10 Lessons Andre Kertesz Has Taught Me About Street Photography
All photos copyrighted by the estate of Andre Kertesz. Also many thanks to Michael Meinhardt for helping me edit this text.
Andre Kertesz is one of the greatest photographers who ever lived. He photographed extensively for over 70 years, which also makes him one of the most prolific photographers. Not only did he help pioneer the genre of street photography, he also had a strong impact on an entire generation of photographers – even including the great Henri Cartier-Bresson.
When asked about Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson showed his reverence by saying: “We all owe something to Kertesz.” and even “Whatever we have done, Kertesz did first.”
Another famous photographer, Brassai, beautifully captured what made Kertesz so great as a photographer:
“André Kertész has two qualities that are essential for a great photographer: an insatiable curiosity about the world, about people, and about life, and a precise sense of form.” – Brassai
Every street photographer with a desire to learn more about the masters needs to know about Kertesz. I have personally gained a great deal of inspiration from him and will share some insights I have gained from him:
1. Always have a camera with you
The most important thing for a street photographer to remember is to always have a camera with you. There are so many scenes we can miss when we don’t have a camera by our sides.
Kertesz made it a point to always carry his camera with him – even when photographing the First World War (in harm’s way):
Interviewer: Did you take a camera with you everywhere?
Kertesz: “Yes. So there I was, in the front line, lugging the plate negatives around in a metal case. The other lads said I was crazy. “Why?” I asked. “If I come out of this alive, then I’ll develop them; if I don’t, I won’t.” My kid brother had a great idea. Take 9 x 12 cm plates with you, he said, and cut them in four.”
Understandably, lugging around massive 9x12cm plates was a huge pain in the ass. To make his camera more portable, he had the ingenious idea of cutting his glass plates into smaller pieces – to make his camera more portable:
Kertesz: “Then at night-time, somewhere in the village, or wherever we were, I would search out a dark place. I had a glass cutter and quartered the plates. It was a stroke of genius, because that way in one box of 9 x 12’s I had material not for 12 but for 48 photographs. Oh, how big was the camera? 4.5 x 6 cm.”
Having a smaller camera made it much more portable for him to carry around in his everyday activities:
Kertesz: “That means it was nice and flat, so I could slip it into my pocket. Part of our regiment was taken prisoner by the Russians; they had to be replaced urgently and we made a forced march for 48 hours non-stop, with just a few minutes to snatch some sleep standing up, or to relieve ourselves, grab a few mouthfuls of food, then on and on. I stepped out of the ranks to snap the column, then carried on marching.”
Even with the portable size, Kertesz still found it difficult to find time to shoot. How did he overcome this? By snapping photos that happened around him when he could:
Kertesz: “I was just one of the many. That one says it all. I wasn’t able to photograph very much while the war was on: just what was happening around me. And we were always in the front line, or immediately behind it. I always had a miniature camera with me at the front, where I would snatch informal snapshots, unlike the professional photographers in the War Correspondents Section, who always went around with gigantic cameras and tripods once a battle was over, in order to take on-the-spot photographs showing the destruction.”
Takeaway point: Life often gets in the way of our photography. We have to deal with our day jobs, our families, and everyday errands. It is hard to find time to photograph.
However, similarly to Kertesz, we should simply photograph things around us – and make it a point to always have a camera with us (regardless of how big it may be).
We complain about carrying around our massive DSLRs on a daily basis. However, before we complain, we should consider that Kertesz (and many of his contemporaries) lugged around massive glass plate cameras, which weren’t very portable.
Of course, he was pragmatic and had the ingenious idea of cutting his plates into smaller sizes to make his camera smaller and more portable.
So, on a practical note, if you find it painful to carry around a large camera, I highly recommend investing in a smaller camera (or just carrying around your smartphone or compact camera). I have generally found that the smaller and more portable your camera, the better it is for street photography (as it seems less intimating and is easier to carry around). The more often you carry your camera, the more often you will also end up taking photos.
2. Follow your dreams
Life is too short. We never know when we are going to die and oftentimes we delay our passions and dreams in lieu of a stable job, income, for a BMW, and a 3-bedroom house with a white picket fence.
Andre Kertesz grew up mostly in the countryside of Hungary, and although he enjoyed his peaceful life there, he knew that there was more to life.
One of his dreams was to travel to Paris and though he was first discouraged by his family, he decided to go anyway.
Interviewer: You were 30 years old when you left Hungary to spend years in Paris. What led you to choose that city in particular?
