Opening the book on modern photography

He may not be a household name, but André Kertész is the father of photojournalism.


By Melanie Abrams, August 13, 2009
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Kertész’s photograph of his friend Sue Grayson Ford, taken at the Hertfordshire home of the sculptor Henry Moore in 1980. Kertész was “a warm and loving person”, she says

Kertész’s photograph of his friend Sue Grayson Ford, taken at the Hertfordshire home of the sculptor Henry Moore in 1980. Kertész was “a warm and loving person”, she says

With his Leica camera in hand, André Kertész wandered city streets, photographing people going about their daily lives. It helped him, he felt, come to terms with being an outsider, first as a Jew in early 20th-century Hungary, then as a émigré in Paris between the wars, and then in New York.

The images he created led many of his peers to regard him as the father of photojournalism, although it needed a Museum of Modern Art retrospective in New York in 1962 to re-establish his reputation. Even now, his name is less famous than those he influenced, such as Henri Cartier Bresson, who acknowledged his importance by claiming: “We all owe him a great deal.”

A series of Kertész’s photographs on the theme of readers and reading is now on display in London, spanning his early work before the First World War to his death in 1985. Images include men, women and children perusing books, magazines and newspapers on balconies, rooftops, the beach at Cannes and even on top of a rubbish pile in Manila.

Kertész knew that by photographing people reading, he captured them at their most relaxed. As Robert Gurbo, the photographer’s former assistant and curator of his estate and foundation, says: “When people read they are transformed into the world of the book. Their body language becomes about who they are and what they are reading. They are being themselves.”

Reading formed an integral part of Kertész’s own life. According to Colin Ford, a friend and founding head of the National Media Museum in Yorkshire: “André’s father was a bookseller. From the age of six or seven, he used to pore over magazines.”

His interest in reading was also inspired by his Jewish background and its culture of praying and learning — one of the images in the show is of a couple walking past a painting of an Orthodox boy studying.
Kertész never forgot his background. “His life as a Jewish exile was part of his melancholia, creating the feeling that ‘I’m in a place where I wish I wasn’t, that I’m not home.’ There is a sense of loneliness and alienation throughout his pictures,” says Ford.

The images in the exhibition show why his work has had such a powerful effect on other photographers. There is the perfect composition, the sharp angles and the little details that draw the viewer into the picture.
He also had great intuition, knowing that if he waited long enough, something interesting would happen. “At every street corner or taxi stand he saw things. He spotted things you and I wouldn’t see,” says Ford.

His pictures also have a strong sense of intimacy. “André could hide in corners, do things quickly and go unnoticed,” observes Gurbo. And his valuable gift for putting people at ease is highlighted by Sue Grayson Ford, director of the Campaign for Drawing, who Kertész photographed at the home of sculptor Henry Moore in 1980. She recalls: “I was unselfconscious because he was a warm and loving person, and it was a natural occasion — we were enjoying ourselves.”

Snapshot

Born: Budapest, 1894, son of a bookseller
Career: Bought his first camera aged 18. Self-trained as a photographer. Early work included images of army life in the First World War. Emigrated to Paris in 1925, where he became the first photographer ever to have a solo exhibition, and established a reputation as a photojournalism pioneer. Worked for Condé Nast in New York, but failed to repeat his European success. Major retrospective in 1962 helped re-establish his reputation. Died 1985

André Kertész: On Reading is at The Photographers’ Gallery, London W1 until October 4 (www.photonet.org.uk)

Last updated: 9:36am, August 14 2009