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Unassuming, Yet Ardent Art

March 30, 2011 By:
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SPEAKIING VOLUMES

I can pinpoint with great accuracy the moment I fell in love with the photography of André Kertész, and that's because it was predicated on a misunderstanding. It happened in the Eighth Street Bookshop, one of Manhattan's legendary locales. It's long-gone now, its passing much lamented by those of us lucky enough to have lived in Greenwich Village for a time in the late 1960s. I was just browsing that day, not looking for anything in particular, when a thin, square-shaped, shiny white paperback called On Reading entered my line of vision. It had a charming photo on its cover showing a man dressed in a tweedy suit, standing halfway up a library ladder, a book resting in his hands. He seemed truly lost to the world, cognizant of no other reality except the universe of paper and print that lay before him. I thought it was the perfect illustration for a brief essay on the pleasures of reading, which is what I imagined awaited me inside this trim little volume.

I was way off-base. There were few words at all, just more wondrous images of people reading, whether inside high-ceilinged rooms or outside in parks, whether holding books or magazines or newspapers; all of the subjects were deeply engrossed in what they were doing, and all of them had been caught -- immortalized, so to speak -- by this man with the curious, evocative name: André Kertész, which seemed to speak of a little France and a little Eastern Europe. It took me no time at all to go through this slight work composed of variations on a theme, but it so clearly summed up my fascination with reading that I had to have it. I bought it immediately for some trifling sum and still have it in my library to this day.

I now have a fairly thorough collection of Kertész volumes and am glad to be able to add to the pile the simply titled Kertész, beautifully produced by a publisher called Hazan/Jeu de Paume, which is being distributed here by Yale University Press. The authors are Michel Frizot and Annie-Laure Wanaverbecq.

As I began exploring Kertész's work more than 40 years ago, what amazed me about this prolific photographer -- and what this new publication reiterates in its splendid choice of photographs -- was the wide range of his interests. It would have satisfied me thoroughly if he simply pointed his camera at people reading, in all sorts of terrains, but that subject alone would never have satisfied his obvious, insatiable curiosity about the world.

According to the authors, he was born in 1894 in Budapest, and called then Andor Kertész, the son of a bookseller father -- not so startling a discovery -- and a mother who ran a modest tearoom. The family was part of the Jewish middle class in the Hungarian capital, but after his father died in 1909, a victim of tuberculosis, it was considered best that Andor enroll in a business school, even though his obvious interests were centered on art and literature. With his business degree in hand, and with the help of an uncle, he became an employee of a brokerage house. But he also began taking pictures.

This early "Hungarian period" is marked by a sweetness, an unassuming folk-art quality. Whether he pointed his camera at nature or members of his family, there is something unassuming, unfussy about the results. He never lost the gentle quality of his framing, but when he moved on to Paris (where he became André) and then on to New York (and no one took more beautiful photographs of the Village and Washington Square), he became more consciously an artist -- without ever becoming self-consciously artistic. The sense of inevitability about his images -- that they had to be this way and no other -- was what dominated all phases of his career, even when he moved into less realistic realms, as in his playful, teasing series of "distortions."

With the move to Paris, his photos grew bolder in their composition without ever forcing the moment; especially when he went out into the streets, his frames seemed to naturally fill up with bursts of energy and life. He never lost that quality either, merely refined it in whatever city he happened to be in. His photos of hands and faces, whether they be of great artists or people on the street share the same quality of joy in life's surprises.

One thing I regret is that I only learned after the great photographer's death that he'd lived for many years in Greenwich Village, not far from the Eighth Street Bookshop, where I first "encountered" him. People used to say that he would wander the streets, a camera hanging around his neck, pointing it here and there as he saw fit. If only I had known!

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