Within the span of a year, 1915-1916, two young men who were to become among the greatest photographers of the 20th century suffered devastating wounds in World War One. Both fought on the Italian Front for the soon to be defeated, Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Josef Sudek of Bohemia and André Kertész of Hungary both sustained severe wounds to their right arms. Kertész’ arm was paralyzed for some time but it was saved. Josef Sudek’s wound was not as severe but gangrene set in, and his arm was amputated. Both young men subsequently spent several years in therapeutic recovery at military facilities. And both were left with deep psychic scars that had a profound influence on their temperament as well as on their work.
Ten years later, while touring with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Sudek wandered away from the company during a concert in southern Italy. The performance was near the town where he had been wounded. His biographer Sonja Bullaty, a survivor of Auschwitz and a noted photographer herself, quotes him:
… In the dark I got lost, but I had to search. Far outside the city toward dawn, in the fields bathed by the morning dew, finally I found the place. But my arm wasn’t there – only the poor peasant farmhouse was still standing in its place. They had bought me into it that day when I was shot in the right arm. They could never put it together again, and for years I was going from hospital to hospital, and had to give up my bookbinding trade. The Philharmonic people apparently even made the police look for me but I somehow could not get myself to return from this country. I turned up in Prague some two months later. They didn’t reproach me, but from that time on, I never went anywhere, anymore, and I never will. What would I be looking for when I didn’t find what I wanted to find?”
A few years after being wounded, Sudek took up photography, at first in the war veterans’ home, then in and around the cafes of Prague. An early subject for his camera was the final construction stages of St. Vitus Cathedral.
Sudek never married; he lived most of his life with a sister dedicated to assisting him and who continued to live in his wooden bungalow/atelier/darkroom years after his death in 1976. Sudek never traveled widely after the traumatic search for the lost arm and he spent the remainder of his life photographing Prague and its environs.
André Kertész returned to his native Hungary after the war and continued photographing friends, family and village life, subjects he had documented as a young man before the war’s outbreak. In 1925 he moved to Paris where he lived and worked for the next eleven years, becoming one of the most important photo-journalists of the time (principally for VU magazine), shooting the street life, parks, cafes and artist ateliers of the city. Along with fellow countryman Brassai he captured the complex social and cultural milieu of his newly adopted home. Much as he loved the city, he remained an outsider and with the promise of new work in the United States and the growing Nazi threat to Jews at home, he emigrated again, this time to New York City where he and his wife, Elizabeth, lived the rest of their lives.
Kertész, in Paris and New York City, and Sudek in Prague, spent many of their most productive years in the best tradition of the street photographer cum flaneur. Yet in substantive ways both remained loners. Sudek’s circle of friends consisted mainly of a few literary pals and musicians; on Tuesday evenings he hosted a listening party of phonograph records culled from his extensive collection of classical music. Kertész and Elizabeth, conversely, were a society of two; they never felt integrated into the New York art scene. Having been classified as an enemy alien during the early part of WWII, his photographic activities were closely monitored, although he and Elizabeth gained US citizenship in 1944. Even after the war, his considerable European reputation garnered him nothing more than a fifteen-year post-war stint as an architectural photographer for the Condé Nast magazine House and Garden.
Kertész became embittered about this lack of recognition in the United States, a condition that was only partly ameliorated when newly appointed head of the Department of Photography at MOMA, John Szarkowski, offered him a one-man show in 1964. By this time Josef Sudek had become a highly regarded, if eccentric, presence in the art photography world of Prague.
A documentary film from 1963 by Evald Strom, photographed by Jan Spata, follows Sudek through the streets and into the parks and woods of Prague. The intimate footage of this lone and wounded lion going about the work of setting up his enormous view camera (up to 12×16 inches) is intensely moving. The video’s resolution is poor, the voice-over of Sudek is not subtitled, but it is a rare glimpse into his world. The images speak for themselves, but a camera assistant on my current film, Andy Kugler, helped provide information on the two parts of the documentary Zit Svuj Zivot (Living Your Life). Sudek’s enigmatic comments express his efforts to photograph a flower, and then of a large group of photos of the “Magic Garden” of his friend, architect Otto Rothmayer. The sprinklers in this garden, especially when backlit by the sun, enthralled Sudek. Of the image of an old lamp he says “This is a celebrated lamp; it holds a lot of memories.” He does not elaborate. The rest of the film shows him searching for images in the woods:
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Its subdued tone and pace reflects the studied calm that pervades all of Sudek’s photography, work that, as the years passed, became more and more intimate. Trees, flowers, still life studies of paper and glass, bread and eggs, frost patterns on a window, became more and more the substance of his work. Human portraits all but vanished.
Kertész’ photos from the earliest days in Hungary and forward, reflect an almost Truffaut-like celebration of human intimacy. Other work, especially in Paris, reflected the modernist compositional conceits of the Bauhaus and of VU magazine’s oft-times surrealist photojournalism. Here is a short video that offers a glimpse at some of Kertész’ most famous images. The last thirty seconds are SX-70 images in color. It is this late work, however, and the similar-themed black and white images of Sudek, that I will look at here:
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In the late 70s, according to differing versions of the story, André Kertész was given, by either the Polaroid Corporation’s Eelco Wolf or by musician/photo collector Graham Nash, a then new instant camera, the Polaroid SX-70. Nash especially was aware of the melancholy that overwhelmed Kertész and of his reluctance to venture far from his apartment. Unlike Sudek who worked with large format cameras and mostly made contact prints, Kertész always preferred smaller hand cameras. His first one was an ICA box camera.
As a photographer in WWI he was given a Goers Tenax and after his arrival in Paris he bought the 35mm Leica that became his signature camera. But late in life, after initially rejecting the SX-70 as a mere toy, Kertész became fascinated with the “notebook” quality of its instant images.
