André Kertész began his career as a stockbroker in Budapest and became one of the greatest pioneers of modern photography and a seminal figure in the history of photography. In his younger years, Kertész was expected to follow an education in finance to fulfill his family’s wishes by eventually working, like his brother, in the stock market. However, Kertész followed his inherent passion for photography, which had manifested itself very early. He taught himself the art of photography, developing an expressive voice in his native Hungary. Andre Kertész developed a sophisticated understanding of formal composition, use of a broad range of subject matter, and a capacity to create lucid, affective metaphors with the latter. His photograph Homing Ship is a perfect example of Kertész’s lyrical, poetic image making.
Born Andor Kertész in Budapest to a Jewish family, Kertész grew up connected to the land. Following his father’s passing, his uncle helped his mother raise him and his siblings, eventually encouraging Kertész to enroll in business classes. After graduating, his uncle would have the young Andor hired as a stock exchange broker but having little interest in the finance industry, Kertész would set aside funds to purchase his first camera, an ICA. From the onset, Kertész forged an unwavering, lifelong commitment to photography.
In the mid-1920s Kertész moves to Paris, having saved enough funds to sustain himself for a year or two. Paris was a hub of the avant-garde and became an especially attractive place for young and ambitious artists. Purchasing a Leica in 1928, Kertész established himself in Paris, along a community of artists and produced some of his most well-known and profound work. He fell in love with the streets of Paris, touched by a city so enamored with creative energy. Elizabeth, Kertész’s muse, lover, and future wife would eventually join him there.
Amidst the growing political turmoil in Europe of the 1930s, Andre Kertész with his wife Elizabeth decides to take an offer to move to the U.S. and work for the Keystone agency. They embarked for New York and planned to return to Paris within a couple of years, even leaving most of his negatives back in France. New York proved to lack the majestic romanticism, and ambiance Kertész had found in Paris. A lack of an artistic community and friends brought on a feeling of isolation for the couple. His experience as a photographer was challenging, searching for work amidst a highly competitive landscape, where self-promotion and working for agencies ruled the market.
“He went from one disillusionment to another without being able to return to Paris, first for lack of money, then because of the war.” – Pierre Borhan
In Homing Ship, taken in 1944, a figure perhaps of a child, carries a model schooner across from Conservatory Pond in Central Park back to the boathouse. The picture presents a body of water, front and center, a puddle essentially, that has become magnified and takes half of the whole composition. Through a sophisticated use of movement and form, the image creates a metaphor of spatial inversion and poetic allusions where Kertész justifies the boat is out of the water, referencing that he is also searching for a reconnection to his element.
“Homing Ship is an instance of symbolic autobiography, but it also has fine carpentry to lead the eye to the subject. The reflection of the tree takes the eye to the gently curbing stone curve that carries us to the row of benches and finally to the deep background. Through compositional elements that are distinctive rather than calculated, Kertész engaged the observer in the process of perception.” Weston J. Naef
Kertész rarely titled his work, opting for the more practical use of time and place. He did although, often reproduce this photograph with the title Homing Ship, suggesting of homesickness and melancholy, which he had been experiencing in New York for the last ten years since his arrival from Paris.
“Homing Ship was made within two days of the fifth anniversary of the Kertészes’ arrival on these shores, and a few months after they had become naturalized citizens.” – W. J. Naef.
Leaving the romantic hope of Paris in 1936, for fear of the nascent violence that engulfed Europe to arrive in a New York City still experiencing the harsh realities and last throes of the Great Depression, had an impact on him that framed photography as an escape for Kertész. Homing Ship is a moment of hope and illusion. What better messenger to carry the illusion of a dream than that of a child? The promise of returning home, to the cafés, to the Parisian avenues, away from the poverty and suffering, that was now a remote possibility.
Near the end of Kertész life, John Sarkowski; then acting director of photography at MoMA discovered his fantastic body of work and gave him a full retrospective in 1968. From that point on, Kertész rekindled his career and became championed as a great pioneer of modern photography. Kertész’s photographs have a beauty and poetry that lack pretension. They are “foundation” material for many classic museums and private collections. Homing Ship is one of Kertész’s most poignant and poetic pictures, connecting the eye, the brain, and the heart in an almost surreal manner that looks like an apparition from a dream.