A Belated Interview with André Kertész

  • 24 Apr 2006 6:26 AM
A Belated Interview with André Kertész
"You've mentioned that you were already taking photographs in your head as a small boy. When did you take your first real photographs?
I decided that as soon as I was earning money, I would buy myself a camera. That was my private secret. After I had got my school certificate, I had the money, my pocket money, and out of that I bought a little box camera, a small Ernemann.

[On this, Kertész's memory is playing him up, because it is well documented else-where that it was an ICA box using 4.5 x 6 cm plates- KK.] It was a cheap, flimsy contraption that held 12 glass plates. You pushed the button, a plate dropped down and the next one took its place.

I began instinctively photographing things which I saw around me. But even before then I had always been looking out for things to photograph, looking out for the essential, even though at the time I was only six years old. When I got my own machine, in 1912, I started to take the sort of pictures that I wanted to see.

They worked in visual terms, even though I did not, as yet, have any technical experience. I tried to develop the pictures in my wardrobe, but too much light got in, even though I worked out what was good and what wasn't by trying over and over- one learns from one's mistakes. That's what I tell everyone: Feel free to make mistakes!

The next one will be better, and by the third it will turn out right. When I was learning how to develop, I would happen to over- or underdevelop a plate, but I drew lessons from the mistakes. I read textbooks and technical instructions, but in the end I learned by experi-menting. I have a few pictures back at home of me with my brother in a boat on the Danube bend; we actually stopped by the place on a car trip the day before yesterday. [In 1984- KK.]

The Danube hasn't changed. Even now, I cannot think of anything that would be compositionally more modern. And the reflections in the water came out well also, even though at the time I didn't know who Monet was. Those pictures are from back in 1914.

You were honestly just a teenager when you took those photographs, which today are important items for albums and exhibitions? Would you use one of your pictures to explain your method of working?

This is Bocskay Square [in Buda], where I often mucked about on my own. I decided to photograph it. I took along my kid brother, who was the most perfect collaborator in the world, you couldn't imagine anyone better, we were so much in tune with one another.

There was just one street lamp, in the middle of the square: that was the source of light. I knew that if I were to open the diaphragm, then the picture would have a dark background. I used a longer exposure time. I took three different photographs, exposing one for six minutes, the second for eight minutes, and the final one for ten minutes, having decided that I would hit upon a solution among the three.

I would use the one that came out best. And I really no longer remember which one it was, but every single detail is there in the background... And my kid brother stood there for me, motionless, in that pose, which looks as if he were walking- for six minutes, eight minutes, ten minutes. And it came off.

He was a superb athlete, you see, so it wasn't a problem for him. I had earlier spotted a place that I had grown very fond of, so I said to my kid brother, "Come along! You'll be in the picture." And I exposed for 8 or 10 minutes, because I knew that the con-trast was too great; I knew that if this [viz. the light part- KK] were exposed, then it would come out quite dark, but if that [the shadowy part], then it would be over-exposed.

I knew that just from theoretical considerations, because light meters didn't yet exist in those days, so one would take several shots, two or three. I would take two, but then later on I learned by sheer accident that if one coated the glass plate with red paint, that helped to copy more slowly the ones that had been exces-sively exposed. That's how I managed to rescue this wonderful tone.

That's not cheating; it was an aid to being able to copy pictures the way I felt I had taken them... I knew that the picture would be better if my kid brother were to stand there. There were other times when I saw something, but preferred to wait patiently for people to enter the picture. And then I profited from the moment. I allowed things to happen: that's why the pictures seem so natural.

Many of your early pictures were taken during the Great War. How were you able to decide when to squeeze your rifle trigger and when the camera's shutter release?

I was twenty when I went off to the officers' training college at Gorizia (now in Italy). I then came down with typhus, and by the time I got out of hospital my comrades had all passed the officers' exam. I was unable to do so on account of the typhus. The commanding officer was a Czech, who did all he could to make things tough for Hungarians.

Just four of us were Hungarians, and we were all on duty over the Christmas period. I was twenty when I got to the front line. The camera was a great boon to me in surviving, so I believed. I took photographs in Poland, at the Russian front- anywhere I saw anything of interest.

Then I asked to be sent to Esztergom, but I was unable to finish the officers' course there, and I was still not fully fit when I was posted to the front- for King and Country! I instinctively loathed the war. If I took a shot, it was in the air. In return, I was wounded; that was the thanks I got.

Did you take a camera with you everywhere?

Yes. So there I was, in the front line, lugging the plate negatives around in a metal case. The other lads said I was crazy. "Why?" I asked. "If I come out of this alive, then I'll develop them; if I don't, I won't." My kid brother had a great idea. Take 9 x 12 cm plates with you, he said, and cut them in four...

Then at night-time, somewhere in the village, or wherever we were, I would search out a dark place. I had a glass cutter and quartered the plates. It was a stroke of genius, because that way in one box of 9 x 12's I had material not for 12 but for 48 photographs. Oh, how big was the camera? 4.5 x 6 cm.

