Henri Cartier-Bresson once stated on behalf of himself, Robert Capa, and Brassaï, that, “Whatever we have done, Kertész did first.” He referred to the concentrated community of innovative artists in Paris of the 1920s. Kertész’s influence would continue well into the 1970s, affecting another generation that included Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander, among many others.
Sturdily balanced between geometric composition and playful observation, it is easy to understand how these glimpses of everyday people and places would come to heavily influence photography as an art form.
On Reading, a series of photographs made by Kertész in Hungary, France, and the United States over a fifty year period, illustrates his penchant for the poetry and choreography of life in public and also private moments at home, tapping the absorptive power of reading as a universal pleasure. Sturdily balanced between geometric composition and playful observation, it is easy to understand how these glimpses of everyday people and places would come to heavily influence photography as an art form.
Kertész began taking photographs in Budapest in 1912. He was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army where he volunteered for the Polish and Russian fronts. Wounded in 1915, Kertész returned to Budapest before moving to Paris in 1925. Kertész circulated among avant-garde literary and artistic groups and embraced the deep culture of Paris between the World Wars. He also participated in the New Vision movement, based on the quick facility of the new small Leicas as well as the demand by László Moholy-Nagy of the progressive German Bauhaus school for a new visual literacy based on photography. With the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, many from the Parisian community took their discoveries to America. Kertész moved with his wife to New York in 1936 and worked there as an artist and commercial photographer for the rest of his life, with little recognition of his contributions until shortly before he died.
Kertész is still under celebrated and under recognized. One hundred and twenty photographs from the On Reading project were recently donated to the Museum of Contemporary Photography by Richard A. Hanson, facilitated by Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago. This generous, major gift completes a vital circle for the students of Columbia College and the international photography community by connecting Kertész to the many other photographers he influenced already in the permanent collection of the museum.
—Ashley Siple, Curatorial Assistant