A conversation with Andre Kertesz by Esther de Vecsey
19 July. 1983 New York City.
"Mr. Kertész?" "Hallo. . , yes . . .Heszflhetek magyaril?'(MayI speak Hungarian?)
"Persie, persie! Tessècsak!" (Of course, certainly, go righi ahead!)
Thus began my first conversation by telephone with Andre Kertész. His voice had the clear ring of a once hearty mittel-European baritone. Hesitant at first, he responded enthusiastically to my request to speak in our native tongue.
Hearing that I had to leave for Houston within two days, Kertész paused to explain that he had arrived from London the night before and needed time to settle in. We arranged to meet at his apartment the next day at 1:00 p.m.
"Things will be helter-skelter on account of my luggage." he said . . . "and unfortunately the air conditioning broke during my absence. I hope it is repaired by tomorrow. Do you know how to find me? . . . Yes, that's the right address, just come to the lobby. The porter will bring you up to the twelfth floor…I look forward to seeing you."
Such cordiality from someone in Kertész’ position surprised me. I assumed that like many famous people, he would shield himself, screening out all but the most consequential contacts. But it seemed sufficient for him to receive me on short notice when I told him that I too was Hungarian, an emigree, and that I lived in Houston, where in honor of his visit and one-man exhibition at Petra Benteler’s Gallery, I planned a small complementary show at the Blaffer Gallery of the University of Houston.
Approaching the stately deco apartment building on lower Fifth Avenue, I became aware of the awe in which I hold Kertész. At 89 years of age he is recognized as one of the great innovators in the history of photography who continues to be remarkably active today. I reviewed what I knew of him, recalling his first U.S. exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1964. He was seventy at the time.
More recently, I had read Bela Urgin’s excellent article "Kertész: Photography in Full Bloom,” in the Houston Post, January 2, 1983. I keep the clipping in my copy of Hungarian Memories, the latest Kertész book published in 1982 by the New York Graphic Society.
Waiting for me as the elevator opened was André Kertész, a bit smaller than I thought he would be, but in every other way surpassing my expectations and exuding a remarkable vitality.
"Hogy wn? ùrùlùk hogy idetdietf Sajnàlom hogv oiyan fe-fordulós van, most jòttem meg Londonbol, s pant ebben a meleg-ben bedòglótt a féghuies." (How are you? Glad you could come! Please excuse the bit of mess . . . and just in this heat the air conditioning had to give out!)
There was no affectation in the charm and hospitality of his welcome as he escorted me into his world.
We paused in the living room, lit by sunlight streaming in from windows all around. Then I was ushered into Kertesz’ bed-sitting room, where the only functioning window unit cooled the air. Delicately he observed the forced infraction of propriety — receiving an unchaperoned woman in so intimate a setting. It jogged my memory to the persistent Victorian mores shared by Hungarians of my parent's generation.
Over a glass of iced orange juice, I listened as Kertész told the story of his life in the United States. He expressed himself clearly and animatedly about his disillusionment, the pain of separation from Europe, struggles to make his living in a hostile climate, illness and other misfortunes that plagued him and Elizabeth, his deceased wife whom he still mourns deeply.
He sat behind a small 19th century desk piled high with correspondence and files. I sat in a comfortable period cane armchair, captivated by his words and the wall behind him. Shelves covered the entire surface. All sorts of books, objects, framed pictures and photographs became active agents in our conversation. Here were his brothers, athletic young men in Hungary. Ripples, Swimming, Underwater Swimmer, and The Faun were studies of their antics made between 1913 and 1919.
His Mothers Hands and numerous shots of Elizabeth spanning their 45 year marriage were pointed out to illustrate our dialogue.
