Én vagyok a mondot álom*
Someone whispered “Kertesz”
and the finger trembled—
the violinist played blind —
the gypsy children kissed naked at Esztergom
Creating the Centena.
It’s the early 1980s and I’m a photography student. I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor inside the bookstore at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and I’m turning pages. Here’s what I see. Two naked gypsy babies in a wide open Hungarian field, kissing. I turn the page. Black wrought iron fences and humans making patterns against the snow in Washington Square Park in New York. A little girl running in the late afternoon light at Jardin des Tuileries. She’s looking back at someone out of the frame, her face a garden of childhood delight. A pair of eyeglasses, a pipe, a bowl, a studio—the world of Piet Mondrian. The Eiffel Tower casting delicate shadows onto tiny Parisians, perfectly arranged, far below. A lonely, metaphorical cloud resting beside a great New York City skyscraper. A pair of trousered legs carrying a model of a clipper ship. I love the world and everything in it, these pictures say, and even if I can’t quite articulate this at the time, I know it. I steal the book, shove it under my coat, hustle out to the street. Andre Kertesz is the only photographer I never even try to emulate.
It began a long time ago in the days when I dove into every photography gallery I could find. And, into every photography section of every bookstore. I wanted to crack open this arcane world of fine art photography and enter. That’s where I found Andre Kertesz. There was no one else like him. It took me years to discover what Henri Cartier Bresson had said, “Every time Kertesz presses the shutter, I feel his heartbeat.” And so it was.
His pictures of flat patterns, spatial oddities, slices of random time, the intricacies of man and the man-made world, are the pictures of an outsider, someone hovering at the border of things. Spiritual distance, not detachment. In this Kertesz was like and unlike Sudek, the great Czech photographer, who, with Kertesz, was wounded in the Great War. Kertesz never lost his innocence. Sudek never found his arm.
In this recent research, every query was another way of trying to crack open the man. Kertesz became bitter in America. He’d not received the recognition he felt was his due. In Paris, he’d been celebrated as artistic royalty. America didn’t know what to do with a lyricist, a poet, an artist of the everyday. Life Magazine rejected him. Another émigré, the Swiss-born Robert Frank, the greatest photographer who ever walked the streets of New York City, could have warned him. Frank got angry. Andre Kertesz’ heart broke.
Kertesz was and is maddeningly elusive. The only way into the man are the photographs. He was royalty. As great at the end as he was at the beginning. The only way in are the pictures.