That means it was nice and flat, so I could slip it into my pocket. Part of our regiment was taken prisoner by the Russians; they had to be replaced urgently and we made a forced march for 48 hours non-stop, with just a few minutes to snatch some sleep standing up, or to relieve ourselves, grab a few mouthfuls of food, then on and on. I stepped out of the ranks to snap the column, then carried on marching.

I was just one of the many. That one says it all. I wasn't able to photograph very much while the war was on: just what was happening around me. And we were always in the front line, or immediately behind it. I always had a miniature camera with me at the front, where I would snatch informal snapshots, unlike the professional photog-raphers in the War Correspondents Section, who always went around with gigan-tic cameras and tripods once a battle was over, in order to take on-the-spot pho-tographs showing the destruction.

But I, for instance, photographed four soldiers sitting on a latrine, one of whom was later killed. I wanted his wife to have a last picture of him, and it happened to be that one. The woman understood and thanked me. While the war was still on, the weekly satirical journal Borsszem Jankó [Jack Peppercorn] advertised a photographic competition. As a joke, I sent in a pic-ture in which I can be seen sitting beside a brook and killing lice as I soak my feet in the water.

I took that picture under fairly tragic circumstances. Our company was unable to move out from its position, because the Russians had us pinned down by shelling day and night. I was fed up with that, and I thought to myself, whatever happens, I'm going to crawl the four or five hundred yards to that brook and have a wash. I wriggled over there, taking a small tripod with me, and that's how I took that photograph.

I sent that off to the competition and soon forgot all about it. Months later, I had a message from a comrade that he had been wounded and was in hospital. I paid him a visit, and while we were talking, I noticed on the bedside table a newspaper that had my name on it.

It was an announcement of the winners of the Borsszem Jankó competition, and I had been awarded first prize, which was a Borsszem Jankó calendar full of drawings by [Marcell] Vértes and that was when he was at the start of his career. I told him later on, when we met in Paris: "You'll never guess what I have!" "Will you let me have it?" "Not likely!"

You were seriously wounded in the chest at Zlocow, in Galicia, and your left hand was totally paralysed for a while. Was your life in danger?

I was first wounded in 1915. A Russian soldier plugged me with a bullet. That's what I got "for King and Country". We were marching up a hillside, and the bullet passed a quarter of an inch below my heart, without even grazing it: a fantastic bit of luck, that was.

When my left hand became paralysed, the whole arm was put in a hideous splint contraption. I had great difficulty putting plates in my camera, but I kept practising and bit by bit managed it. All of us wounded patients were massaged and given hydrotherapy. The water in the swimming pool was a wonderful blue.

I was sitting at the edge of it with the other lads when all of a sudden I noticed the reflections on the surface of the water and the gentle rip-pling, which introduced distortions, so I began taking photographs. The lads, of course, all wanted to send copies to their sweethearts and said I was crazy to take pictures like that.

Fair enough: crazy I may have been, but even after that I took a lot of similar shots, especially for a book that was published by the Red Cross. They picked out the good ones for publication, and unfortunately those were lost; but the ones that were left aren't bad either.

You were 30 years old when you left Hungary to spend years in Paris. What led you to choose that city in particular?

I went to Paris because I just had to go, I didn't know why. I had a small amount of money to keep me going for a while, I had my creative power, and I had my dreams. There were three of us brothers; my father had died, and it had been Mother's wish that the family should stay together. In 1925, however, she told me that if I still wanted to go, then I should go; she didn't want to hold me back.

She could see that Hungary was not the place to do what I wanted to do. So, one day she said, "You're right, son, there's no place for you here. What you want to do, you can't. Go, laddie." So go I did. I set off for Paris on the 25th of August, or maybe it was September.

My work went the rounds, from hand to hand, in the cafés, and more and more people got to know it. I was then happy to give away to my acquaintances pictures that would nowadays fetch fifteen or twenty thousand dollars. As I never did have much of a head for business, I don't see a red cent from that nowadays.

After 14 months, a dealer put on an exhibition. Thank you. Gradually, I was getting invitations everywhere; things were going fine. I carried on with what I had imbibed in Budapest, and that spirit suited the French perfect-ly. They put what I was doing down to the Parisian spirit; they don't know it's half Paris, half Budapest. Take this dancer reclining on a divan, for example.

She was called Magda Förstner, and she was an excellent dancer. She had appeared at the Vigadó cabaret here in Budapest and was already a famous artiste when she looked for an engagement in Paris. I met her after she had arrived. "Magda," I said, "come to Beöthy's studio tomorrow, I want to take a few pictures of you."

She came, and we chatted about this and that. I told her if she had any ideas about her pose, so be it, but there were to be no restrictions. A few minutes after the first shot, she said she had an idea. She went over to the divan, and I immedi-ately took a photograph.

I could see it was perfect; there was no need to experi-ment any further. I also took photographs for Vogue and for Vu, which was edited by Lucien Vogel, who sent Count Mihály Károlyi as a reporter to the Soviet Union. Photo-journalists adopted the style that I had already developed.

Quite a few people have noted, including Hilton Kramer, one of the best American photog-raphic critics, that what I was doing during those early years in Paris became the starting-point for the photographic style of an entire epoch.

