Atget and Kertész

Eugène Atget is the subject of one of the richest and most thoughtful essays in Gerry Badger’s collection The Pleasures of Good Photographs. André Kertész is the subject of a few rather condescending remarks in an essay in which his version of “essentially optimistic” humanism is contrasted with the more pessimistic vision of Martin Parr.

Let’s just for a moment put Atget and Kertész into a rather different, and closer relation. That was my aim in one of my first published pieces on photography in which I ‘compared and contrasted’ their work.

Badger writes eloquently about what animates Atget’s photographs. I will leave those subtle suggestions for another day. But before he does that, he addresses what he calls the “Atget problem” in the following terms…

“Atget’s work has become central to our understanding of what photography at its best might achieve.

But where does one begin? Let’s put theorists and curators aside for a moment and start with photographers. For a number of reasons, Atget is an important influence upon many photographers. Indeed, I would almost go so far as to say that if photographers don’t ‘get’ Atget – or Walker Evans for that matter – they don’t really get photography. He is as fundamental as that.

And though contextualists might carp, one important reason for Atget’s influence is formal. Photographers are always looking to learn formal lessons, and Atget is a veritable encyclopedia, demonstrating a myriad of ways to put together a picture.” (page 41)

That seems to me an inspired and insightful formulation. But surely Kertész’s work should be appreciated in the same terms? There is so much innovation in Kertész, such freshness. It makes me rather flinch when Badger writes dismissively…

“For all his acclaimed humanist bonhomie how deeply did André Kertész actually dig into the human condition? It seems to me that much of the delight in Kertész – and it cannot be denied that there is delight – derives from his images’ elegant, painterly formalism.

Often, Kertész’s people are reduced, albeit painlessly, to mere formal ciphers, to compositional elements. This by itself is not eternally damning, but to my mind the bittersweet whimsy afflicting so much of Kertész is the simple obverse of the eternal, coruscating angst that drags down the work of say, Garry Winogrand. Both in a way are equally narrow and one-sided – great artists though both of them are.”

It does not seem reasonable to complain about Kertész’s essentially optimistic vision, anymore than it would be to want darker, less colourful pictures from a Matisse or a Miro.

In 1984 the weekly magazine New Society published a short piece by me contrasting the work of Eugène Atget and André Kertész. I think it was the editor of the magazine that gave it the title “Poets of the Camera” because that title applies far more to Kertész than Atget. That small publication proved lucky for me. The National Museum of Photography, Film and TV in Bradford put on a major retrospective of the work of Kertész to mark his 90th birthday. The BBC’s Radio Four looked around for someone to review the exhibition and my little piece got me the job. And that led to me getting to meet my hero, Kertész on his actual 90th birthday at a luncheon hosted by the museum.

Afterwards I wrote two small poems of appreciation and sent them off to Kertész. I have no way of knowing whether he received them but I am really glad I got them into the post. Within a year he was dead.

Here, unedited, is my piece as it appeared in New Society

Poets of the Camera: Eugène Atget, André Kertész and the Image of Paris

Eugène Atget often took his photographs in the early morning, before the rising sun had made the light too bright and contrasty, and before the bustle of the Parisian crowd had dispelled the stillness with which he imbued his pictures. He would carry his heavy antiquated camera through the streets, set it up at a site probably chosen beforehand and, using long exposures and old-fashioned techniques, he would set about constructing an image of Paris which few had seen but which would profoundly influence the way the city is remembered.

Beginning around 1890 and working until his death in 1927, he produced many thousands of plates, some of them inspired, many of them mundane. His 19th century mode of documentation, combining description, classification and cataloguing, was ideally suited to his aim: that of providing a complete and true photographic portrait of Old Paris.

André Kertész began taking photographs in Hungary around 1912. His camera was a very basic one, using glass negatives. But it was small enough to be hand-held, because from the start his interest was in a mode of photography that was mobile, capable of catching the world unawares, and registering unexpected juxtapositions. From the flux and chaos of human life he seized images which revealed odd angles, suggestive detail and satisfying form. Like Atget, he had the knack of showing what was unobtrusive, inconspicuous or simply neglected in a way that seemed laden with significance.

Atget and Kertész were the first great camera-poets of the city streets. Between them they charted new depths, and new extremes, in the relation of the camera to the experience of the metropolis. Atget set out to paint the city’s portrait, constructing from myriad, lovingly assembled fragments a true image of the city in repose. Kertész perfected the art form of the snapshot; his images are not sonnets, but haiku. The differences in outlook and technique between the two are profound and instructive. But it may be just as instructive to note the elements of their work that link them and set them apart from the scores of professionals who have come after There is an exhibition of Atget’s work at the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, till 25 March. In June the National Museum of Photography in Bradford is putting on a Kertész show.