Responding to his inquiry, I offered a brief description of what I do in Houston. "Oh, I remember Houston well," he said. "The people were so terribly nice. I went there when I was working as a commercial photographer. I remember so many of those people — especially the lady in the grand house who received me sitting with her feet soaking in a bucket of water!" (With the help of Stephen Fox of Rice University, I located three photographs by Kertesz in the Staub archives of the Metropolitan Research Center of the Houston Public Library. They are of the "modern house" built by John Staub for Mr. and Mrs. Robert Straus which, together with a number of distinguished Texas homes, was published in the March 1950 issue of Home and Garden in a feature entitled "Texas Big Darlin".)
From time to time, I looked out the span of glass to my right. This is the panorama of lower Manhattan recorded in many of Kertesz’ well-known photographs, and published in the many books of his work. Of New York (edited by Nicolas Ducrot, published by Knopf. 1976) contains the views recorded between 1937 when Kertesz arrived in New York and the mid-1970s. Here are close-up cubic stacks of brick facades; far-off vistas of skyline; people caught unaware on distant rooftops, or walking through the foliage of trees below.
On the window sill was the most fascinating array of objects. Here were the familiar curios which are the elements of many of Kertesz’ still life studies. I was astonished that so many of these miniature animals, birds, reptiles, and bugs were of glass. The play of sunlight on these objects scattered on the sill and the glass etagere against the window provided a continuing feast for the eyes. Kertesz urged me to move the objects around, as he does, to create little dramas and scenarios as a foil to the real-life theater outside. "I will show you — before you leave - how I have used these, but now, take that book." he said pointing to Hungarian Memories. "I will tell you what is behind the pictures…”
I thus became immersed in the life of a young cosmopolitan stock-broker in Budapest in the early decades of the 20th century: his friends, brothers, sweethearts, models, business colleagues, secretaries, street scenes, country outings, and sports (especially swimming in the Danube, upriver from Budapest.) All are recorded with the matter-of-fact candor and discriminating sensibility of this self-taught photographer. He talked about World War I, the cases of photographs he took on the front, and how these photographs were lost. He pointed to Bocskay Ter. "You see. I made that at night. It was amazing for its time…and later in Paris I showed Cartier-Bresson, and taught Halasz Gyula (Brassai) who then turned around and…" So many people, so many photographs, so many memories.
Then the subject turned to Elizabeth, to the days of their courtship, their outings together, her character. "She was typical jeune fille de bonne famille'. She was just a child really. Here she is with her easel, and here she sits in her tweed suit and walking shoes, pouting because a downpour had ruined our trip to the country. Here we visited some friends outside Budapest. The house had an inner court, and I caught the scene partially reflected in the mirror of an armoir. I told her to stand just here, and you see how it turned out!"
Time had passed and the western sun was glistening on the horizon, piercing the sides of all the transparent creatures on the window sill.
The last and most moving part of my visit was still to come. "I want to show you my latest photographs. I am doing Polaroids and I'm very satisfied with the results." He gave me a little book, From My Window, published in 1981. It is a touching memorial to his wife. The frontispiece, a picture within a picture, shows the 1931 Portrait of Elizabeth obliquely set on the neutral ground. The image itself is arresting, showing only the left side of her face, neck and shoulder which is clasped by his hand. In the Polaroid another element has been added; a perfectly twined, spikey crown of thorns placed so it encircles his hand in the original photograph. I cannot think of a more eloquent symbol of the pain that the loss of his wife causes him. This sensation was pervasive, as he took me into the living room pointing to where her piano had been; and in her room, now a library. On a little table was the glass bust used in many of his still-life compositions. He had seen the object some years before in Brentano's window and was struck by how The faceless silhouette with its inclined head resembled Elizabeth’s characteristic gesture. He resisted and resisted, but finally broke down and bought it.
These fantasies of the past are not Kertész’ only occupation today. His recent London trip was to receive special academic honors, adding to his collection of distinctions, merits, orders and decorations. He delights in the photographs of the ceremonies that show the professors and students. He is also busy cataloguing and reviewing his work.
"So much to do…" he said looking at the open, unpacked suitcase on the sofa in the living room. It is one of the last things so vivid in my memory of the long afternoon spent conversing with André Kertész.