Kertesz: “I went to Paris because I just had to go, I didn’t know why. I had a small amount of money to keep me going for a while, I had my creative power, and I had my dreams. There were three of us brothers; my father had died, and it had been Mother’s wish that the family should stay together. In 1925, however, she told me that if I still wanted to go, then I should go; she didn’t want to hold me back.”
“She could see that Hungary was not the place to do what I wanted to do. So, one day she said, “You’re right, son, there’s no place for you here. What you want to do, you can’t. Go, laddie.” So go I did. I set off for Paris on the 25th of August, or maybe it was September.”
Kertesz took a personal risk by going to Paris, and leaving his home. However with hard work, perseverance, and a bit of luck, his work began to flourish and spread around Paris:
Kertesz: “My work went the rounds, from hand to hand, in the cafés, and more and more people got to know it. I was then happy to give away to my acquaintances pictures that would nowadays fetch fifteen or twenty thousand dollars. As I never did have much of a head for business, I don’t see a red cent from that nowadays.”
“After 14 months, a dealer put on an exhibition. Thank you. Gradually, I was getting invitations everywhere; things were going fine. I carried on with what I had imbibed in Budapest, and that spirit suited the French perfectly. They put what I was doing down to the Parisian spirit; they don’t know it’s half Paris, half Budapest.”
Takeaway point: Not everyone has the luxury or the ability to travel, or pursue their own dreams (on their own terms).
However, I think regardless of your position in life, you always have the option of pursuing your dreams and passions.
As a street photographer (if you have a family and kids) it might be hard to move to Paris. But it won’t stop you from meeting other local street photographers, organizing exhibitions, books, and shooting on the streets when you have free time (lunch breaks or weekends).
Follow your dreams, and they will take you where you want to be.
3. Take a higher perspective
“I like high shots. If you are on the same level, you lose many things.” – André Kertész
One of things that Kertesz is most famous for is taking images form a high vantage point.
What is great about these images is that they turn the streets into more of an abstraction and show the world from a unique perspective we don’t normally see.
Takeaway point: Follow in the footsteps of Kertesz and try taking photos from higher perspectives. The majority of our street photography is shot at ground level, which can make great photos (but can be visually boring).
Try to take the elevator up to the top floor of apartment or office buildings and photograph shooting down. You may find this to be a much more unique way of approaching street photography, as you can turn your subjects into abstractions of light, shadows and forms.
4. Focus on geometry and form
Kertesz was one of the earliest photographers to embrace photography as a true artistic medium. He infused his work with beautifully crafted compositions, based on geometry and form.
If you look at a lot of his work, he truly ‘painted with light’ considering the angle in which the light hit his subjects, the shadows they cast, as well as the contrast between the blacks and the whites.
When shooting in the streets, Kertesz integrated forms and shapes into the foreground and background to give more elegance, form, and poetry to his subjects (think of the photo of the woman walking by the curved chairs in the photo below).
At first, people thought that what he was doing was crazy – shooting in the streets and photographing these ordinary things. However, when Kertesz showed the photos he took and what he saw, people soon understood what he was doing.
Kertesz didn’t just focus on form and geometry in the streets. He also took many photos of still lives, which kept his eye sharp. He photographed forms as mundane as forks, glasses and flowers in his home. Nothing was too ordinary to be photographed. But when he photographed them, he photographed them in a way that highlighted the beauty in the mundane.
Takeaway point: Realize that you don’t always have to be shooting street photography. To keep your eye for composition sharp, enjoy taking snapshots of ordinary things, but compose them well. Photograph your family and children and focus on framing and composition.
Photograph the cup of coffee you are drinking and consider the light and the elements of shape and form. Study art books (and the work of Kertesz) and visit museums. See how other artists were able to beautifully compose and photograph what they saw. Then, over time, your eye for composition will become intuitive.
5. Experiment with different equipment
Throughout his life, Kertesz’s experimented with many different mediums of photography. He shot with glass plates, 35mm on a Leica, with telephotos, and even a Polaroid SX-70 toward the end of his life.
In Bystander: A History of Street Photography, Colin Westerbeck shares how Kertesz experimented with different focal lengths to achieve his artistic vision:
“Some experiments Kertesz began to make with different lenses were also a sign of his increasing concern with formal issues around the time. In 1927, for a view looking down a public stair in Montmartre, he removed the front element from the lens assembly on his Voigtländer camera. The result was a slight telephoto effect that flattened the scene and thereby made the picture function more as a two-dimensional surface. This pleased him, so he developed various ways to enhance it, eventually acquiring custom-made lenses ranging from 90mm to 260mm.”
