Hungarian-born, Parisian during les années folles followed by the upsidedown cocktail glass of the Depression and finally a New Yorker with a bird’s eye view of Greenwich Village, André Kertész donated — entrusted is better — some 100,000 of his negatives to France before he died. We know an artist through his or her instinctual preferences among their work and the vagaries of popular taste. Kertesz is no different and indeed, an extreme example of the latter, since it’s the nomenclatura of the art world that do the taste-making. Kertesz’s gift now belongs to the Mediathèque d’Architecture et du Patrimoine at Charenton le Pont just outside of Paris. Naturally enough, many of the negatives have never been printed before, so this show at the Maison Doisneau in Gentilly, painstakingly curated by Cédric de Veigy, is a first in many respects. It covers the early Leica years, 1930 to 1936, and it goes to the trouble of printing Kertesz’s different takes of a single scene, ennabling us to experience the choices Kertész made in the moment. A woman sits at a restaurant table with her boyfriend, their attention directed off-camera. She shifts, changes position, looks straight at us : we feel as if we’ve entered into the making of the scene, or as the exposition puts it, walking in the image. So let’s take a step back.
Of all the wandering 35mm troubadours of the twentieth century, André Kertész remains ce maitre meconnu, his inventive range of images, simultaneously Eastern European and Parisian, meticulous and fantastic, still, despite internet and retrospectives, a bit terra incognita. (Hidden in plain sight you could say, and perfect for the aspiring camera-hound to discover in a store with books crammed to the ceiling.) Of the new gods born from the head of Atget-Zeus (Man Ray, Brassai, Berenice Abbott to name but three), his work has the most encyclopedic sense of the camera’s possibilities. And while Elton John may have raised his auction price sky-high, it’s too late for Andor-André, who considered life “a little notebook, a book of sketches,” and who confessed, “My English is bad, my French too. Photography is my only language.”
One could go to town with explanations for his obscurity. Born in 1894 in Budapest, his work before 1919 fixes him as a regional Rimbaud lugging a heavy ICA box camera across the Hungarian plains, working closely with his brother and frequent model. He arrives in Paris, a complete unknown, and works steadily for the new roto-gravure magazines, a recurring hell, where one of his images, a fork resting on a plate, becomes a minor sensation. What a come down! Refined taste is already moving in the direction of ordinary objects artfully arranged, decked with shadows galore. The camera, Walter Benjamin wrote, “Is now incapable of photographing a tenement or a rubbish heap without transfiguring it. Not to mention a river dam or an electric cable factory. In front of these photographs one can only say, ‘How beautiful!’ ”
To be an immigrant means to have your past expunged; you have to reinvent yourself as if you’d never done anything before. Kertész works steadily for the popular press while helping Brassai get his footing. With the arrival of the Leica he’s free to lean out his window or wander the streets compiling his studies of Parisian people and places, redefining street photography along the way. To him the busy daytime, to Brassai the solitary figures of the night. But while the latter, in league with that mythomane Henry Miller, wraps his work in the intertwined mysteries of sex and character, Kertész has little to offer in the publicity department apart from his voracious theme-and-variations, a subtle music, as if Satie took a bath in chemical fixer. Someone must have already hooked them up on Youtube.
An outsider, a Jew, a man with an unprententious air who mangled French on a daily basis, he’s a tough sell and his lifelong aversion to editorial oversight doesn’t help. Yet he can do the commercial work while his other explorations, the fabulous series of Distortions chief among them, remain lesser known. Above and beyond his personal qualities, his photographs, those sketches from the book of life, lack the decisive moment which came to, and to some extent still does, dominate the field of serious photography. The people in his images are moving, changing, but no one is caught in the middle of a spectacular leap over a treacherous puddle.
And then… just when things were going so well… that awesome dark cloud spreads over Europe, choking anything it comes into contact with. In an excess of symbolism, many of Kertesz’s glass plate negatives were buried in a portmanteau near Casteljaloux in the Lot et Garonne, on the estate of Jacqueline Paouillac, a French journalist the photographer knew in Paris. (And not only her, other negatives and plates were left with William Ranki, whose brother hustled out of Europe on a steamboat bound for Buenos Aires while more plates went to a certain M. Schmidt in parts unknown.) Kertész heads to America, New York, where he works again but once the war starts his Hungarian nationality puts him under suspicion and he is forbidden to take pictures on the street. To keep home and sanity together, his wife Elizabeth launches a cosmetics venture. André lays low for three years.