Brassai was a good friend, but the way I heard it was that your relationship was broken off for some reason. What was the reason?

You mean what happened to Brassai? I was very fond of him. He was a genius: a marvellous painter, marvellous draughtsman, marvellous caricaturist and a good writer. I got to know him while I was living in Paris.

His father was a journalist in Transylvania, in Brassó (Bras¸ov). He left there for Berlin, then afterwards, I believe, he came over to Paris and just worked and worked. He was smart. I was very fond of him- a pleasant chap. Anyway, there were problems in his day-to-day life; cer-tain things happened- trouble!

He didn't have the money to pay the rent, that sort of thing. One day I said to him, "Look, what you're doing is crazy. Take up photography. You can make the money you need with photos, and then you'll have no worries, you'll have money for everything: you can paint, if that's what you want, make sculptures, if you want, no trouble.

You can have all that simply and easily with photography." "No! no! and again no!" So I told him, "You tag along with me and I'll show you how to do it." So I took him around on one reportage assignment after another, and I explained literally everything there is to know, as if he were a brother- both from a technical standpoint and composi-tionally.

In a word, everything. I said to him, "You're bright, you have taste. You'll learn and then you'll see: the money will come rolling in." I did that with him for a while, and afterwards I sent him off to try something on his own. He got back, and they were Kertész photos in every respect.

"All right! Off you go again! Try!" Fine, ready. I also showed him how to take shots at night. A barge had been con-verted into sleeping accommodation, and I did a photo report on that. "Come with me!" At that time, there was no such thing as a flash; I used long exposure times. I went off, went up on the bridge, the Pont des Arts, and there it was.

I set up the camera and started making an exposure: it required eight or ten minutes, or six minutes if it was illuminated, you see; but it was dark, so I had no idea what would come out, because there weren't any light meters yet, nothing. Well, what I did was to repeat exposures; in other words, make two negatives, perhaps even a third, and then pick the best one for printing.

Anyway, I forgot to tell him what I was doing. I was setting it up and we were chatting. Then he asks, "Aren't you taking a picture?" "Sure," I said, "that's what I'm doing." And I explained every-thing. He should give it a go. I handed the camera to him and he did something.

He had a fantastic success with it. I broke with him later on because he played a dirty trick on me. I had done a shoot. He knew what materials I had, and I had explained everything down to the last detail. He then disappeared for three weeks. Meanwhile, Tihanyi [The painter Lajos Tihanyi 1885- 1938- KK.] told me that Brassai had sold them for a book.

He had taken the materials to a publisher whose offer I was unwilling to accept, because after my first exhibition he had made an offer, but it was a rotten deal by which the photographer would get 10 per cent while he made 90 per cent. I had said that to my mates, but Brassai went behind my back and copied my material.

When I met him three weeks later, I told him, "I've heard what you did. You should be ashamed of yourself!" "Yes, that's what I did, whether you like it or not", that was his response. A couple of weeks later and I had forgotten the whole business.

I introduced him to the magazines that I was working for, telling them to give assignments to my friend. Can one do more? Even when he dropped in, I would help him; I even spoke to news-paper reporters. He's successful, and a talented, wonderful individual into the bargain.

Have you given any thought to passing on what you know or learned or feel about photography, in order to teach others?

László Moholy Nagy was a true genius. He came to Paris for the first Bauhaus exhibition there, so naturally we met. He showed me his mobiles and asked me to photograph them. I jokingly asked him why he didn't photograph them himself, since he was a photographer in his own right. He replied, "I just play with photography."

That really was what he did: play with photos. He was a marvellous person. After I arrived in America, he invited me to teach at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. I didn't accept the offer, I'm not a teacher by nature. Theories and those sorts of things are not my cup of tea. I don't have any theories but do everything by instinct: I sense something and do it- that's all.

For a long time you thought that the negatives you had left behind in France, virtually the whole of your oeuvre up to that point, had vanished without a trace. Then they resurfaced well after the war.

It turned out that the woman in Paris to whom I had handed everything for safe-keeping had disappeared during the war. It's an incredible story, but when I received an invitation 15 years later, in 1963, to attend the Fourth International Biennale of Photography in Venice, I was looked up by a journalist from Le Monde...

I related to him the sad fate of my old negatives, and also mentioned that I would be dropping in on Paris. The journalist wrote an article about the conversation and included the bit about Kertész having lost his negatives and now being on the look-out for them.

By sheer chance, the woman who was taking care of my pictures read the interview. Four days later she came forward. I immediately travelled down to see her in the south of France, and she told me how, when war broke out, she had packed up her family, the furniture and my negatives and travelled just as far as she could go by train.

It was like that throughout the war, until she ended up in a small village in the south of France. She bought a little old château with the aim of turning it into a pension in order to have a means of livelihood after the war, with tourists and so on. That was the plan, anyway.

And she was living there, in the boarding house, when my exhibition was on and that's where she read about the matter. My material- very interestingly- she had put in a secret hiding-place in the château, piling old French magazines on top in case the Germans came after all. When I was finally able to open that, I could see that 60 per cent of the plates were smashed. But I had to be happy that even that much had survived."

Source: The Hungarian Quarterly

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