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HUNGARIAN PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

March 14, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

 

Most serious photographers will have visited the Royal Academy’s recent exhibition “Eyewitness - Hungarian photography in the twentieth century” during its run.  Like me, you probably went several times to see this incredible collection of over 200 images from some of the greatest photographers of the last century. 

In 1931, eight Hungarian photographers figured in Modern Photography’s list of the best 100 photographs in the world - more than any other nation.  It’s interesting to consider the extent to which these images could be considered part of a single Hungarian School, or whether they are the works of individual photographers who happened to be Hungarian. 

The Hungarian tradition inevitably centres around its five most famous exponents - Brassai, Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz, Laslo Maholy-Nagy and Martin Munkacsi.  All left Hungary to live and work in west European or American cities, bringing their native grounding to photojournalism, fashion, reportage and art photography.  But did that grounding engender a commonality of style? 

Early Hungarian photography did seem to draw on distinctly national themes.  Rudolf Balogh and Erno Vadas’ images of the Hungarian landscape, farmers, shepherds, harvests, and even urban industrial themes, speak to a concern to use photography to convey Hungarian culture. A “Magayar Style” seems, at least briefly, to have emerged: these images showed an acute sense of light and shade, carefully considered and cropped compositions, strong graphical lines, but all linked with a profound sense of humanity. 

As the key figures left Hungary, their concerns and styles inevitably changed and developed.  Brassai left Hungary early to work as a journalist in Berlin and Paris.  Under Kertesz’ influence, he took up photography and his Paris de nuit (1932) was a huge success.  Capa also came from journalism: moving to Berlin, Paris and America, his reputation was established by his images from the Spanish Civil War and he continued photographing conflicts through to Vietnam in the 1950s. Kertesz moved to work in photojournalism in Paris in 1925 relocating to America in 1936.  Maholy-Nagy developed his photographic skills at the Bauhaus in the 1920s whilst Munkasci revolutionised fashion photography in the US in the 1930s after a spell in Berlin. 

Yet, throughout these widely differing concerns, key creative elements recur.  The success of Brassai’s book Nuits de Paris must surely rest on the striking use of light and dark and strong lines which Paris’ newly-installed electric lighting created on the wet cobblestones and street patterns.

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Maholy-Nagy’s geometrical forms and unconventional photograms use light, shadow, space, mass and colour creatively, fusing native Hungarian and Bauhaus traditions. 

 

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Similar concerns can be seen in Munkacsi’s Beach

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In his Nude in straw hat, Munkacsi showed how emphasising light and shade and strong graphical design would revolutionise fashion photography.

 

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Capa is best known for his iconic image from the Spanish Civil War, but we see how his style of war photography developed to become less formal, more humanist,  but the more powerful for it.  Second World War images of American pilots or civilians drinking tea show this, while  Woman who had a child with german soldier is quite chilling.

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We must finish with Kertesz, the oldest of the five and perhaps the most Hungarian rooted. The cropping of Elizabeth and I reveals so much by hiding so much. But it must be the stunning graphics of Landing Pigeon, Lost Cloud and Washington Square that best illustrate the native tradition of which he was an early pupil. 

 

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Whether these creative elements survived the dead hand period of Socialist Realism and beyond in Hungary is debatable.  The more recent images remain immensely powerful, but if there is a Hungarian School, it must rest in the work of the big five.

 

 


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