PHOTOGRAPHER ANDRE KERTESZ: DISTORTIONS
PHOTOGRAPHER ANDRE KERTESZ: DISTORTIONS
The nudes from 1933, which are now presented under the title “Distortions,” are united with Kertész’s production as one of a number of experiments he conducted with optical distortions, as the result of mirroring in various materials. Kertész’s awareness of how distortions of natural forms could create interesting abstract and confusing patterns that dissolved an object was raised when he photographed a swimmer in 1917.
The first description of this type of pictures as “Distortions” is from 1939 and is found in an article called “Paradox of a Distortionist” in the photo periodical Minicam. In the critique, the pictures are upheld as those, which had established Kertész as a recognised master. Kertész describe the images as “Distortions” himself when he publishes the article “Caricatures and Distortions” in the periodical The Complete Photographer in 1941. Kertész’s “Distortions” was published as a book in 1977 with a preface by the critic Hilton Kramer, who at the time was the chief critic at the New York Times.
Kertész had a well-developed sense for oddities and often gave his pictures a humoristic turn. It is therefore not surprising that he in 1933 published two photographic series in the humour magazine Le Sourire. The first was printed March 12, and consisted of twelve images. The reality we meet is, in other words, “surreal.” Later that same year, in September 1933, Kertész published another five of the pictures under the headline “Kertész et son miroir” in the periodical Arts et Métiers Graphiques.
That Kertész placed the pictures highly amongst his production is evident as he included a selection of them in his first solo show in New York at gallery PM in 1937. The pictures were grouped together with images where he had photographed objects as a clock and a vase with a flower distorted in a mirror, under the collective title Grotesque. The pictures immediately raised adoration and were plagiarised by a number of photographers.
The series emerged in a short span of time in the spring of 1933, and it is one of the few times in which Kertész worked in a studio – his preferred fields of production were streets, parks, public places and interiors such as scenes where life played itself out in all its ordinariness. Kertész only exceptionally photographed nudes, and characteristically enough, the nudes he is most known for are not traditional nudes in the extension of the painterly tradition of classical portrayals of the body.
The pictures were taken with the help of three mirrors and an older and a young model. He used a large format camera with a zoom lens. Kertész took two hundred takes. At the same time as the pictures can be argued to constitute a particular event in Kertész’s production, the images include all those elements that we can connect with what is idiosyncratic with Kertész’s style in his use of light and shadow, distortions and deformations as a result of reflections, mirroring and shadow play and the isolation of details that function as eye-catchers. The interpretations of these elements in Kertész’s pictures can be connected to the experience of the destabilisation of a realistic image of the world, in the manner of traditional photography. Kertész’s use of mirrors contradicts the traditional understanding of mirrors as something that recreates a motif – reflects it. In Kertész’s mirrors, the motifs are rather partly unrecognisable, even if you don’t loose touch with the recognisable, as bodily details are recreated with utter precision and draws the spectator back to the motif. Kertész plays with, and partly ionises, the idea that what we see in photographs is real. Rather than seeing the images as studies of the body, we may see them as studies of how the conditions in which we study an object affects our perception of it and how vulnerable we are also in our meeting with the photograph.
Kertész’s nudes can be read in a range of different discourses. One of them is to read them as comments on the nude photograph’s traditional functions, which to a considerable extent highlighted the female body as the incarnation of harmonic and beautiful form. The pictures may also be seen as an ironic comment on how the female body depicted as a sexual object, had been a primary motif for photographers through the history of photography.
In the captions that accompanied the pictures published in Le Sourire, the photographs’ relationship to contemporaneous painting and sculpture are pointed out, and the forms in Kertész’s pictures can be associated with the rubber- and amoeba like bodily forms to be found in the work of artists that worked with organic forms in the 1930s, the most known being Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore. Salvadore Dali had painted objects and natural forms that undergo metamorphosis. Also Hans Arp’s organic sculptured objects are a relevant reference. As early as 1926, Kertész had created one of his most famous photographs, where a model that lies on a couch, imitates the distorted forms in a markedly abstracted sculpture on a pedestal next to the couch. In a photo historical context, it is natural to place Kertész’s nudes in line with later experiments by Brassaï, Hans Bellmer and Paul Strand, wherein different forms of manipulation created distortions of forms.
Kertész never became a member of the Surrealist movement, but it is natural to see his “Distortions” in line with the movement. We find one of the few direct contacts with the Surrealists when Kertész in the May issue of the periodical Bifur, which was edited by Georges Ribermont-Dessaignes, who was an opponent of André Breton, published three photographs.
It is naturally not a coincidence that Kertész uses the female body for his experiment, and in several of the pictures, he focuses on details, that to a considerable extent, identify women’s gender in a metaphorical and literal sense. Representations of bodies are never neutral, but express comprehensions of the body either from an anthropological, social, functional, psychological or an aesthetic perspective.
