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Pictures from a revolution: Hungarian photography

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