Modest Moments Given Formal Clarity

Kertsz's camera lens was as gentle as the light captured in his photos


By Andr Kertsz

Abbeville Press

120 pp., $35

What comfort food is to a vexing day, Andr Kertsz is to photography. Neither war, nor poverty, nor loss could embitter his work. Of course, he was subject to the full range of human feelings. But Kertsz's work remained gentle, in the manner of someone who has gone through the fire and survived, more fiercely persuaded of the joy emanating from everyday life.

Kertsz was born in Hungary in 1894. He received a baccalaureate degree in business, despite skipping classes to spend time in the library reading subjects that were more interesting to him.

While working on the degree, he purchased his first camera and taught himself to take pictures. Kertsz's self-training brought forth a signature style that is immediately recognizable.

He perceived the modest poetic moments in life, and recorded them with such formal clarity that they became monumental. There are Kertsz photographs without human beings in them, but even these pictures have a human presence.

Kertsz served in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I, taking his camera with him. Rather than photographing the destruction and carnage of battle, Kertsz made pictures of the camaraderie of foot soldiers, and the persistence of spirit in extraordinary circumstances. In a telling image, Kertsz photographed himself doing laundry in a ditch just 200 meters behind the front line.

After the war, buoyed by acclaim for his photographs, Kertsz moved to Paris. There he worked for many of the illustrated magazines and came to know leading artists and writers. His famous series of photographic nudes, aptly called "Distortions," may have been made by Kertsz in response to his contact with the Parisian Surrealist's perception of the world.

Nevertheless, these images seem gimmicky in comparison with his portraits of chairs in Champs Elysees, the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Tuileries. Arrayed as their occupants left them, the chairs mimic the conversations of their recent tenants.

Kertsz traveled to the United States in 1936, where he planned to do reportage for only one year. The year stretched to three, and Kertsz, carrying what was considered to be a German passport, was classified as an enemy alien.

He stayed in the United States during the war, although his status as an alien made work difficult to acquire.

After World War II, Kertsz made strides both in his commercial work and in his artistic endeavors. In 1946 he signed an exclusive contract with Cond Nast, which published more than 3,000 of his photographs in House and Garden magazine. Yet his art and photography was lauded more frequently in Europe than in the US.

Throughout his career, his pictures never lost their quiet mood. Any aspiring photographer who has been frustrated by the seeming lack of good subjects should study Kertsz's late photographs depicting the interior of his apartment.

Kertsz's visual lyricism reveals a patient, meditative character. The quotations accompanying the photographs support this sensibility, thawing some of the chilly resentment we know Kertsz felt about the sluggish American recognition of his work.

Like the poet William Blake, Kertsz could find the world in a grain of sand. "Everything that surrounds you," Kertsz wrote, "can give you something."

* Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at Syracuse University in New York.

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