Eyewitness, Royal Academy, London
If, before visiting this exhibition, you don't have a strong sense of 20th-century Hungarian photography, that is probably because the most important photographers from Hungary were actually positioned across the globe, at the helms of their various practices – fashion, portraiture, documentary, conceptual and photojournalism – in New York, Paris, London and other cities. This instructive exhibition makes the case that the history of photography was shaped to a large degree by practitioners from Hungary, focusing on five key players; and it functions both as an eyewitness history of the 20th century told through images and the tracing of a brave experimental artistic medium. So, whilst László Moholy-Nagy was experimenting with abstract photography at the Bauhaus, Robert Capa was capturing the bloodshed of war. Brassaï was in Picasso's studio or capturing the sleazy nightlife of Paris in the 1930s, whilst Martin Munkácsi was injecting athleticism into the fashion photography at Harper's Bazaar in New York and André Kertész was experimenting with surrealism, narrative and abstraction in his images as he moved around Europe.
It's perhaps Hungary's early embrace of photography that engendered such experimentation: Budapest was home to some of the first publications to print photography stories in the 1920s – a type of reportage that would become photojournalism. It's striking that, as Hungarians became scattered across the globe to escape an increasingly fascistic government, they injected a dazzling amount of drama and movement into their images. Capa's Death of a Loyalist Militiaman (1936), taken during the Spanish Civil War, depicts a man at the point of death, sent flying back by the force of a bullet (the question as to whether Capa staged such imagery takes nothing away from the sheer physical force of the image). Munkácsi's photograph of Nazi poster girl Leni Riefenstahl skiing, wearing only tiny shorts and a vest in the snow as the sun glints off her sweaty, smooth skin is utterly strange, whilst his glorious fashion images of women running and gliding through the landscape were instrumental in creating a type of imagery that we now think of as profoundly all-American. From this vantage point, where we can see how much images create a culture as much as they reflect it, it's possible to see that these photographers were creating history at the very moments that they captured it on film.
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