PRINT December 1985


André Kertész, of Paris and New York.

With essays by Sandra S. Phillips, David Travis, and Weston J. Naef, London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 288 pp., 125 black and white illustrations and 180 duotone prints.

WHEN ANDRÉ KERTÉSZ died, on September 28, 1985, aged 91, he relinquished the title of photography’s most celebrated living legend. It was a title that a growing band of acolytes and admirers had in recent years rushed to bestow, and one that the photographer himself considered long overdue. Kertész took pictures for 73 years, or almost half the time that photography has existed, and although he arrived in New York in 1936 with a full-fledged Parisian reputation as a master photographer, America was slow to recognize his genius.

Two major exhibitions of Kertész’s work have opened this year: one last summer in Tokyo (it will come to the International Center of Photography, New York, next summer and subsequently travel), and one, organized by David Travis, at the Art Institute of Chicago (that show is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from December 19 until February 23, 1986). Andre Kertész, of Paris and New York was conceived and executed to accompany the latter show.

The book is at once biography and career chronicle, with a bit of critical analysis thrown in. Sandra Phillips has given us “The Years in Paris.” Her essay provides the context of Kertész’s Parisian years, delineating his artistic development there, his magazine photo essays for Vu and Art et Médecine, and the character of the artistic and publishing milieu in which he participated. David Travis discusses “Kertész and His Contemporaries in Germany and France,” providing a sophisticated compare-and-contrast discussion and linking Kertész with other contemporary cultural luminaries. Weston Naef gets to deal with Kertész’s American career and its frustrations; basically he never deviates from Kertész’s own viewpoint. We hear the familiar story of the difficulties Kertész had with American magazines that didn’t understand his work, and of his resentment of peers like Martin Munkacsi, Andreas Feininger, and Alfred Eisenstadt, whose stars rose faster than his own.

The book is beautifully illustrated and seriously presented. The footnotes alone are worth the price of admission, especially since only by reading them can one discover such little-known details as the fact that Kertész had a first wife (Rosza Klein, who later became known as a photographer under the name Rogie André). Nevertheless, the texts are repetitive and continue the canonizing process apace. Their tone is celebratory, their attitude reverent, and scholarship is used to convince us of Kertész’s lasting significance. Naef unsuspectingly gives a clue to the process when he says, “His self-image is that of someone who has been ignored or misunderstood most of his creative life, and this fact is central to an understanding of his art.”

I would argue instead that Kertész used his longtime bitterness to manipulate opinion and to create a critical guilt that has obscured a proper assessment of his photographic achievements. Now that the photographer is dead and his audience can no longer feed on the cult of personality, perhaps the business of proper critical assessment of the pictures can at last begin. Kertész’s strengths lay in his oblique subjectivity, his intimacy of vision; his abilities were as a composer of pictorial chamber music, not operas or symphonies.

Alexandra Anderson