Best known for his lyrical, elegant and formally rigorous style, the Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész is now recognized as one of the most inventive photographers of the twentieth century. His highly distinctive body of work reflected his commitment to poetic and geometric forms which reared on the languages of rational and irrational modernism.
My photography is really a visual diary [...]. It is a tool, to give expression to my life, to describe my life, just as poets or writers describe the experiences they have lived. It was a way of projecting things that I had found. - André Kertész
Drawing from the collection of negatives and contact prints bequeathed by the photographer to France in 1984 and now kept by the Media Library for Architecture and Heritage, the upcoming exhibition at Jeu de Paume charts the photographer’s prolific 70-years-long career. Titled The Equiliste, André Kertész: 1912-1982, the museum exhibition will present over 100 photographs, retracing the link that Kertész has woven throughout his life between his photographic and editorial practices.
Born in 1894 in Budapest, André Kertész bought his first camera at the age of 18, photographing landscapes and peasant life while learning how to develop and manipulate photographs in the darkroom. Enrolled in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, he captured the lives of soldiers, developing distinct poetry of the moment. After the war, he decided to make photography his career. These early works in his homeland were an important step for this autodidact whose realistic approach is distinguished from art photography with pictorial influences dear to the Hungarian photographers of his generation.
After arriving in Paris in 1925, André Kertész began frequenting avant-garde literary and artistic circles and photographed his Hungarian friends, artists' studios, street scenes and Parisian gardens. It was during this period that André Kertész began his famous series Distortions, which featured naked bodies that reflected in a distorting mirror.
After signing a contract with Keystone in 1936, the largest American photographic agency of international scope of the time, Kertész emigrated to New York, where he would stay for the rest of his life. There, he was struck by the spectacular prospects of the city's urban landscape. Featuring geometric constructions made up of buildings, streets and railways, these New York photographs strongly contrast the intimate character of his photographs from Paris.
Composed of different phases, Kertész's work reflects the environment surrounding the artist at each stage of his life.
My English is bad. My French is bad. Photography is my only language. - André Kertész
The exhibition at Jeu de Paume museum charts the entirety of the artist's career, from photographs close to the photojournalism created in the first Hungarian years to the experiments of the Parisian period to architectural views of New York from the years 1930-1940, followed, towards the end of his life, by a new experimental phase.
Organized around the major works that the photographer published during his lifetime, it will include examples from Distortions (1976), Day of Paris (1945), Sixty Years of Photography (1972), J'aime Paris (1974), Of New York (1976) and Hungarians Memories (1982). The museum show also features about fifteen modern prints in reference to the book From My Window (1981), a series of reproductions the photographer made at the end of his life.
It was in Hungary that the camera became his "small book of notes, a book of sketches." André Kertész once explained:
I photographed things that surrounded me - human things, animals, my house, shadows, peasants, life around me. I always photographed what the moment revealed to me.
During his years in Paris, Kertész produced work which sits at the crossroads of the artistic movements that stirred the city in the inter-war period. The important body of work created during this period is Day of Paris, where he evoked the places he visited before the war, organized around the narrative of a day of walking in the city. Also produced during his years in the French capital, Distortions demonstrate the artist's fascination with the deformation of the subject. The reflections and the distortions will reappear in the series of Polaroids taken by Kertész at the end of his life.
Published in 1976, Of New York... compiled photographs Kertész took over his forty years of life in the city. Unlike in books dedicated to Paris, the artist drew a rather melancholy portrait of New York.
André Kertész first began experimenting with color during the 1950s, although these works were only the subject of anecdotal publications in the 1960s and 1970s. André Kertész continued this investigation in 1979, after being given a Polaroid SX-70 camera. Playing with the reflections and transparencies of glass objects through which he photographed from his window in New York, André Kertész created small intimate still lifes where the city dissolves in saturated colors. These polaroids were published in From My Window in 1981.
With a goal to preserve his memory after his death, André Kertész undertook the classification of his photographs and papers. Drawing from his archives, he published ten books between 1972 and 985, most notably, Sixty Years of Photography in 1972, Distortions in 1976, From My Window in 1981 and Hungarian Memorie in 1982. In 1984, the photographer donated all his work to France, including negatives, slides, contacts and abundant correspondence covering the entirety of his career. Since May 2005, this archive is being kept by the Media Library for Architecture and Heritage.
The museum exhibition The Equalists, André Kertész: 1912-1982 will be on view at Jeu de Paume - Château de Tours in Tours from June 26th until October 27th, 2019. It is accompanied by a rich bilingual catalog featuring tests by Matthieu Rivallin and Pia Viewing.
Featured images: André Kertész - Fête foraine, Paris, 1931 © Ministry of Culture / Media Library for Architecture and Heritage / Donation André Kertész; Poughkeepsie, New York, 1937 © Ministry of Culture / Media Library for Architecture and Heritage / Donation André Kertész; Nageur sous l'eau, Esztergom, Hongrie, 1917 © Ministry of Culture / Media Library for Architecture and Heritage / Donation André Kertész; La Martinique, 1er janvier 1972 © Ministry of Culture / Media Library for Architecture and Heritage / Donation André Kertész; Distortion n ° 40, 1933 © Ministry of Culture / Media Library for Architecture and Heritage / Donation André Kertész. All images courtesy Jeu de Paume.