André Kertész: The Early Years

by Matt Damsker


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By Robert Gurbo. Edited by Robert Gurbo and Bruce Silverstein. W.W. Norton & Co., 500 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10110. Web site address: W.W. Norton & Co., Ltd., Castle House, 75/76 Wells St., London, WIT 3QT. This book accompanies an exhibition held at Bruce Silverstein Photography, New York City, October-November 2005. Bruce Silverstein Photography, 535 West 24th St. New York, NY 10011; phone: 1-212-627-3930; fax: 1-212-691-5509. ISBN: 0-393-06160-4. 81 pages; 61 plates.

The formative work of a great artist affords an obvious opportunity to read perhaps too much into his later, greater achievements, but in the case of Andre Kertesz, it's fascinating to observe how consistently the seeds of his mature work were sown in his early photographs. This wonderful book--and its accompanying exhibition in October and November of this year at New York City's Bruce Silverstein Photography--is the first devoted solely to Kertesz's earliest vintage photographs, the so-called "Hungarian Contacts" that were discovered in a small, all but forgotten box after the artist's death in 1985.

Under the circumstances, these tiny prints would be charming regardless of their quality, but they reveal all one could hope for from a great photographer--an instinctive eye for affecting yet unsentimental composition, and a distinctive style. Created during a 13-year period in his native Hungary (from 1912 to 1925), they tell us that Kertesz was joyously experimenting with the possibilities of the camera, exploring the expressive powers of distortion, shadow, and portraiture. Most of all, they are stamped with the vision of a true modernist.

This is evident in the very first print, an elegantly composed image of Kertesz's camera on its tripod, seen from the middle distance against a huge, shadowing tree, with a bright meadow in the background. By objectifying the very instrument of photography in this gently ironic manner, Kertesz invokes an almost Duchampian spirit. Other images are less conceptual, yet still touched with the shock of the new--as in a shot of two men pulling at a fallen horse ("Country Accident"), or of shadowy figures against a house in Budapest, the image dramatically framed by a thick L-shaped shadow.

Another photograph, taken from a high hillside vantage, explores the geometry of field, meadow, and farm structures with the rigor of a Cézanne and an inspired sense of the visual field, balancing the volumetric variety of the buildings with their complex placement in the landscape. Such formal explorations affirm Kertesz's seriousness about the dimension of photographic expression, while the portraiture that makes up the lion's share of these prints points to the powerful humanism that is often at the heart of his work.

Much of this, we realize, was engendered by his experience as a soldier during World War I, and Kertesz's camera brings us into intimate contact with those days. A 1914 self-portrait (one of many; Kertesz role-played a great deal in those days, to the extent of dressing as a woman in one photo) in a soldier's uniform reveals a skinny young Kertesz, diffidently posed against a stark wintry backdrop that hints of death. Then, in 1915, there is the breathtaking "Force March to the Front, Poland," for which Kertesz stepped outside the marching line of his regiment to snap a photo of the entire mass of soldiers snaking along the road for miles ahead. Other wartime shots, of the army in motion, on trains, or at rest, or hunkered down in the trenches, shooting at the enemy, are filled with urgency and immediacy.

As for the many intimate portraits collected here--of Kertesz and his wife, Elizabeth, along with his brother, Jeno--they are at once celebrations of familial love and, always, well-realized expressions of joy and possibility. The shots of Jeno, in particular, convey childlike glee, as Kertesz captures the lanky, clownish Jeno in all manner of playful guises--as a nude Pan with a flute, as an Icarus with wings scampering along the seaside, or as a dancing sprite silhouetted against the sky.

At the same time, the Kertesz whose camera had become an inseparable companion, documenting the whimsicalities and wonder of those days, was crafting a style and a modernist vision that would continue to blossom in his mature years. The images from the 1920s--of wandering violinists, street sweepers, figures in horse-drawn carriages confronting us in the hazy twilight, of nuns gathered at a cemetery--contain the classic touchstones of Kertesz, and stand up to his later work quite well. Indeed, as Robert Gurbo details in the book's informative essay, the young Kertesz was a romantic who looked for "the poetic" in everything, and especially in photography, which led him to heights of creativity even in these early shots.

"The war years were difficult for André," writes Gurbo. "First he contracted typhoid. Then, in 1915, he was shot and wounded. After being hospitalized and receiving experimental treatments, he would swim every day as part of his convalescence. It is here that he discovered and recorded his first 'distortion.' Sitting above the pool in the bleachers, he observed and photographed the rippling effects of the moving water that refracted his vision of the swimmers as they cut through the pool's surface (Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom, Hungary, 1917, plate 28). This altered state offered a visual paradox. A somewhat deformed, headless body is gracefully gliding through the frame--a hopeful metaphor of man, battered by war, somehow managing to progress."

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.