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Legends of Photography #05: Andre Kertesz


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Undoubtedly, anyone involved in photography, in general, has their own source of inspiration, part of which is usually some important photographer. From a personal standpoint, my favorite photographer is Henri Cartier Bresson, that's why his name is mentioned quite often in the column 'Legends of Photography'. Introducing the work of the ‘legends' of photography in each article, I showed, perhaps subconsciously, this personal ‘weakness' but without any intention to compare and contrast diverse photographic works. After all, how easy is it to deny ourselves the creator that made us want to get involved in this particular kind of art as a reference point? For me it was Bresson. For Bresson, perhaps, it was Andre Kertesz.


“We all owe something to Kertesz... Whatever we have done, Kertesz did first’’

(Henri Cartier Bresson)


Another ‘legend’ had said that:


“André Kertész has two qualities that are essential for a great photographer: an insatiable curiosity about the world, about people, and about life, and a precise sense of form.” (Brassai)


This article, therefore, deals with a creator, who, without doubt, was the inspiration for the most important photographers of the 20th century.


Andre Kertesz was born in Budapest in 1894. The initial recognition of his photographic work took place in France, where he emigrated after the First World War.


As we saw in previous articles, a basic characteristic of a photographer is the fact that he never parts with the tangible 'instrument' of his art, which is no other than the camera. However, many times we find some excuse to leave it at home. And we realize it is merely an excuse if we consider that although Kertesz was standing in the heart of the First World War, he was always carrying his camera along, as an extension of his hand, for it was essential for his emotional survival. For those who were surprised, Kertesz had the answer:


“If I come out of this alive, then I’ll develop them; if I don’t, I won’t.”


So, we begin to understand that living together with his camera is a matter of course for a photographer.


But let us see more of his work...


Form is elaborately created. Its characteristics clearly indicate a favor in geometry. Another leading element is the way in which Kertesz manages light in his shooting. The angle of shooting, the shadows and the black and white contrast create a photographic picture in which figures and objects acquire a different meaning.


Kertesz, through his photographs, ‘directs’ light in his own way. It seems that he allows us to see only whatever he desires. Once again, our eye wants to see more than the photograph allows us - at least at first sight. However, we have to accept what we see in the photograph and not whatever we would like to explain that is happening in reality. The photograph is a story, not an explanation of an actual event.


Perhaps in reality, the figure with the imposing hat above was located somewhere on the wall, or maybe in front of the bench. Its position is exactly where it should be. Do not ask me; I do not know how...and it is pointless to find out. In a photograph, you usually see something more or less from reality, rather than reality itself.


Maybe another famous photograph of Kertesz can serve as a proof. Looking at the above photo, we would initially think that the figure on the right is standing on two feet in front of the wall. However, the figure in the photograph is shown with just one foot! It has no particular importance to try to prove the opposite. We need to see what the photographer chooses to see. Kertesz, like any photographer, does not aim at revealing what he saw when he took the picture. He aims at the emotions that an image made of elements of the external world can cause. And if the objects were words and the photographer was an author, the picture would be a text, which should be respected as such, in terms of content and meaning, without, of course, preventing us from forming and expressing our personal view on it.


‘’If you want to write, you should learn the alphabet. You write and write and in the end you have a beautiful, perfect alphabet. But it isn’t the alphabet that is important. The important thing is what you are writing, what you are expressing. The same thing goes for photography. Photographs can be technically perfect and even beautiful, but they have no expression’’.


If the architecture in the photograph’s form has not persuaded us that Kertesz was Bresson’s inspiration, then certainly the view of the former on the 'decisive moment', will help us to reach this conclusion. Kertesz explains that a picture is not born any time we want, but only at that moment in which we have the patience to accept it.


“The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see. I never calculate or consider. I see a situation and I know that it’s right, even if I have to go back to get the proper lighting”.


And the similarities go on, with Kertesz’s modest view on his work:


‘’I am an amateur and intend to remain one my whole life long. I attribute to photography the task of recording the real nature of things, their interior, their life. The photographer’s art is a continuous discovery which requires patience and time. A photograph draws its beauty from the truth with which it’s marked. For this very reason I refuse all the tricks of the trade and professional virtuosity which could make me betray my career. As soon as I find a subject which interests me, I leave it to the lens to record it truthfully. Look at the reporters and at the amateur photographer! They both have only one goal: to record a memory or a document. And that is pure photography’’.

He also explains that:


“Technique isn’t important. Technique is in the blood. Events and mood are more important than good light and the happening is what is important. Seeing is not enough· you have to feel what you photograph.”


Kertesz had been constantly feeling alive through his work. Up until a few days before his death, he did not stop to photograph and to see his own world through his photographic lens.


Having reached the age of ninety, Kertesz spent the last months of his life inside his home. His body was maybe giving up on him, but that did not make him quit photographing, even if his subject matter were the objects that were surrounding him inside the house. In fact, he created a new album, which he shared with photographer Susan May Tell. When she asked him what it was that made him go on photographing, Kertesz replied:


“I am still hungry…”

References

  • Borhan, Pierre (2000). André Kertész: His Life and Work

  • Corkin, Jane; B. Lifson (1982). André Kertész: A Lifetime of Photography

  • Andre Kertesz (Aperture Masters of Photography)

  • Greenough, Gurbo & Kennel, Andre Kertesz: The Eternal Amateur

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