“We all owe something to André Kertész”, Henri-Cartier Bresson once said of the person he considered to be his teacher. A major figure in the history of 20th century photography, André Kertész (1894 – 1985) was one of the first professional photographers to experiment with camera angles.

André Kertész bought his first camera at 19 years old and taught himself how to use it. Yet the young Hungarian, destined for a career in finance, would go on to become the author of the most famous fork in history and an important collection of black and white photographs that were sometimes absurd and poetic, sometimes imbued with spontaneity and melancholy.

Drafted to the front during the First World War, he took photographs of unassuming scenes: a soldier praying, another playing with a puppy… More a personal diary than sensationalist images, presenting a unique perspective on the war. On his return, the success of his photographs convinced him to make a career out of photography; his camera became his travel companion and his work the emotive, creative witness to his life.

He shot most of his photos in small format (9 x 14cm) as was common during the war — front-line photos were edited as postcards to raise money for widows and orphans. This format accentuated the resulting intimacy of his artistic approach.

The city, especially Paris, was the first realm he began to express himself in. He discovered the French capital in 1925 and met renowned figures from the artistic avant-garde there. He began to photograph his friends, artists’ studios, street scenes and to elevate the everyday humdrum. He observed the city and explored the endless possibilities offered by the modern language of photography, inspired by debates on abstraction.
“My English is poor. My French is poor. Photography is my only language.”, he said.

André Kertész, a personal language

One of his first commissions came from monthly magazine, Le Sourire: figures stretched by distorting mirrors, made to appear marvellous or monstrous in equal measure. He developed a sort of obsession with distortion and light play. His striking distortions of female nudes as well as his incredibly modern still lifes, have long earned him association with the surrealists. And yet, André Kertész didn’t want to identify with any artistic movement: “My photography is really a private 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.” 

Distorsion n° 40, 1933

History, the grandiose, bore no interest to him. His images capture intimate memories, like extracts from family albums. The “poet photographer”, according to the writer Pierre Mac Orlan, expressed his imagination through selected parcels of reality. An approach that may have been down to a conversation he had with a gypsy woman wanting a portrait for her fiancé: “Take it when only my eyes are smiling”. “This ordinary girl taught me that the beginning of the smile is the most beautiful, because it is a promise. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used that, for the most high-end magazines” the artist admitted a few years later.

Photojournalism owes him a lot. André Kertész has tried and tested all the techniques, and was a huge contributor to the rise in popularity of the small format. André Kertész was one of the first people to purchase the famous Leica camera, which contributed to the emergence of photojournalism. He was quickly recruited by the first major illustrated magazine, VU, for which he illustrated nearly 150 articles. André Kertész would use his unusual images to “suggest” reality, much to the displeasure of American editors who would say of his photos that “they talk too much”.

When he arrived in New York, his work was misunderstood and the artist shared his melancholy (Lost Cloud, photograph from 1937). The human world became ghostly. Pedestrians were reduced to black silhouettes and André Kertész preferred portraits of dogs and pigeons. From his balcony on the 12th floor, he used a telephoto lens to carefully study lines and horizons. He would blur the landmarks, shatter perspectives and wait for the arrival of passers-by to capture the moment.

It was not until the 1960s that André Kertész would once again devote himself to photography with pleasure and that his work would undergo a certain revival through the use of the Polaroid. Ultimately, he bequeathed most of his negatives to the country that inspired the most prolific period of his life: France.

Selfportrait, 1929
André Kertész’s work is available to view until 05 September 2021 at Le Cellier in Reims, as part of the
exhibition “L’équilibriste, André Kertész: 1912-1982”.
This retrospective – the result of a partnership between the City of Reims and the Jeu de Paume (Paris), and organised in collaboration with the Multimedia Library of Architecture and Heritage (Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine) – retraces the link that Kertész forged throughout his life between his photography and editorial endeavours.

Le Cellier – Cultural Centre, Rue de Mars, 51100 Reims, France
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Images : Ministère de la Culture / Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine / Dist. RMN-GP © Donation André Kertész
Text : Amélie Cabon