February 27: Today a book was delivered. Not new, it exemplifies fine writing on photography.
Zielsverwant (Kindred Spirits): Hungarian Photographers 1914-2003 was published 2004, the catalogue of the exhibition (25 Sept. 2004 – 3 Jan, 2005) that was given the different title Péter Nádas and Hungarian Photography 1912-2003.
That change recognises the role adopted by Péter Nádas (b. 1942), Hungarian novelist short story writer and dramatist as guest curator for this survey show at the Hague Museum of Photography. His brief was to outline the development of modern Hungarian photography from the First World War era to the end of the 1960s; the famous (Robert Capa, Brassaï, André Kertész, Martin Munkacsi and Eva Besnyö), and the lesser-known masters of vintage Hungarian photography. The exhibition was part of the festival of Hungarian culture taking place in the Netherlands under the title Hongarije aan Zee (Hungary by the Sea).
To address the perennial question as to why so many internationally famous photographers were born in Hungary, Nádas adopted a highly personal stance by inserting himself into the story. Before becoming a successful author (e.g. his 1986 A Book of Memories, translated in to English in 1997), he was himself a professional photojournalist working for various magazines.
As guest curator he takes the unusual step in reviewing great vintage Hungarian photographs by interspersing some of his own poetic images from the 1950-1965 period, in particular his magnum opus, an ongoing project to photograph an ancient wild pear tree in the garden of his cottage in the hamlet of Gombosszeg, Hungary (population: 37), perhaps on Petőfi Street, year in year out, in every season and always from the same fixed viewpoint. He features self-portraits, one on the cover with a Linhof Technika from 1960 (below), and another made in 1963 with his Rolleiflex on the title page of this book. That would seem rather controversial, arrogantly self-centred even, in an historical survey. Furthermore, the writing inside is largely autobiographical.
But an extract will explain the value of his approach. Here in a section called ‘The Technique and Philosophy of the Profession’, he shares his experience;
The negative has to be laid on a slanted opaque glass strongly lit from below, then with a soft, needle-sharp pencil it has to be carefully scumbled and toned dark enough to eliminate the optical difference between the lighter and darker tones visible on the face.
The pencil in the hand of a good retoucher will, without scratching the emulsion, wipe out the fine capillaries and fish-bones of the wrinkles, and the blotches of the skin.
Afterwards, the retouching of positive images and enlargements has to be performed by using a narrow brush, dry chinese ink or, alternatively, by a razorblade broken in half diagonally.
At least, this is how we did it when, in the early sixties, I learned photography in a large Budapest workshop. Using the sharp point of the razor we would remove black scratches and areas of deeper tone from the emulsion, then, taking the narrow point of the brush between our lips and dissolving with our saliva traces of retouching ink we would drop tiny dots and lines on the surfaces we had damaged by our previous scratching, and we would remove those differences in tone that couldn’t be completely evened out in retouching the negative.
I worked next to the workshop’s best retoucher, an older woman, who had a number tattooed on the inside of her lower arm and who listened to classical music, set low on her radio, while doing her work. There wasn’t a speck of smudge that she couldn’t remove without a trace, and she had an immense knowledge of the opera. While working next to me and supervising the quality of my work with tender attention she would either explain about some opera or talk about Auschwitz. You couldn’t tell by her tone of voice that she changed the subject.
She could keep quite a distance from everything existing and happening around her.
Once, out of the blue, she made the remark that, except for the arts, nothing in this life or history made any conceivable sense at all.
To my greatest fortune, the master himself was a person of considerable wisdom. He lived in the country and, as a daily testimony of his early morning train rides, he always smelled badly. These dawn workmen trains were infused by the smell of tobacco, firewater, garlic sausage, greasy hair, and unwashed bodies. One day, he gave all of his apprentices the assignment to take portraits of each other and then to retouch their own visage to perfection. I must have spent at least fifteen working hours facing the image of my countenance, and I earnestly applied myself to the task of eliminating its irregularities, its so-called blemishes. My forehead was full of pimples, which left especially conspicuous marks on the negative. I had to work very hard to purge every single one of them. I also softened the stern expression of my mouth, wiped away the parentheses of bitter little furrows. I carved away at the fleshy sides of my nose to give it a more pronounced line; I arranged the arch of my eyebrow, put some glitter in my eyes, and extended my eyelashes.
In the meantime, through Fidelio I came to understand a lot about Beethoven’s unique technique of developing motifs.
Our master had a clear idea of how tenderly one regards oneself, and he obviously wanted to incite us to turn and extend this gentle attention to the faces of others. We all carry a certain idea of ourselves in our head, and we are ready to tell any lies to protect this idea. What would it be like to be perfect? Our master seems to have suggested to us that as retouchers we should go after the possible idea a stranger secretly cherishes of herself or himself.
Of course, looking at the picture today I can see that not one characteristic feature is left on that face of mine; I destroyed them by retouching. Based on my experience as a photographer, however, I hasten to add here that people will never be more satisfied with the photos taken of them than when we manage to rid them of their most characteristic features.
In this passage he conveys technical information about retouching as it was practiced in the 1960s (and as those of us who use or have used film will remember it, monetarily nostalgic, and then thanking heaven for the J key in Photoshop), and the training he received there. Simultaneously he evokes the atmosphere of a working Hungarian photo studio of the period.