Takeaway point: I feel that it is important for us as photographers to constantly experiment and find out which approaches and techniques work for us.
Now let’s not turn this into an excuse for us to just go out and buy every single camera in existence or fall victim to GAS (gear acquisition syndrome). However, if you feel that a certain focal length or piece of equipment can help you achieve your artistic vision, go for it.
For example, if you don’t like the colors you are shooting on digital, experiment with color film. Do you feel that your images aren’t intimate enough? Try shooting with a wider lens. Do you want less distortion in your images? Perhaps get a longer lens.
Never let equipment be your barrier to creativity. But once again, remember to balance the fine line between photographic output and interests in equipment.
6. Feel what you photograph
“Seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph” – Andre Kertesz
I feel that the most memorable images are the ones that touch you on an emotional basis. Photographs that hit you straight in the gut and imprint themselves onto your memory.
These can be photos that are sad and tragic, photos that are happy and full of life, or strange and whimsical.
Kertesz also shares his thoughts on technique and why he feels that emotions are more important:
“Technique isn’t important. Technique is in the blood. Events and mood are more important than good light and the happening is what is important.” – Andre Kertesz
Kertesz also shares that he doesn’t feel that images have to be technically perfect. Technically perfect images without expressions don’t mean much to him:
“If you want to write, you should learn the alphabet. You write and write and in the end you have a beautiful, perfect alphabet. But it isn’t the alphabet that is important. The important thing is what you are writing, what you are expressing. The same thing goes for photography. Photographs can be technically perfect and even beautiful, but they have no expression.” – Andre Kertesz.
Takeaway point: So when you are out shooting on the streets– don’t just be attracted by pretty forms, lights, and shadows. Rather, look for the emotions. Look for hand gestures that signal how a person feels. Let your heart guide you when shooting in the streets.
You can also let your emotions guide your editing process. Rather than just judging your photos based on what is composed and framed nicely, judge your photos based on whether they have any emotional impact. If a photograph fails to elicit any sort of emotion from you, consider it dead.
7. Be patient for the right moment
“The moment always dictates in my work. What I feel, I do. This is the most important thing for me. Everybody can look, but they don’t necessarily see. I never calculate or consider; I see a situation and I know that it’s right, even if I have to go back to get the proper lighting.” – Andre Kertesz
Kertesz embraced what we commonly know as “the decisive moment” in photography – the moment in which all of the elements of a frame come together perfectly. For Kertesz, photography was all about seeing the world in a unique way. Not to just look at people, places, and things – but to truly see them on a deeper level.
Kertesz wouldn’t always be certain when the “right moment” was, but he would photograph on instinct – from his gut.
In terms of composing his images, he would often be patient and only click when he felt that the composition was complete:
“I just walk around, observing the subject from various angles until the picture elements arrange themselves into a composition that pleases my eye.” – Andre Kertesz
Takeaway point: Creating great composition in the street is insanely difficult. There is so much chaos in the street. How can we take all of this disorder and create elegant forms?
Kertesz suggests two things:
a) First of all, consider the light when you are photographing. If you see that the light isn’t good, perhaps come back to the scene at a better time when the light is better (golden hour – during sunrise or sunset).
b) Observe a scene from different angles. So, when you see something worth photographing, move your feet and look at the scene from different angles and see which is the most pleasing to your eye. And then click when you find the moment to be right.
8. Stay an amateur
When we think of the word: “amateur” we generally tend to think of it as a negative term. We call people who aren’t skilled to be amateurs. In photography, “amateur photographers” are known to be the bumbling hobbyist photographers who take poor compositions, have way too much equipment, and wear nerdy photo-vests when out and about.
However the true word of the word “amateur” is someone who does something for the love of it, rather than being a “professional” (someone who does something for money/a living).
Kertesz embraces the fact that he is an amateur in photography and that it is the most beautiful way for an individual to express him/herself:
“I am an amateur and intend to remain one my whole life long. I attribute to photography the task of recording the real nature of things, their interior, their life. The photographer’s art is a continuous discovery, which requires patience and time. A photograph draws its beauty from the truth with which it’s marked.”
“For this very reason I refuse all the tricks of the trade and professional virtuosity which could make me betray my career. As soon as I find a subject which interests me, I leave it to the lens to record it truthfully. Look at the reporters and at the amateur photographer! They both have only one goal; to record a memory or a document. And that is pure photography.” -André Kertész
Takeaway point: Embrace the term “amateur” and know that you photograph for the love of it. Do not view your photography as less important just because you don’t make a living from it. Oftentimes, being a professional photographer can corrupt the first reason why you picked up a camera – for the pure love of it.