Kertész’s “Distortions” has been frequently used by writers who have dealt with the portrayal of women in modern art, often from a psychoanalytical or feminist perspective. It is undoubtedly interesting how Kertész uses the body as an object in exploration with optical effects. By detaching the body from the usual perception of it, the body is estranged and perception itself is thereby placed in focus. They are also anonymised by the fact that the pictures can hardly be understood as psychological studies of the models’ states of mind or personalities. The psychological aspect of the pictures rests on the photographer in the question – what is his intentions with the distortions – is it to say something about a comprehension of women, being either his own or a comprehension in society that he wishes to convey, and possibly comment on? Kertész’s pictures can also be read as a comment on the space women occupy; a space which is completely destabilised due to the use of mirrors. Usually, we have no problem with identifying the physical frame around the body, but here it is not the body that is photographed, but the reflection of it in its physical surroundings. In that sense, one may argue that the pictures are not at all about the body, but about the disintegration of a spatial perception to which one has become accustomed. In that sense the pictures can be argued to have developed from the Cubists’ deconstructed and fragmented spaces. The ruling disorder becomes an attack on the endeavour to instil the human body in a lucid space, which provides it with a defined place.
Few photographs from the 1900s are better suited to provide one with an understanding of the different means to treat the photograph than “Distortions.” They are photographs that almost demonstratively place the question of what it is that the pictures represent; why they are taken; how they are taken; in which context they have been presented and, not least, how the context in which we see them can affect how we understand the pictures.
Between 1928 and -32, Kertész was married to Rózsa Klein (1900 – 1970). She came to play a considerable role in Kertész’s life, both as a urger privately and as the one who provided for their livelihood through large parts of the difficult years Kertész was to experience after the couple moved to New York in 1936.
In 1936, Kertész secured a contract with the photography agent Keystone. In light of the anti-Semitic atmosphere that spread through Europe, the relocation to New York was an act that probably saved his life. Despite of this, Kertész came to describe the following years as one long disappointment.
Kertész’s name was known in the USA before he got there. Photographs were shown for the first time in New York in 1932 at gallery Julien Elvy in the exhibition “Modern European Photography,” where he showed 23 photographs. Through the exhibition and through his extensive publishing, he was a well-known name in the inner circles of the world of photography and he had all reason to believe that he could establish himself in New York. The first years in New York, he became close to Baumont Newhall, who worked for the Museum of Modern Art and arranged the important exhibition “Photography 1839 – 1937” where Kertész was represented. The book, which accompanied the exhibition, is one of photo history’s most central publications. In 1941 he was represented at the Museum of Modern Art with a picture he bestowed from the exhibition “Image of Freedom,” which was curated by Edward Steichen, the most well-known and powerful photographer at the time.
When the book Day of Paris, which was a new selection of pictures with motifs from Paris that was given a dynamic and contemporary layout, was published in the USA in 1945, it was well received, and in 1946 Kertész was given his first solo show in an American museum; the Art Institute of Chicago.In 1975, a selection of the pictures was gathered in a book.
Kertész belongs to a generation of photographers who are first and foremost associated with classical black-and-white photography, but he also photographed in colours from 1951. He has also made a small number of Polaroids.
The rediscovery of Kertész began in 1962, when he participated in the International Photography Biennale in Venice and had a solo show in Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, which was hidden in South-France during the war. Consequently, the bridge back to his heydays as a recognised European photographer was re-established. His definite rehabilitation came in 1964, when John Szarkowski organised an exhibition with Kertész at the Museum of Modern Art. The following decade, he exhibited all over the world; in Tokyo, Stockholm, Budapest, London, Helsinki. In 1976, he was appointed as commandeur des Arts et Lettres, and in 1983, Légion d’honneur. He had an exhibition at Centre Georges-Pompidou in 1977. In 1984, he transferred all his negatives and his correspondence to the French state. Mission du Patrimoine Photographique in Paris, which is now a department of Jeu de paume, www.jeudepaume.org/, administers the archive. In New York, he established the foundation “The André Kertész and Elizabeth Kertesz Foundation.” Through the exhibition “André Kertész of Paris and New York” shown at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1984, his important historical position was fortified. Later on, the exhibition “André Kertész” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, in 2005, with its accompanying publication, was the most important event and introduction to a renewed international interest and publication of his works.
Kertész is one of the great developers of style in 1900s photography. For many, the terms “style” and “photography” are almost contradictory. For most people, a photograph is identical to the motif that is portrayed. Nonetheless, similar to any pictorial medium, the increasing awareness of the importance of the pictorial medium itself, and our interaction with it, is applicable to photography; which technical premises are present; what is photographed at different times in different societies; how do we interact with the pictures in different ways and out of the different functions pictures fulfil, is amongst the questions it is relevant to ask in addition to focusing on the characteristics that are tied to the pictures’ technological and physical conditions, material qualities, duplication processes, and their composition and form. In such a turn from one-sided attention directed at the motif, to viewing the picture in a broader artistic, cultural, social and historical context, Kertész’s pictures are clarifying examples.
The example of Kertész provides us with an excellent introduction to the different institutional regimes 1900s photographers worked under: the early 1900s’ attempt to integrate photography into the arts on painting’s premises; the interwar period, and the first decade after the war, with its emphasis on photography as a medium for documentation and reportage, until the 1960s, when photography is integrated into the field of arts. Kertész lived through these phases in his enterprise as a photographer and it is not before Kertész’ Distortions is placed within a larger art- and photo historical context that it is possible to understand the exceptional position the works have achieved.
The text is taken by professor Øivind Storm Bjerke’s writing, University of Oslo. Some part of writing had taken off from the original part.
PHOTOGRAPHER ANDRE KERTESZ