A philosophy of art appears in the guise of Fidelio. Himself he portrays as a callow, pimply youth under the wing of his co-workers and in the process contemplates human vanity and the issue of likeness in the portrait and the expectations of the commercial portrait photographer.
Underlying all of this he conveys the depressed economic and social condition of the country in accounting for the bad smell that hung around his boss, and an inkling of its terrible history as we meet it in his most touching description, that of ‘the workshop’s best retoucher’.
I’ve outlined elsewhere Hungary’s fall from a mighty empire in conjunction with Austria to a situation of economic collapse, political upheaval and a decimated population by the end of WW1.
These photographs by Rudolf Balogh (1879–1944) from the exhibition and book are the remains of his portfolio destroyed by bombing in WW2. They convey the stark cruelty of that war for a country with a vulnerable location in eastern Europe, bordered by Slovakia to the north, Ukraine to the northeast, Austria to the northwest, Romania to the east, Serbia to the south, Croatia to the southwest, and Slovenia to the west, jammed between the Russian states and Austro-Germany. As personified in a portrait by Klára Langer (1912–1973) of this battered and yet bravely grimacing boy, the country fared as poorly in WW2 as a member of the Axis before it became a Soviet state, and yet retains its nationalist spirit.
On opening my book purchase I was expecting a historical account, but was pleasantly surprised to discover another kind of writing altogether. It is a beautiful little volume, too tightly bound to enable me photograph the black and white illustrations exquisitely printed in warm duo-tone by the now defunct firm Slinger, Alkmaar (so these scans will have to suffice).
Short biographies of those in the exhibition are included as an appendix: Angelo Funk/Pál (1894–1974), Rudolf Balogh (1979–1944), Nandor Bárány (1899–1977), Eva Besnyö (1910–2003), Brassaï (1889–1994), Robert Capa (1913–1954), Ferenic Csík (1894–1984), Jenö Dulovits (1903–1972), Käroly Escher (1890–1966), Ferenc Haär (1908–1997), Lucien Hervé (1910–2007), Kata Kálmán (1909–1978), Ata Kando (1913–2017), Judit Kárász (1912–1977), André Kertesz (1894–1985), Imre Kinszki (1901–1945), Klára Langer (1912–1973), Lajos Lengyel (1904–1978), Lászlo Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), Martin Munkácsi (1896–1963), Zoltán Nagy (*1943), Jósef Pécsi (1889–1956), Márta Rédner (1909–1991), Marian Reismann (1911–1991), Zsuza Sándor (1923–1969), Kata Sugár (1910–1943), Ernö Vadas (1899–1962), István Vecsényi 1898–1976), and Ivan Vidareny (1887–1982). But the only photographer that Nádas discusses by name is the little-known, but formidable Márta Rédner with whom he worked, assisting her in the darkroom.
Thus, rather than reciting facts and chronology, Nádas expresses feelings about the photographic tradition of his country and to his experiences of it, as a photographer and thinker. While many Hungarian photographers left to work elsewhere; to the Netherlands, France, the United States and elsewhere, the many others who remained behind in Hungary were, wrongly, as this exhibition shows, less well-known in the West.
His strategy in curating the exhibition, reflected in the layout of the book, is to pair images. Thus his own photograph of a farmer’s family finds a place next to refugee family group in a picture by Ata Kandó (right, above); and Nándor Baránay’s Balance of 1936 is juxtaposed with André Kertesz’s (1894–1985) anamorphic Melancholic Tulip, New York of 1939…
…while Eva Besnyö‘s Magda, Lake Balaton, Hungary is set against Martin Munkacsi‘s (1896-1963) famous first fashion photo, an action shot of Lucile Brokaw running, for Harper’s Bazaar, 1933.
Thus does Nadás redress the balance between the fame of those who left for the West and the equivalent achievement, without the recognition, of those who stayed. The distinctively Hungarian quality that he discerns through this process is, in his account, their reference to and reverence of, the European tradition of painting, whether Romantic or Modern as inspiration, ‘at the deepest stratum’. In addition he sees in ‘thematic repetitions’ the
singularly deep attachment of Hungarian photographers to history, or to the critically observed social conditions of the day. Let these photographers be poor or wealthy, left-wing or conservative, illlusionist, realist or constructivist, they cannot avert their gaze from the downtrodden and disadvantaged.
In doing this they show an interest not in the exotic, not in colonising, or in some Chirstian gesturing, but in a highly conscious, direct and sympathetic participation, that is, in a socially committed stance verging on rebellion.
He sees a rugged individualism, but not egotism, in this sensitivity to history, which is evident, he says, even in the most abstract of imagery, the earliest origins of which, in Kertesz or Iván Vydareny (1887-1982), owe much to painting, even for the most brutal subject-matter of Balogh. From this wellspring does Hungarian photography recover exhilaration from disenchantment, and in despair discover ‘a zest for social criticism’.
…to the question ‘Where do you live’, every generation of Hungarian photographers should have a sober answer. You must stare into the greatest darkness. It’s not enough that you distinguish between light and dark, you also have to tell apart the black from the black.