Visual Culture

The Distorted, Haunting Vision of Dada Photographer André Kertész

Shadows, surprise, and a hint of the sinister define ’s oeuvre. The Hungarian photographer filled his frames with dark humor and the eerie geometries of everyday life. His 1926 picture of a reclining dancer finds a visual rhyme in the twist of its subject’s legs and a torquing white sculpture beside her. In his famous shot of a fork, taken two years later, the long shadow cast by the silverware evokes a sense of foreboding. Looking at Carrefour Blois (1930), taken a few stories above a sparsely populated cobblestone street, the famous scene in the film The Third Man (1949) comes to mind: Orson Welles’s character gazes upon carnival-goers from a ferris wheel, asking, “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”
Examining these pictures, it’s clear their creator favored visual flourish over social engagement. Though Kertész lived through both World Wars and significant upheavals throughout Europe, politics played little role in his photographs. Privileging lyricism and distortion over reality, he aligned himself with the Dada movement and created artful photographs that are still imbued with haunting power.
Satiric Dancer
André Kertész
Heritage Auctions
Kertész, who was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1894, bought his first camera with his earnings as a stock exchange clerk. He had little time to develop his craft before he was drafted by the Austro-Hungarian in 1914, but Kertész opted to turn war into art. Instead of capturing conflict, however, he turned his lens on soldiers off the battlefield.
After World War I ended, Kertész settled back into his former life in Budapest. In 1925, he moved to Paris, where his career as an artist finally began to take shape. While he photographed the streets and interiors of a city still repairing its battle wounds, his black-and-white shots focused on the intimate and voyeuristic: a spiral staircase, a far-off building seen through a clock face, a group of picnickers seen from behind trees.
“His Paris is a dream—his dream, of course, but also the dream of many another young stranger from a foreign land, to whom Paris is the longed for home of the heart,” Gene Thornton wrote in a 1976 New York Times article. A 1928 exhibition situated Kertész’s work alongside that of , associating him with a major Dada figure. Kertész was immersed in his cultural milieu; he photographed major creative personalities of his day, including novelist Colette, painters and , designer, and sculptor Alexander Calder.
Wielding a handheld Leica camera, Kertész captured his moving subjects as they shifted into his frame. In Meudon, France (1928), a black train juts halfway across the top of the photograph while, in the foreground, a man in a black hat appears directly in line with one of the bridge pillars supporting the locomotive. Three black-clad men walk behind him, while a woman and her child create a sense of symmetry from the other side. If Kertész had snapped his shutter a moment later, this perfect setup—and the picture itself—would have been ruined. As writer Alastair Smart wrote in 2009, “Kertész was perhaps the finest, early exponent of this so-called ‘decisive moment’ photography”—more than two decades before coined the term.
In addition to these spontaneous shots, Kertész also began one of his most famous series, “Distortions,” in 1933. With the assistance of three mirrors, the photographer stretched and warped nude models—their floating, elongated shoulders, heads, and arms make the figures particularly ghoulish. Art historian Øivind Storm Bjerke noted in a 2010 exhibition catalogue that while the photographer never joined the , “it is natural to see his ‘Distortions’ in line with the movement.” Instead of using mirrors to reflect their subjects, Kertész used them to create a sense of unreality.
In 1936, Kertész moved to New York with his new wife Elizabeth Saly (he was previously married to Hungarian artist Rozsa Klein), and signed a contract with photo agency Keystone Studios, leading to photo commissions from American publications. The couple only meant to stay for two years, but with World War II looming in Europe, their move became permanent.
In New York, Kertész captured looming buildings and urban isolation. A dreamy melancholy pervades The Lost Cloud, New York (1937), which features a single cloud floating past a rising, foreboding city tower; the composition is simultaneously wistful and unreal, more psychological than documentary.
In 1949, Condé Nast hired Kertész to shoot design and architecture, including celebrity homes. His most famous series, and his most significant struggles, were already behind him. Yet in 1964, when the Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski devoted a solo exhibition to his work, Kertész’s influence started to reach beyond the European photographers— Cartier-Bresson, and —who already counted him as an inspiration.
Kertész renounced his commercial work in the 1960s, spending the rest of his life rediscovering his artistic autonomy and the joys of his craft. Szarkowski wrote of these late compositions: “In their economy and ease, in their abandonment to the uncomplicated pleasure of seeing, they are the work of a master.” When Kertész died in 1985, finally recognized for his achievements, he left behind 100,000 negatives, many of which remain undeveloped—a final bit of mystery, enhancing the photographer’s legacy of hazy strangeness.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.