PRINT February 1986


ANDRÉ KERTÉSZ, WHO NEVER TOOK a rude picture, once said, “I’m just an ordinary photographer who does what he feels like doing, and that’s all.” Yet Kertész’s instinct for lyric moments, which was the essence of his style, became an inspiration for many He was among the first to go out with a small camera and distill images from the world instead of forcing it into the studio. Henri Cartier-Bresson called him “my chief poetic source?”

Kertész started taking photographs as a young man of 17 exploring Budapest and the nearby countryside. At the end of boring days at the stock market and on weekends, in the years before World War I, he would roam the streets with his camera, or stay up late to work in his makeshift darkroom inside a converted closet. Later, as a young officer wounded in the War, he was sent to the town of Esztergom, northwest of Budapest, on the Danube, to recuperate. There and in the vicinity, with his Goetz Tenax 4.5-by-6-cm. camera wired to his paralyzed left arm, he photographed injured comrades, gypsies, and daily life. Kertész went to the Esztergom pool daily for hydrotherapy, and once told me, “It is there that I discovered the play of water and light on the body underwater. This discovery led me later to the Paris ’Nude Distortions’. My pals thought me an idiot for taking pictures of such ridiculous things, but it was more exciting than what they were always after me to photograph, their girlfriends’ faces or behinds.” We had been talking about Underwater Swimmer, 1917, his image of a body in water—jagged, abstracted, and seemingly headless. A friend seeing this picture recently remarked, “It’s nice to see an André Kertész from 1917 that is like a David Hockney from 1984.”

In 1925, Kertész took a train from Budapest’s Eastern Railroad Station (built by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel) and left a depressed Hungary for Paris and the companionship of other artists. Elizabeth Sall, his youthful sweetheart, joined him there against her parents’ wishes, and they were married. Eleven years later they traveled to New York, intending only a short visit, but World War II broke out and they got stuck. After the acclaim he’d received in Paris, Kertész was baffled by the cool reception he received from American gallerists and museum curators, and by the commercial proscriptions of magazine editorshere. He continually railed against “The God of America”: money. Finally, in the mid ’60s, he swore never to work for anyone on their terms again, and devoted himself to his pictures. In 1964 he had his first one-man show in this country, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Kertész and I had a twenty-year friendship. I first visited him in my college years, just to meet him and to show him my photographs. I often returned to his apartment overlooking Washington Square Park, to sit across from him at his bridge table while the late-afternoon shadows faded on the walls. In recent years, every honor finally became his: he had over 25 books and catalogues published, exhibitions around the world, and three honorary doctorates from various universities. He used his weightier accolades as paperweights and doorstops. Piles of hooks and photographs, as well as small objects from old friendships and the past, covered the remaining surfaces in the apartment. As his walk became shaky and after he had been mugged twice, he refused to carry his camera on the street; he photographed only the views from his 12th-floor windows and cherished mementos he kept about him, which he was always arranging and rearranging with trembling hands, finding new meanings in their new juxtapositions. “Look how my hands shake,” he’d say, “and it isn’t from emotion,” though everything else in his life seemed to be motivated by feeling. When no one else was around we’d speak Hungarian together, and sometimes he’d let me glimpse his vintage prints and glass negatives from his pre-Paris days. Those he kept safe in an antique wooden biscuit box, a relic from Gerbeaud, the fashionable Budapest coffeehouse.

During the summer of ’84 we were both in Hungary. Born in Budapest half a century apart, we were there to revisit the country of Kertész’s youth—he, to be the subject of a documentary by Ten Wehn-Damisch, and I, not just to see my childhood friends, but to find out if Hungary today—juggling East and West, communist methodology and capitalist enterprise—had anything to do with the Hungary of his early photographs. As much as he claimed France his spiritual home, he said of his birthplace, “All that is treasured in my life had its source here.” Kertész’s visit was widely publicized, and he was recognized by passersby When the cultural minister took us out to dinner and asked him his impressions of the place, his answer was, “You are more American than the Americans.”

We returned to his former haunts. He took pictures and, as always, waited for a cat, a pigeon, or a trace of emotion to breathe life into them. I didn’t carry reproductions of his pictures with me, I know them by heart. We separated and I traveled north and south and northeast some, but most of my time I spent along the Danube; I was able to find scenes associated with pre-20th-century life, scenes familiar from Kertész’s Hungarian Memories book, but signs of contemporary mass culture were ubiquitous, if a little in delay Last Tango in Paris was playing in cinemas. I overheard a Janis Joplin record. I asked a bald teenager, who looked to be from the East Village, if he was punk; “No,” he said, “I despise violence. I just wanted to see what it felt like having no hair on my head. . . . If anything, I feel an affinity with Buddhists.” Functional apartment dwellings, typically ugly, broke the gentle flows of village houses. Beside the live chicks and geese at the farmers’ markets, black-marketeering Polish tourists tried to make back their vacation costs by selling used goods they’d brought with them for the purpose. Across the Danube, along the Ipel’ River, peasant men and women offered me ripe plums and pears from overloaded branches. I saw muzzled cows with full udders pulling a wagonload of corn. It wasn’t all bucolic: border guards zipped by in jeeps, looked down from towers, stood waiting at bus stops, or just strolled with their machine guns and German shepherds along the dirt roads.

Kertész called his wife Elizabeth szivecske, “little heart” (and sometimes szivacska, “little sponge”). Whenever he could, he would bring her a gift in the shape of a heart. “She’d say ‘Stop it, Bandi,’” he told me, “but I wouldn’t stop it.” After her death, in 1977, he did a book of Polaroid still lifes, From My Window, in which a glass bust and a glass heart appear over and over again. The tilt of the neck and the shape of the head reminded him of her. On my way to his funeral something white on the ground caught my eye as I got into my car. It was a white stone in the shape of a heart.