Both Atget and Kertész photographed the city’s trivia as well as its monuments. Both refuse the official view. They gently subvert the city’s presentation of itself with images that are profoundly personal yet somehow authoritative. Both are highly selective in what they show. Our sense of their life’s work is conditioned as much by what they leave out of their pictures as by what is included.

Neither Kertész nor Atget are chroniclers of the ills of the world. Kertész was with the hussars in the first world war and belonged to a group who went over to the communist side thereafter. Although he must have seen enough violence and pain, his photographs throughout his life concentrate elsewhere. Atget often reveals the forgotten “underside” of urban civilisation, in scenes of decrepitude and neglect. But he focuses on the experiences of the city, rather than the misfortunes of its inhabitants.

Themes recur. In Atget: the empty streets, crumbling statues, scarred walls, overgrown gardens, eerily reflective shopfronts, and everywhere a cold, diffuse light. In Kertész: the bold angles, strong shadows and shapes, a view from above, the sense of movement, purpose and pattern. These make up the signatures of their works. But if each of them developed a style and a choice of subject that was highly personal, they shared a loyalty to a kind of photographic objectivity Their kind of truth was not opposed to subjective vision but subsumed it.

We all have experiences which fulfil the photographic desideratum of letting “things speak for themselves”. In dreams and in memories, things speak. In these most personal of experiences, subjectivity is suspended. Atget’s and Kertész photographs, in their different ways, have this quality.

When the photographs of either Atget or Kertész are viewed in sequence they begin to speak to one another. You begin to feel that they hold the key to some kind of truth, perhaps truer than “real life.” The truth as glimpsed in the photographs of the Kertész or Atget is not the same as the “message” of the “committed” photographer. Photographs are poor vehicles for carrying messages of that kind. In Atget or Kertész it is less the truthabout things which matters than glimpses of a truth residing in things: in the way they look, in the way they are, and especially in the ways in which they coexist. In the lavish, carefully printed editions of their works (Eugène Atget, Works, in four volumes, £25 each, Gordon Fraser; and André Kertész, Hungarian Memories, £35, Hutchinson – plus a variety of anthologies published by Thames & Hudson), you see their work as it has never been seen before

When Atget began collecting his photographic “documents” in the 1890s, Paris had already been subjected to sustained destruction and transformation by the followers of Baron von Hausmann and the town planners of the Second Empire. Only after the trauma of the first world was as a “historical consciousness” aroused among the citizenry, anxious to preserve whatever was old or grand or quaint. Atget had been at work for many years already, tracing the image of the old city in its neglected and inconspicuous facets. He ignored the Eiffel Tower and all symptoms of the future. In the wealth of detail and richness of tone, he rendered the flavour of a epoch already passed away. Instead of “the way things really were,” he rescued the image of the city as it would appear to recollection.

Kertész’s own prints are often contrasty and sometimes unclear, but they are vital and full of movement. They capture a variety of moods, rather than Atget’s sustained moodiness. Detail is as important within Kertész’s pictures as it is in Atget’s; in fact, it is often triumphant – a tiny pigeon flies up or promenades, a half-concealed reader escapes into a book, a lonely cloud mocks a mountain of glass and steel. Harmony and freedom are glimpsed within Kertész’s urban landscape. In Atget’s, they are remembered. In the patterns in which scurrying passers-by are cast by Kertész, there is the shadow of a promise of a purposeful, peaceful, collective existence. In the brooding calm in Atget’s images, there is congealed a history of past struggles – an archaeology of the city’s fight for survival.

Hungary, 1917

In 1925 in Paris, Man Ray introduced his assistant, Bernice Abbot, to Atget, who was then almost 70. They began to prepare some of his plates for publication in a surrealist journal. In that same year Leica went into mass production with a quality small (35mm roll film) camera, which was to influence photographic practice profoundly. It was also in 1925 that Kertész, who had already, in his early work in Hungary, developed an aesthetic (or optic) to suit the new camera, arrived in Paris from Budapest.

In 1927, the year of Atget’s death, Kertész had the first-ever one-man photographic show at the surrealist gallery, Au Sacre de Printemps. Atget influenced photographers like Bill Brandt and Bernice Abbott, who saw his work. But it was the possibilities of small mobile cameras which excited the next generation of photographers.

November 15, 1979

In those years between 1925 and 1927, the baton was passed from a peculiarly 19th century sensibility – elegaic, classifactory, obsessive – and the promises of the early 20th century. The photographic assimilation of the city since has involved camera work that is alert, fast-moving, fascinated by chance and bursting with a sense of possibilities. Now at the solemn end of the 20th century Kertész’s world may be the more difficult for us to fully comprehend. Atget’s eerie desolation haunts and fascinates us. But Atget’s autumnal vision of the city is the historical and natural complement of Kertész’s, in which there are always signs of the coming spring.


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