André Kertész: Poet with a Camera

UPDATED 05/27/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/27/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

One day in 1900 a Hungarian boy arrived at his uncle's country house near Budapest. There, prowling through the attic, he happened on a stack of magazines illustrated with woodcuts, photographs and engravings. It was a decisive moment in the history of photography: On that long ago afternoon the young Andre Kertész decided he would someday take pictures.

Now, more than 70 years since he first began looking at the world through a lens, Kertész is being honored at 90 as one of the great visual talents of the century. This month a major retrospective of his work, Andre Kertész: Of Paris and New York, opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. The show will travel to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in December. In Manhattan, where Kertész now lives, his dealer is currently showing a small jewel of an exhibit, André Kertész: Les Jardins, featuring images of European and New York gardens taken in the past six decades.

For Kertész, this recognition has been late in coming. Long an influence in his field, he was the mentor of younger colleagues such as the late Brassaï and Henri Cartier-Bresson, now 76, who calls Kertész "my chief poetic source."

In a break with the past, Kertész, with Jacques Henri Lartigue, left the salon and moved outdoors, celebrating the charms of everyday life. His early photographs are visual reminders of a simpler time before the Great War: Gypsy children kiss; an old lady on a village curbstone feeds a gaggle of geese; a man in a Budapest café dozes over his newspaper. "I didn't want to do what other people did," Kertész explains. "I expressed myself the way I wanted. It was instinct, absolutely instinct."

Kertész left Hungary (where he had worked as a clerk at the Budapest Stock Exchange) for France in 1925. He flourished during his 11-year Paris period, when his photos appeared in major publications throughout Europe. With the Café du Dôme as his headquarters, he wandered through the city's streets and parks recording scenes. He also captured on film the age's reigning artistic talents, including Brancusi, Alexander Calder and Marc Chagall. In 1933 he married Elizabeth Sali, a Hungarian 10 years his junior, whom he had met in Budapest.

As celebrated as he was in France, Kertész had a rocky arrival in the U.S. in 1936. He felt cheated by the picture agency that had persuaded him to come to New York for a year of work, but stayed on rather than return to war-threatened Europe. A registered alien during World War II, he was forbidden to photograph outdoors. "I was paralyzed," he says. Kertész also fought with editors who suggested that he crop his photographs, and he bitterly recalls one LIFE editor who told him his pictures "talk too much." The resentment Kertész felt during this period is evident in his photos, which are more impersonal and remote than his European work.

Since his wife's death in 1977, Kertész has stayed on in their sunny two-bedroom apartment on lower Fifth Avenue. There he walks cautiously with an old man's gait in rooms filled with antiques Elizabeth bought at auction, with stacks of photographs, and with memories. He still broods about those earlier years in the U.S. that were discolored by bitterness. Kertész is hard of hearing, but his eyes are sharp enough. He takes pictures from the windows and terrace of his apartment. But the shows and lavish critical bouquets being tossed his way this spring do not soften the old photographer's mood. "It is absolutely too late," he tells a visitor in a heavy Hungarian-French accent. Hands trembling as he leafs through his early work, Kertész pauses when he comes to Melancholic Tulip. "I photographed the pain too," Kertész says, "but it was hidden. It was symbolic. A friend said, 'Andre, this is you, the melancholic tulip.' He was right."

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