Sunday, 11 September 2011

Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century September 2011

It has been a few weeks since visiting this exhibition as I have been trying to finish assignment two, but now it is time to think about my impressions of the images and photographers seen.

I have to be honest and say that apart from Brassaii, Capa and Kertesz I haven't heard of many of the others on display. Nor did I appreciate that the 'famous five' were all Hungarian. Capa is famously quoted as saying ' It is not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian.' Interesting snippet is that they were all Jewish and changed their names, no doubt due to anti-semitism. Also I have to admit to not being over familiar with their back catalogues beyond the very few obvious ones that became book covers or Capa's war images.

The images were hung on grey walls and lit by subdued spot lights. All had black frames with white passpartouts, although with some of the images the passpartouts were cut to lend more weight to the bottom. The majority were on loan from the Hungarian Museum of Photography.

The exhibition is arranged in chronological order, five periods in several 'rooms' focusing on the work of Brassaii, Capa, Kertesz, Moholy-Nagy, Munkacsi and their contemporaries. It shows the work of Hungarian photographers both at home and abroad.

The five eras covered were

  • Hungary 1914-1939
  • The First World War and its Aftermath
  • Moving Away: Paris, Berlin, London, New York
  • The Second World War and Its Aftermath
  • Hungary 1945-1989

I got quite overwhelmed by the large selection of images/subjects featured, so gave up trying to analyse them all and just enjoyed the images which revealed a country' history. Hungary was most definitely a central participant in many of the major events of the 20th century.

In 1914 Hungary was still under the influence of European practice and Rudolf Balogh, one of the featured photographers stated that they should be communicating 'our particularities and our national character.'
The first section shows how Balogh, Kata Sugár, Kata Kálmán and others set about capturing portraits of rural workers and their unique way of life.


Rudolf Balogh



Rudolf Balogh

Kata Sugár

Mixed in with poignant images of wandering violinists and children dwarfed by huge violins are shots by Kertesz and Karoly Escher of people floating about and swimming in pools.

All have been taken with an amazing sensitivity which captured a way of life that was soon to be torn apart by war and its aftermath. What struck me throughout the exhibition was the amazing use of light, shape and form within all the black and white shots.

In 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Hungary declared war on Serbia and three of the photographers were called up; Brassaii, Kertesz and Moholy-Nagy although only Kertesz took photographs of the soldiers behind the lines. 

At odds with the more emotive subjects are the exquisite still life and fashion shots but they prove that photographers can successfully capture different things.


Munkacsi Workhouse Budapest 1923

Nandor Barany

Jozsef Pecsi

Although the exhibition tended to follow the most famous exponents of Hungarian photography many others were represented. The second room showed how these photographers embraced Europe and it's artists many of whom became the subject of several portraits including Picasso, Matisse, Chagall and Mondrian.

Several of the photographs reminded me of Nazi propaganda especially Tibor Csorgeo The Hoop III 1936 and Rudolf Jarai's The Archer 1943. I wonder if that is due to the images that were being taken at that time?


The First World War was documented with a pioneering Budapest newspaper Az Erdekes Usdag which invited serving soldiers to submit their photographs to various photographic competitions. Unlike now no-one tried to censor the photographs and the result is 'an extraordinary, unrivalled record of war, in turn beautiful and moving.' Photojournalism continued to grow, reporting on the progression from a monarchy to dictatorship and the depression of the 1930's.

It surprises me in some ways that when searching for some of these photographers online I am getting no hits at all for their images?

Due to a substantial loss of territory and  the increase in facism many people moved away.In Moving Away there is a real sense of pushing the boundaries of photography and exporing new cities. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy experimented with negatives and photograms and set up a School for Design in  America in 1939, Brassaii took his stunning Paris photographs, Capa the Spanish civil war, Munkasci produced stunning fashion photography......

The most famous images of D.Day nearly did not make it at all with many of the rolls of film Capa sent back being destroyed during processing. One of the images that stood out for me was of a shaven-headed woman, cradling her baby as she is surrounded by a jeering mob (Woman Who Had a Child with a German Soldier Being Marched through the Street). Capa captured in that moment a photograph that manages to narrate a range of complex emotions.

I'm jumping about a bit as I flick through the book picking out photographs that I remember that that stood out for a particular reason, I loved the shots by Brassaii of the Isere Valley 1980 and Festivities in Bayonne 1936 which have a painterly feel.

Brassaii Festivities in Bayonne
There was a portrait taken by Kertesz of himself and his wife; originally it had been a full length shot but he later severely cropped it, which goes to prove that no matter the original intention photographs can be altered after the event and have more impact by doing so.

Kertesz Elizabeth and I
Another one of the photographs that caught my eye was one by Miklos Rev, Straight Road 1955 which by using juxtaposition depicted a changing way of life, a farmer leads his cattle drawn cart down a country track whilst in the background you can see industrial chimneys and gas towers belching out smoke.

Later we have more industrial shots and toppled statues of Lenin...

I thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition although there were a few too many people about to allow for long contemplation or close examination, one reason why I was glad the book was reduced in price ;o) Having said that nothing printed in a book is the same as seeing photographs for real. Some of the prints were originals and it was great to see the smaller pictures made the same size as the glass plates. Others were reprints and a review I read criticised the quality. I didn't think they were that poor, which only goes to show that I need to go to more exhibitions or didn't look close enough. Or were they being overly picky? This was my second exhibition of the day and while it's good to take advantage of being in London I'm not sure going to such a large exhibition after another was a good idea.

I have continued to look at how images are hung and exhibited as well as the images themselves. I like the fact they were uniformly framed as this meant you were not distracted from the images themselves. Displaying so many artists and subjects was a little disorientating even though they had be organised in a set fashion. You did have to keep looking at labels to remind yourself who you were looking at and it was hard to spot styles or mannerisms when artists work was not displayed together.

It is getting easier to spot photographic devices such as juxtaposition, diagonal lines, use of light and shadows and how single shots can convey so many meanings. Capa's D.Day landings showed an image does not have to be technically perfect to be an amazing photograph and have value. Hopefully by looking at other photographers work these devices will come to mind when composing my own.


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