The Trappists by Andre Kertesz, 1929

“One of the most influential photographers of this century,” the New York Times called Andre Kertesz. Born in Hungary, he fled Europe for America in 1936 to escape Hitler and worked for major American magazines, including LIFE, Look, Colliers, Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar.

Before that, he also had a successful life in Paris, befriending Chagall, Calder, Giacometti and Mondrian, and contributing to German and French weeklies: Vu, Munchner Illustrierte, Bilfur, the Berliner and Frankfurter. He was one of the pioneers of the photoessay and his photos of the Trappist monks in Soligny which appeared in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung on January 6, 1929 was considered to be one of the earliest photoessays.

Soligny-la-Trappe in Brittany was the location of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe, the abbey where the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, was founded in 1662. Originally built in 1140, the abbey was one of the Cistercian monasteries which adopted the Strict Observance – silence, prayer, abstinence, manual labour – introduced in the 1660s by Abbé de Rancé, who came to believe that the rest of the Cistercian were becoming too lax.

Such a look into the lives and deaths of the monks who took a vow of silence were rarely allowed, but Kertesz managed to do exactly just that, and his were the first known photos of life inside a Trappist monastery. He was commissioned by French magazine Vu for a peek inside ‘the House of Silence’ but the feature wasn’t published by Vu until April 16, 1930.

Meanwhile, Kertesz sold it to the publisher Leopold Ullstein who used it in his Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung as well as in the magazine Uhu, where it appeared alongside the confessions of a defrocked monk. Three-page article illustrated with 6 photos was still a far cry from the grand photoessays that would follow in years and decades to come, but the craft of the man Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as the ”poetic wellspring” for the entire medium was clear.

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