During WWII both photographers were largely inactive in the world outside their homes, Sudek because of the Nazi Occupation of Prague and his fear of photographing in public, and Kertész because of his enemy alien status. Both artists turned inward and began personal photography in their confined quarters. In 1952, Kertész and Elizabeth moved to #2 Fifth Avenue. Their twelfth floor apartment had a small terrace that commanded a view of Washington Square Park directly below, and Kertész had a broad unimpeded view to the south and west. He began a series of work from his windows and terrace.
Sudek’s Prague quarters consisted of a small, turn-of-the-century, wooden bungalow sandwiched like a dollhouse between two taller apartment buildings. For decades he lived, entertained and worked there, all the while his personal papers growing into huge piles. The clutter of his personal surroundings belied the stark simplicity and clean lines of his work. Kertész’ apartment also began to fill with his archives and papers and after the death of his beloved Elisabeth of lung cancer in 1977, Kertész became even more of a recluse. As the last decades of their respective lives approached, each man in his own way developed an introspective style, devoid of humans, where quotidian objects and chotchkes became the stand-ins for people.
Here is the final part of a BBC documentary made in 1982. Kertész is interviewed in his apartment surrounded by the accumulated small objects that became his last models. He talks about the new SX-70:
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The little Italian blown glass bust that became the metaphor for his deceased wife was found in the window of a nearby Brentano’s Bookstore on 8th Street.
Several months later Kertész found a second bust and the Polaroids he made of the two glass figures became a tribute to the primacy of his marriage. Kertész placed the busts on the inside sill of his windows and photographed them as well as other small objects, in differing compositions and in changing light. He made hundreds of these Polaroids over the next few years.
I visited Kertész in this apartment shortly after I completed American Gigolo in 1979. He showed me dozens of these square SX-70 photos. My wife, Carol, and I had begun to collect photography several years before and we had one of Kertész’ small, vintage, contact prints from the Hungary period.
Kertész showed me a cigar box full of dozens more of these platinum prints. He was willing to sell them to dealers and collectors, but refused to part with any of the Polaroids. At the time, the few dealers that even knew of this work had pretty well marginalized it as the last gasp of a bitter and lost, once-great master. Time and a keener understanding have elevated the status of this final work. A book of the SX-70 work has been published:
Robert Gurbo is biographer and the curator of the Kertész estate. His introduction gives insight to the mindset of Kertész in these final months. Since 1939 Kertész had suffered bouts of vertigo and dizziness, and darkroom work became all but impossible for him. He was at the service of his printer, Igor Bahkt. That sense of immediacy a photographer gets by working in the darkroom (or today at the computer with Photoshop) came again to Kertész with the Polaroid process as he became witness to the developing prints and could alter exposure, focus and composition shot to shot, even as he evolved the definitive version of an image. Further, according to Gurbo:
The immediacy and intimacy of the Polaroid process afforded André the opportunity to explore a rawness of feeling in which he may not have otherwise engaged. The SX-70 gave him the privacy to work through his anger, melancholy, and reveries.
When I spent the afternoon with him, Kertész seemed obsessed with the many decades of oblivion in America, his longing for Paris, and the medical incompetence he felt had contributed to Elizabeth’s death. A short time later, when I learned about his youthful war injury and his many nomadic periods, I wondered how much of a toll it all had taken on his psyche.
A life of quiet privacy did not seem as alienating to Sudek. Perhaps it was because that despite the trauma of the lost arm that made him ever a reluctant social being, he was loved and respected in the smaller art world of Prague. Late in life he received commissions, public and private, for work that documented the city. His cramped home and studio, which had been abandoned to slow decay after his and then his sister’s death, was restored in 1990. The wall and fence at the street, as well as the gardens, were given a makeover. Because so much of his late work had been in his own studio with views out his windows, it was easy to re-configure the building and the garden from photographs of Sudek’s own work. There is a video documentary Photographer in the Garden, also in Czech, showing the re-construction of the house as a Sudek museum and gallery for contemporary work that I had planned to include in this essay but it was recently disabled on YouTube. But here is a site that has information and some photo documentation, followed by three photos below.
I had written a commentary on this video and though it is not now available I hope that these few notes will still be helpful. In the video Jan Mlcoch talks about the bungalow that had been Sudek’s home since 1927. Then, biographer and assistant Anna Farova, sitting in front of a restored window of the studio, says:
This is where for 14 years… Sudek created an unusually large body of work. This window that was in fact a barrier between life inside and out, also served as a canvas for rain, frost, and snow. That’s where I began to see Sudek as a philosopher or meditative person for whom such an absolute thing like this window was enough to step into the world’s consciousness.
Mloch shows a montage of Sudek’s St. Vitus Cathedral images as well as ones of “The Magic Garden.” Farova returns to show photos of the clutter of Sudek’s studio, views from his window and exterior views of the garden. Sudek’s work in this small studio and at its windows reflects all the purity and distilled sensibility of a classical still life painting. There is no immediate trace of personal biography or of a loaded emotional subtext as there often is with Kertesz. The work extols the simpler tonal beauty of black and white.
The Kertész Polaroids, conversely, are almost primal screams of emotion and sentiment—if not at times, sentimentality. This has been the critical attitude toward some of this work.
These twilight years’ images by two of the 20th centuries most regarded photographers radiate a common thematic affinity, while avoiding a shared emotional one. Personal taste and aesthetics play a large role here, it seems to me, whether you find emotion and beauty in one vision or the other, or in both. In any case, the intense personal expression of these two contrasting bodies of work creates a surprising and stimulating dialogue for any viewer willing to enter into their quiet enclave.