Pictures from a revolution: Hungarian photography

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A new show at the Royal Academy will reveal how a group of Hungarian exiles in Paris changed the face of modern photography. Charlotte Cripps reports

Several burgundy-coloured boxes are wheeled into a grand, 18th-century room at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in Paris. Perhaps the most lavishly decorated photography reference room in the world, it has ornately painted ceilings and the public are not normally admitted.

The boxes open to reveal stacks of thin, pristine, white folders, which contain original photographs. André Kertész's lone puff of white cloud, in "The Lost Cloud, New York" (1937), is juxtaposed with the façade of the Rockefeller Center. It is one of many photographs that the Hungarian-born photographer left to the French nation. In other boxes are prints by the war photographer Robert Capa, who co-founded Magnum Photos with Henri Cartier-Bresson and George Rodger and who once said: "It's not enough to have talent. You also have to be Hungarian."

I stumble across Capa's famous "Death of a Loyalist Militiaman" (1936). Taken, supposedly, on 5 September 1936, it depicts the death of a Republican in the Spanish Civil War. Debate over whether it was staged rages on to this day.

In the early 20th century, Kertész and Capa, Brassaï and Martin Munkácsi – all Hungarian Jews – left their homeland, changed their names and became world-renowned. Joining the ranks of famous artists in Paris, including Picasso and Matisse, they altered the course of photography. It's possible to retrace a segment of their history in Paris through the boxes of photographs in the Bibliothèque.

This summer, these men – and many other Hungarian photographers, including the artist László Moholy-Nagy, a pioneer of abstract photograms – will be the subjects of a show at the Royal Academy, entitled Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century, which will explore the birth of modern photography.

"These are some of the greatest photographs ever taken," says Colin Ford, the curator of the exhibition. "If you don't respond to these you don't respond to photography. As the pioneers of modern photography, they found a new way of looking at the real world, bringing to their pictures elements of abstraction and artistry."

In 1933, the ambitious, 20-year-old Capa arrived in Paris and changed his name from Endre Erno Friedmann – he chose "capa" which means "shark" in Hungarian – in order that he could pretend to be American. In his war photography, he specialised in getting as close as he could to the action, which included the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landings of 1944. His "Collaborator Woman who had a German Soldier's Child", taken in Chartres in 1944, shows a French woman being shown out of town in disgrace. Ford says: "Despite the glee in the German defeat, Capa reacts to the viciousness around her. I think you can see that in the photo."

Kertész moved to Paris in 1925 and, using a hand-held camera, captured lyrical impressions of urban life. He also took photographs of famous artists, including Marc Chagall, who in "Chagall and family" (1939), is seen from overhead, eating at a table. Kertész's quirky "Satiric Dancer" (1926), shows a Hungarian dancer and cabaret performer playfully imitating a white sculpture standing nearby on a plinth. "It shows Kertész's sense of humour and that he was exposed to avant-garde art," says Ford.

It was Kertész who persuaded Brassaï, who went on to define the image of modern Paris, to take up photography. Brassaï's "Bank of the Seine, Paris" (1931), showing lights reflected across the water, is typical of his night photographs. Brassaï is also famous for his portraits, including "In Picasso's Studio, Rue des Grands-Augustins" (1939), in which the artist sits by a stove, and "Matisse with his Model" (1939) which captures Matisse sitting comfortably and sketching a nude. Both images will be in the Royal Academy show.

Munkácsi is best known for having revolutionised fashion photography. Having worked as a sports photographer in Hungary and Germany, he visited New York, where he was commissioned by Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper's Bazaar, to take fashion photos. Munkácsi insisted that a model go to the beach for his shoot, and in doing so he created the first fashion shots of people in motion. "Four Boys at Lake Tanganyika" (1930), which is also in the Royal Academy show, so impressed Cartier-Bresson that the great French photographer said: "It is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to the fireworks. It is only that one photograph which influenced me."

Other Hungarian photographers, such as Károly Escher, Rudolf Balogh and Jószef Pécsi, stayed in Hungary and produced innovatory work. The Royal Academy exhibition presents about two hundred photographs, ranging from 1914 to 1989 and showing both stylistic developments and the long-lasting legacy of Hungarian photography.

Of Escher's famous, floating "Bank Manager at the Baths", which was shot in Budapest in 1938, Ford says: "Escher was on the side of the common man and he is poking fun at the bank manager. Had he left Hungary he would have been as famous as the others."

The show also includes Magyar-style rural images, including Balogh's "Shepherd with his Dogs", taken in Hortobágy around 1930, which shows a shepherd out on the plains, wearing a massive fur coat. László Fejes' "Wedding" (1965), was taken at his brother-in-law's wedding in Budapest. Ford says: "It got him into trouble because there are bullet marks on the building, left after the 1956 revolution. The photograph was circulated around the world because it won a World Press Photo prize and Fejes was banned from publishing photographs for a long time, due to heavy censorship."

Of Ernö Vadas's "Procession", which was taken in Budapest in 1934 and which depicts nuns walking through the city, Ford says: "This overhead angle is something we see in the work of other great Hungarian photographers. It becomes a strong abstract designed shape, although it is of a real scene."

In Paris, the photographs by Capa, Brassaï, Kertész and Munkácsi are slotted carefully back into their boxes and returned to the Bibliothèque's archive. These Hungarian photographers, says Ford, "wore their hearts on their sleeves" and made these pictures for newspapers and magazines. They did not expect their pictures to be seen in art galleries, but "for three quarters of a century, Hungary's brilliant and pioneering photographers helped to shape the medium all over the world."

'Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century', Royal Academy of Arts, London W1J (0844 209 0051; www.royalacademy.org.uk) 30 June to 2 October

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'