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During off hours while working as a clerk at the Budapest stock exchange before the outbreak of the Great War, the young André Kertész took photographs and began to nurse ambitions about making it his life’s work. The war intervened. Drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914, he was wounded in 1916 and mustered out in 1918. When the war ended, his new life as a photographer more or less began. In 1925, at age 31, he moved from Budapest to Paris, took up freelance photography, and began to make what have since become iconic 20th-century images. In 1936, he emigrated to New York and spent many years supporting himself with commercial photography. (Between 1945 and 1962 House and Garden published over 3000 of his photographs, so the man had little wiggle room for his own work.) After a long commercial career, Kertész, who lived to be 91, began his second new life and returned to the personal, exploratory photography he’d practiced in Budapest and Paris. He was even able, in a way, to resurrect his young life: in the 1970s he learned about negatives he’d exposed 50 years earlier still stored somewhere in Paris, so he retrieved and printed them in a larger format than he was using when he first exposed the negatives.

About format. If you go to the smallish but choice exhibition of Kertész’s photographs at the J. Paul Getty Center, all drawn from their voluminous holdings of his work, bring a magnifying glass. No joke. Many pictures Kertész created in the early season of his career were contact prints from negatives that measured, at best, four by five inches, often only two by two inches, especially in the very early work from Hungary when he was already using a small portable camera. (“I worked from the start in the Leica spirit,” he later said, “long before the Leica existed.”) He was such a master printer that even his images of grand spaces jammed with landscape or cityscape details have an engraved precision and sublime gradations of light to shade to darkness that yield one snappy revelation after another. Until he began to make larger six-by-eight-inch positives, he printed most of his work on postcard stock that yielded softened, plush textures, which he either used at standard postcard size or trimmed to the negative’s size. He established two pressure systems in the frame: miniaturization for dusky concentrates of black and white, but within that extreme diminution a stunning spatial expansiveness in city and country scenes.

I throw in country (or small-town) scenes because Kertész, though he thought of himself as a man of the cities, also loved provincial locales, especially in Hungary. In one of his earliest pictures a fiddler crosses a dirt-pack village street with his begging shoeless son at his side. In another, three bare-bottomed gypsy kids pad across a field pushing a wheelbarrow that, Kertész later recalled, contained scavenged clothing. While these images brim with pathos and empathy — “I photographed real life…not the way it was, but the way I felt it” — the tiny images pull us in with their rippled depths and crinkled, knifing volumes. Kertész challenged himself to take the most grandiose monuments and human “projects,” like the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame, and treat them not as “look here” views but as more or less casual, off-to-the-side components of city life. He made the monumental intimate by deftly blending a broad tonal range of a city’s grays, blacks, and silvers. His picture from afar of the Eiffel Tower floats our gaze out across rooftops till it discovers the Tower, minuscule in the distance, rimmed with sizzling light. In another photo, he makes Notre Dame into a ghostly happenstance visitant to a river scene of workers and bridges and fat dockside blocks of stone. It’s evidence of another remark: “Have confidence in the inventions and transformations of chance.”

Major photographers sharpen our awareness of how our angle of approach to the seen determines our feeling for it. In his scrupulous 1928 street image, Meudon, France, our eye first finds a man crossing the street carrying a large flat parcel wrapped in newspaper. Buildings on each side narrow deeper in the picture to street’s end, at which point we cannot not follow the compositional rhythms skyward where, way high in the picture, as if on a pedestal, a locomotive crosses a stone trestle like an apparition, trailing soft-muscled smoke. The entire scene is pretty shabby, with messy, incoherent construction going on at the foot of the trestle. The picture’s subject is the act of finding, of “descrying,” what’s before our eyes but passes unnoticed until the photographer reveals to us the whole field of relatedness.

Kertész lived through modern art’s major shifts — cubism, abstraction, conceptualism, surrealism — and he absorbed their assertions into his native compositional instincts. He loved to use strangely angled overhead views to craft visual balances and cadences that charm the eye. In The Harbor at Brest, France, we see from above cubical crates crowding the bulwarks of a small, wooden, lozenge-shaped freighter nosing into a barge bearing white barrels. The vessels and their contents, including the flatbed stacked with metal pipes alongside the freighter, look arranged, a cubist maritime-industrial still life. A different sort of experimentation happens in a series of nudes titled Distortions. The surrealists preached that if you combine two given objects you create a third reality that never before existed. In the early 1930s, a men’s magazine commissioned Kertész, who liked to call himself a “naturalist surrealist,” to photograph nudes reflected in a parabolic mirror; working with a classical motif, the pictures he produced — the women’s limbs are inflated like bladders or stretched like gum — swim in the same waters harvested by the surrealists. The rubbery, curvilinear joints and swooping fields of flesh come right out of Dalí and Picasso.

Kertész’s triumphant late work exists in an aura of contemplative serenity. He was always a purveyor of mystery. See his 1920 Budapest image of a young couple peering through a chink in a fence to sneak a peek at a circus we can’t see: their backs (which are all we see), his round-brimmed hat, her head scarf, and the wood planks compose an image of secret pleasures hidden from sight. And the work of the 1960s and 1970s — around 1950 he’d had to quit the darkroom, when he developed allergies to the chemicals, and rely on assistants — has the same sensation of benevolent puzzlement and secret knowledge. An elegantly dressed man, his back to us, stands in Central Park on a fall day pondering an empty broken park bench in the foreground visually reiterated by a loose chain of benches stretching into the distance. Most of the famous modern photographs of New York register the city’s restless energy and unending self-reinvention. I’m thinking of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of horse-drawn trolleys slogging through snow, Robert Frank’s image of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Louis Faurer’s eye-poppers of 42nd Street’s neon. Kertész’s bench picture has the sober stillness we see in his 1967 photograph (my favorite) of a street puddle. In the jagged mirror of the rainwater, which looks like a torn page pasted across the pavement, lies a reflection of nearly the entire height of the Empire State Building. A monumental icon of urban life is inverted, dematerialized, and laid to rest underfoot.

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