Born in Budapest, André, Kertész (1894-1985) received his bachelor’s degree from the Hungarian Academy of Commerce in 1912, after which he found a job as a clerk at the Budapest Stock Exchange. The work seem provided him with the resources to purchase his first camera; he brought it with him when, in 1914, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. The photographs he made during the war represent the beginnings of his formation as a serious artist. Unlike other war photographs, Kertész’s concerned themselves with the lives of soldiers away from the fighting. Part of Kertész’s genius was his ability to cast attention on images seemingly “unimportant.” These subtle images of the moments of joy and contemplation away from the front were a revolutionary use of the newly invented hand-held camera.
Though he sold a handful of pictures to magazines and had a number of others made into postcards, Kertész was not yet able to support himself with his newfound talent, so in 1918 he returned to the stock exchange. He remained there for seven years, supporting his recently widowed mother. Then, in 1925 he made the fateful decision to move to Paris. Excited about an opportunity to participate in the bohemian artist’s life, he worked as a freelance photographer. Working for dozens of different European magazines, Kertész found Paris a welcoming and artistically inspiring place. Within a short time he met and made portraits of some of the great artists living in Paris, including Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Alexander Calder, Constantin Brancusi, Sergei Eisenstein, and Tristan Tzara.
By 1927, Kertész’s scenes of the streets of Paris were beginning to attract a great deal of attention, and he had his first show at an avant-garde gallery. Throughout the 1930s he remained in Paris studying the people and their inhabitation of the streets, and the play of light and shadow that so dramatically filled the urban landscape. In 1936, after the death of his mother and his marriage to Elizabeth Saly, he moved to New York, where he had been engaged by the Keyston Agency. Though he canceled the contract only a year later, the progress of the war made his return to Paris impossible. Unable to leave and treated like an enemy by the government (which prevented him from publishing for several years), Kertész was caught in tragic uncompromising circumstances. When the war ended Kertész had lost the momentum of a supportive artistic community, but continued to live in the States due to health and familial considerations.
For nearly twenty years his gifts remained relatively unrecognized in New York. It was not until 1964, when John Sarkowski, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, organized a one man show that Kertész’s career was reawakened. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kertész was shown regularly at the major international museums — having one-man shows in Paris, Tokyo, London, Stockholm, Budapest and Helsinki. In 1983 the French government awarded him the Legion of Honor.