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The visual language of a romantic `poet'

Andr'e Kert'esz: Of Paris and New York, by Sandra S. Phillips, David Travis, and Weston J. Naef. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc. 288 pp. $45. The late Andr'e Kert'esz lived on the margins of the major art movements of the 20th century. His photography involved him with Cubism, Surrealism, Constructivism, Dadaism, and the cold optics of the German New Objectivity. His modernism, though, was only skin deep.

At heart, Kert'esz was a romantic. He brought forward into 20th-century photography some of the possibilities for romantic vision. As a young man in Budapest he rejected the smeary gaze of so-called pictorial photography. Self-taught, Kert'esz was one of the first to wipe the pretty, duplicitous fuzziness from art photography. He accepted both the clarity of camera vision and the world as it presents itself to the eye.

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Still, Kert'esz was a poet, and he worked best in the visual language he adapted from the Hungarian cultural experience. Like his countrymen, Endre Ady, Zolt'an Kod'aly, and Bel'a Bart'ok, Kert'esz drew on Hungarian folk life. A respect for the direct experience of country life, not the treacly stuff of greeting cards, made Kert'esz a naive artist with a camera. He knew intellectuals, but he was not one himself. In 1925 he was drawn to Paris where, as Gertrude Stein said, ``the 20th century was.'' Yet his sensibility remained that of an expatriate, an outsider.

He spent his life in cities, and most of his photographs are of the urban landscape. Nevertheless, the people in Kert'esz's pictures do not seem at home. They keep an uneasy truce with city settings and urban airs. In one of his seldom-seen Parisian images, Kert'esz photographed his fianc'ee, Elizabeth Saly, having her palm read by Gypsy women about her age. Elizabeth, neatly coiffed and fashionably dressed in slim dark coat with matching gloves, purse, and hat, still is not cosmopolitan. She is awkward and estranged from the Gypsies, those frequent symbols of Hungarian culture. It is she who is in costume, not the Gypsy women in their full, patterned skirts, shawls, and long hair.

Gypsies, street-people, caf'e-dwellers, shop-girls, hobos, laborers, children, and scores of solitary wanderers pacing the urban landscape populate Kert'esz's pictures. Each appears alienated from the setting in which he lives, unable to return to the place from which he came.

For Kert'esz, life cruelly imitated art. By the mid-'30s, he had established a reputation for his work in the European illustrated magazines. He came on a contract to New York in 1936, expecting to stay for about two years. But the vagaries of American photojournalism, the uncertain economic situation in the United States, and events in Europe once more expatriated him. He was cut off from his European reputation and, for a time, from photography itself.

Kert'esz held a Hungarian passport, which made him an ``enemy alien'' at the outbreak of World War II. An alien with a camera was especially suspicious. After being fingerprinted at the New York Public Library, along with other enemy aliens, Kert'esz stopped accepting magazine assignments. He withdrew from photojournalism from 1941 to 1944. In one respect, photography had already withdrawn from him.

``You are talking too much in your pictures.'' Those are the words with which Kert'esz remembers Life magazine rejecting his 1939 photo essay on waterfront life in New York. They seem ironic today, since certain of Kert'esz's photographs have entered the canon of 20th-century art, but they capture his difficulty with American photojournalism.

He could not produce the lean and angular photographs of Margaret Bourke-White, nor could he compose her life-affirming humanistic photo studies. Kert'esz never warmed to the concerns of the progressive era. His work is almost always melancholic, transfusing the present with strangeness and evoking feeling and memory. In this, he was closest to surrealism, but only obliquely.

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For nearly 20 years, from 1946 to 1961, Kert'esz was a contract photographer for House & Garden. He received an ample salary and spent his free time making his own photographs. Though he had strongly influenced the lives of other photographers -- Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, and Robert Capa -- Kert'esz watched their reputations rise while his own stalled.

It was not until 1964, when he was 70, that the Museum of Modern Art mounted the one-man show that brought his work wide recognition. The 1970s and '80s brought Kert'esz much esteem. Yet by his own standards it had come too late. When a younger photographer asked him why, at the age of 90, he continued to work, he said, ``I am still hungry.''

The authors of the essays in this intelligently written and generously illustrated book-length catalog to the exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (through Feb. 23) have produced what will become the standard work on Kert'esz. Sandra S. Phillips's biography of his Paris years is the culmination of fastidious research and interviews. David Travis offers a succinct review of Kert'esz's contemporaries in Germany and France, and Weston J. Naef documents the photographer's American years. Each author emphasizes the privacy and solitariness of Kert'esz's work, and none sentimentalizes his late-won fame.

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