing what Prince had to say he began to consider his offer. Perhaps it was the fact that in the 1930’s life in Paris was changing. The prospect of another war in Europe caused magazines to feature more politically charged content than Kertesz was making. Hitler’s clamp down on the press ended any working relationship Kertesz had with numerous German publications. His circle of friends was breaking up, many of them going to the United States to escape growing nationalism, anti-Semitism and fascism in Europe. There was also the fact that despite receiving critical acclaim, financially he and Elizabeth were just scraping by. In a letter to his younger brother Jeno in August of 1935 Kertesz wrote, “Morally I succeed but we better not talk about the material rewards” (Greenough 86). Prince had offered him $4000 a year, a comfortable wage at the time (Greenough 87). Kertesz accepted, thinking that if he liked the work he would stay for one year, maybe two, no more (Masters of Photography). The fact that he left most of his negatives in Paris reinforces this statement (Borhan 23). While Kertesz’s reason for accepting Prince’s offer was pure ambition, coming from Jewish families, its likely his decision saved not only his life but Elizabeth’s as well.
A few days after arriving in New York, Kertesz was at work making fashion photographs at Studio Prince. In the studio he found himself lost and bewildered. For most of his career he had allowed chance to help him create his compositions. He had difficulty fabricating lively scenes and coaxing his models expressions (Greenough 145). “Shortly after I come over I discovered what he want of me, making the most ordinary commercial and advertising work what I never did before. I lost my enthusiasm, naturally. After eight month I left him”(Masters of Photography). Prince sued Kertesz for breach of contract and Kertesz countersued stating that Keystone had withheld commissions. The suit hung over Kertesz for two years until Keystone dropped their case. Though the case was dismissed it under cut Kertesz’s confidence for Keystone was his reason for immigrating to the United States in the first place. Kertesz was now forced to look for freelance work (Greenough 146).
“I tried working the way I did in Paris, this was my character. It was impossible” (Masters of Photography). Kertesz was shocked to find his past achievements seemed to have little importance to his new American audience; he was forced to start over and construct a new persona. The new Andre Kertesz he began to project was not just a photographer who made insightful reportage stories but a multifaceted generalist, “everything is my specialty.” The jobs were few the pay minimal, the work hard and the photographs not his best (Greenough 146).
To fill his empty time Kertesz would wander the streets of New York to help him ascertain life in his new home and his place in it. He was both amazed and overwhelmed by the scale of New York City’s skyscrapers and would photograph them, not to address the city’s strength and modernity but his own alienation and loneliness. In Lost Cloud he photographed a small lone cloud that butts up against the empire State building, as if its path were blocked by the monolithic structure. Kertesz equated himself to the little cloud “it didn’t know which way to go” (Greenough 148). Kertesz considered returning to Paris but aside from the fact that he had very little money letters from home reassured him of how right it was for him to have left Europe. In a letter dated 19 September 1938, his older brother Imre wrote; “Human existences are reduced to zero on this contemptible, vile continent, smeared with the thin veneer of culture” and “an isolated new subspecies was created, the non- Aryans, treated with cold pogroms. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring and I don’t know if there will be a tomorrow here at all” (Greenough 149).
Realizing his poor marketing skills and limited command of the English language Kertesz hired a representative, Wick Miller, to prospect for assignments. Miller was successful in getting commercial work for Kertesz but the financial rewards were limited and the work was often stiff and contrived and it gave him little popular exposure. When Miller secured Kertesz an assignment from Life magazine to photograph New York and New Jersey harbors it seemed Kertesz’s luck was about to change. To prove his worth he put a great deal of effort into his photographs of the harbor, turning in over two hundred photographs. None were ever published. England and France had declared war on Germany and a magazine as prominent as Life could not show shots of the docking of the Queen Mary and the Normandy. As Kertesz noted “these were records of activities that no longer existed” (Greenough 152). When Kertesz inquired about future projects, Life’s executive editor, Wilson Hicks, told Kertesz that his photographs “talked too much.”
Other disappointments followed. Despite having had more than twenty-five photographs published in Coronet over the years only one was included in the fourth anniversary issue with a special section of 32 memorable photographs. He was again disappointed when a friend from Paris, M.F. Agha, who had become art editor at Harper’s Bazaar excluded him from a special issue devoted to the history of photography. His contemporaries like Abbott, Bourke-White, Evans, Munkacsi, Moholy-Nagy, and Renger-Patzsch were all included, as well as photographers he had taught or influenced like Brassai and Cartier Bresson. Minicam returned more than one hundred of Kertesz’s photographs saying they simply did not understand them. His reaction to these slights only worsened his relations with editors and publishers (Greenough 154). In 1938 Look magazine published several of Kertesz’s photographs in an article entitled “A Fireman Goes to School” crediting them to Erney Prince (Borhan 27). A new style of photography unlike what Kertesz was producing gained popularity in American. The f/64 group championed by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogene Cunningham and others promoted painstakingly composed and highly technical photographs of maximum sharpness. Their main concentration was landscapes of the American West (Krehbiel).
Stress brought on medical problems intensifying his professional misfortune. Friend’s were writing to Kertesz’s family that he and Elizabeth had been “starving for months” and that Andre was experiencing nausea, vomiting, anemia and was having problems with balance. Kertesz portrayed the late 30’s and early 40’s as one of the bleakest times in his life. He recounted how he became dizzy and collapsed on the sidewalk when he and Elizabeth were locked out of their apartment because they were late with their rent (Greenough 155). After America entered the war Kertesz was fingerprinted as an enemy alien and told not to photograph on the streets “they thought I was a spy.” Rationing in 1944 meant that he was unable to buy more than a few rolls of film per month. It was during this time he made the autobiographical Melancholic Tulip, which he later described as “like him, youthful and fresh, but sadly wilted before its time” (Greenough 155).
In 1947, after eleven years of struggling Kertesz signed an exclusive one-year contract to work for House and Garden. He was to receive $10,000 a year, a princely sum for someone who was used to scraping by on far less. Of Kertesz’s decision Brassai stated, “By resigning himself, the true Kertesz could no longer find himself and ended perhaps by no longer even looking” (Borhan 31).
Kertesz traveled extensively photographing the homes of the rich and famous. Though the work was hard and uninspiring he renewed his contract each year for the next 14 years until the death of his older brother Imre, and his own health issues made him take stock of his life. He was 67 years old, exhausted and bored with making the same type of photographs for House and Garden over and over again. It was during this time that Kertesz told Brassai “I’m dead! You’re seeing a dead man.” In 1962 Kertesz stopped working for House and Garden to resuscitate his art and to become an amateur again. (Greenough 159- 160).
Borhan, Pierre, et al. Andre Kertesz, His Life and Work. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1994.
Greenough, Sarah, Robert Gurbo, and Sarah Kennel. Andre Kertesz. Washington: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Krehbiel, Donald. Minox, Metol & Macintosh, A Photographic Journey Through the Opto-Chemical Era into the Digital Age. n.d., web. 22 May 2012.
Masters of Photography, Andre Kertesz, Everything is Photograph. Dir. John Musilli. Kultur, 1978. DVD