And as Kertesz suggests to us: once you find a subject, a concept, or a theme that interests you, fully embrace it and use your photography as a medium to record what you find to be truthful. Make your street photography a way to record what you see in life and make it beautiful and immortal.
9. Be satisfied
One of the most tragic things I discovered about Kertesz is the fact that for a long period of his life he was quite unhappy, feeling that he wasn’t as recognized as he should be.
For example, he was rarely cited for his work and even excluded from lists magazines published on the “most memorable photographs” and being on lists of “featured photographers.”
For example, the magazine Coronet published his work in 1937, but in 1939 he was excluded from an issue showing its “most memorable photographs”. He also was excluded from the June 1941 issue of Vogue, which was dedicated to photography. Even though he contributed more than 30 commissioned photo essays and articles to Vogue and House and Garden, he was omitted from the list of featured photographers.
I feel that this excerpt on Wikipedia perfectly sums up the frustrations that Kertesz faced in his life:
“Throughout most of his career Kertész was depicted as the “unknown soldier” who worked behind the scenes of photography, yet was rarely cited for his work, even into his death in the 1980s. Kertész thought himself unrecognised throughout his life, despite spending his life in the eternal search for acceptance and fame. Though Kertész received numerous awards for photography, he never felt both his style and work was accepted by critics and art audiences alike.” – Wikipedia
Takeaway point: Even the greatest and most famous photographers in history feel the strain that we face as ordinary photographers. Kertesz spent much of his life searching for fame and recognition for his work, but didn’t receive it until very late into his life, and still wasn’t as satisfied as he felt he should.
I personally feel that spending one’s life in search of fame and recognition is a waste of time. Rather, I feel the most important thing is to create work that is relevant and meaningful to you. After all, fame and recognition is dependent on the opinion of others – something you can’t control.
10. Stay hungry
To contradict the previous point, I feel that it is also important to stay motivated and hungry when it comes to your photography.
Even when Kertesz was 90 years old, he created a new portfolio and shared it with the photographer Susan May Tell. When Tell asked him what kept him going, Kertesz responded: “I am still hungry.”
Takeaway point: I feel that it is important to stay hungry in your photography, experimenting with new techniques, approaching different subjects, and pursuing new projects. However, I think that this should be interpreted as the hunger to please yourself, rather than the hunger to be accepted by others.
As Steve Jobs famously said (perfectly summing up his life): “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” So go out. Keep shooting. And disregard what others think. Shoot for yourself, and never stop.
I think that in order to gain more insights into street photography it is necessary to study the greats. Kertesz was certainly one of the most pivotal figures in street photography. If Henri Cartier-Bresson called him one of the most influential photographers, there must be strong truth to it.
If you want to learn more about Kertesz, I would recommend really delving into his photographs. Purchase books by Kertesz (or look at them online) and see how he embraced form, composition, and light in his images as well as the emotion and sentimentality of his images.
I think, if we all aspire to take photos with beautiful form and strong emotions (as Kertesz did), we will be on our way to someday becoming great photographers as well.
Videos on Andre Kertesz:
Andre Kertesz: BBC Series
Below is a great documentary made on Kertsz by the BBC:
Andre Kertesz BBC Series (Part 1)
Andre Kertesz BBC Series (Part 2)
Andre Kertesz BBC Series (Part 3)
Andre Kertesz BBC Series (Part 4)
Andre Kertesz: Jeu de Paume
A life retrospective exhibition of Andre Kertesz was put together by the famous Jeu de Paume photography museum in Paris. The curators talk about the biography and inspirations of Andre Kertesz- a beautifully edited feature.
Andre Kertesz in Paris
Watch Kertesz shooting on the streets of Paris (and talking about his philosophies) in the video below:
Books by Andre Kertesz
If you want to discover more the life and photos of Andre Kertesz, I recommend you picking up some of the books below:
A great introduction to the work of Kertesz, affordable price for a large hardcover book in his work.
André Kertész (Photofile) : ~$14
A very affordable small book (can fit in your camera bag) on the life and work of Kertesz. If you need pocket-sized inspiration, this book is for you.
Kertesz on Kertesz: A self-portrait ~ $10USD (used)
My favorite book on Kertesz, as he shares his personal thoughts and notes on some of his most famous images. If you want a practical book that helps you get into the mind of Kertesz and his thought process behind his photos – this is the book for you. You can find some affordable copies of this book on Amazon.
How has Andre Kertesz influenced you and your photography? What do you think makes him great? Share your thoughts and comments below.