In the bustling postwar era, when for a few short years America was not making war on the world, LIFE magazine ruled the roost, setting the standards and elbowing out other aesthetics. (The rebellion begins with Robert Frank’s The Americans in ’59.) In 1955, Edward Steichen assembled his Family of Man, for which he selects one of the Distortions on the condition that, according to the artist, “I must cut down le sexe.” What happened next ? “I no can do this thing. I go.” He walked out on the biggest bonanza in photographic history. He was done with the magazines after that : “I refused to work with the American press sensibility… I told them, ‘I’m sorry but I won’t take any more of these brutal pictures, even to please you.’ I wasn’t giving up anything.” (Here his French, perhaps improved by other parties, doesn’t seem so bad.)
Over cocktails at the party for his retrospective at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 1964, a stranger approaches Kertész and whispers in his ear: the trunk, his hoard, his archive, his other life, is intact and in good condition. In short order, photographers assembled, Kertész watches it being unearthed in la Reunion. Nearing seventy but elated he set to work like a tyro getting his first shot, tearing around Paris all over again. But popular interest in photography has already acquired its taste, its boundaries : they prefer their daily dose of pictures gaudier and more LIFE®-like, with sweaty peasants, devout worshippers and bare-breasted Africans. And so for better or worse, Kertész remains a photographer’s photographer, “a debutant who discovered the world over and over again.” What does it matter if only other photogs know what the notoriously tight-lipped Cartier-Bresson thought of him : “Ah, Kertész, nous lui devons beaucoup.” (Ah, Kertész, we owe him so much. Or the even more effusive, “Every time Kertész presses the shutter, I feel my heart beat.”) Every trade has its professional secrets.
The exhibition in Gentilly allows us to see Kertész in action, waiting not for the decisive moment, but for the character reveal, the small gestures, the physical embodiment of our animal sense; whether taken in Paris near the Porte de Vanves in 1936 beforte the Zone was destroyed, at a Guinguette (outdoor dance) in the Meudon woods, not far from the haunts of Impressionists like Renoir, we see an artisan observing human nature. To list but a few from the show : a woman making notes and planning her next chess move; Brassai, bulging eyes and thatchy eyebrows close-up at an café; a professor pausing in his lecture at the Institut de France, all reveal those in-between moments when character shifts minutely but perceptibly. It’s what Kertész called “being honest with the moment,” an acute sensitivity to the changes happening around us. The show is obviously a labor of love.
The masterpiece here may be the mysterious triptych simply titled Meudon, a scene staged — that feels like the right word — on a lean, curving street near the trainyards outside of Paris, where a viaduct looms over messy piles of logs destined to become rails. A passing train in the second frame puffs white smoke but the street and the yard are still empty, no one about, a bit strange for daytime. (De Chrico’s haunted archways come to mind.) The third frame (above) is bustling, with a second, identical train pouring out darker smoke, a woman in front of a beer hall with a broom and a small crowd of men in the background strolling along. In the foreground a man walks towards us, watching us under the brim of his hat, a newsprint-wrapped parcel under his arm. What’s he lugging, and why ? The three frames work like a short story, full of unknowns. An icon of modern photography in major collections, typically dated to 1928, we struggle to put the pieces together. The parcel in the man’s arms is a painting by Emmanuel Gondouin, dead of starvation a few years before the galleries got around to giving him a show. The triptych, from 1935, is his story : the artist is missing, his work concealed. A mystery play, built, like the work of the Surrealists, out of the happenstance of life, whose scenes mean to derange our sense of reality, it’s Kertesz’s tribute to a friend, a meditation on the life and indeed fate of an artist : there and not there simultaneously.
Selection from strips of 35 mm scanned original negatives. © Ministère de la Culture — Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / André Kertész.
André Kertész, Marcher dans l’image, exposition at the Maison de la Photographie Robert Doisneau, Gentilly until February 9 2020, after which it travels to select cities in France. Catalogue by André Frère, https://www.andrefrereditions.com/livres/nouveautes/andre-kertesz-marcher-dans-limage/