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Kertesz on Kertesz: a Self Portrait (Book Review)

Kertesz on Kertesz: a Self Portrait

Andre Kertesz (1894-1985) was a master photographer born in Hungary. After serving in World War One he worked in an accounting office in Budapest until, in 1925, he followed his heart to Paris, the centre of the art world. In Paris, he quickly made friends with artists such as “Leger, Chagall, Vlaminck, Mondrian, Delaunay, Giacometti, Lipchitz, Lurcat, Calder and Zadkine”. And when he wasn’t shooting photographs or sleeping in his room… he hung out at Cafe Du Dome, the centre of their social universe. Kertesz described those 11 years in Paris as the best of his life. He had an international reputation and was greatly respected as an artist and photographer.

Kertesz left Paris for New York in 1936 with his wife for one year. However, the war erupted in Europe and he spent the next 30 years being ignored, under-appreciated and mostly shooting photographs to please himself because the American market was not ready for his European style. They called his nude distortions ‘pornography’ and in turn he refused to buckle under on commercial projects. It was not until Kertesz was an old man that America accepted him as a master photographer.

In the book Kertesz on Kertesz: a Self-Portrait, published in 1985, Kertesz walks the reader through his life story in a personal way using photographs and small pieces of text to guide context. It could have as easily been called “A Conversation with Kertesz” because he reminisces about photographs along the journey.

For example, four friends in World War One were photographed on a communal latrine but one of those men was killed soon after. Yet this was the only photograph Kertesz had to hand the man’s wife, and he did just that. She was pleased. On another occasion a simple photograph of a young soldier writing a letter gets the explanation that this soldier was writing about jumping over a brothel wall on Christmas, 1914. The photograph is elevated by the story.

There is a photograph on page 28 titled “Hungary, 1918” that is beautifully framed. At first you see the cobbled alleyway and the peasant woman. Then the ladder. Then you see the cat climbing a ladder right at the top left intersection of thirds.

You can see the positive outlook of his photographs in Paris – chairs on the Champs Elysees; the famous image of four men in business suits walking across a wet Paris street; friends including the sculptor Alexander Calder, Marc and Bella Chagall and Piet Mondrian. I read the book through and studied each photograph at least three times before putting it aside.

Yet, my favourite photograph by far is on page 98 “Self-portrait with life masks, New York, 1976.” He writes,

These life masks were made in 1928, I think. One day I found one broken, and so I took them to a sculptor to fix. He knew my Distortions and so he made the heads like them. One day I came home and there they were. I set up my camera and asked a friend to push the button. Andres Kertesz

‘Kertesz on Kertesz: a Self-Portrait’ is an interesting book to review because what I really want you to do is to go to a library and find a copy. Read it. Immerse yourself into the soul of this artist who contributed a significant legacy to photography. He wrote, of one image of a Paris street taken in 1928 “I think Atget or Berenice Abbott did this street. But not with the cat.”

I hadn’t realised what an interesting man in real life Kertesz had been. It left me with a desire to learn more. It made me appreciate his real message for photographers and artists… work for yourself to your own vision of the world. Even when your friends and peers tell you that you’re crazy.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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