Photos of the modern age

What made five Hungarians so influential in 20th-century photography? Could it have been their Jewishness?

By Julia Weiner, July 7, 2011
Kertész's Satiric Dancer, Paris, 1926.

Kertész's Satiric Dancer, Paris, 1926.

This summer the Royal Academy of Arts is doing something it has done only once before in its 243-year history - hold an exhibition devoted solely to photography.

The show, Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the Twentieth Century, brings together the works of five Jewish photographers who profoundly influenced the birth of modern photography.

For such a small country, Hungary has produced a surprisingly high number of internationally known photographers and probably the most famous of them all, Robert Capa, once commented: "It's not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian".

Their global recognition may have been helped by the fact that being Jewish, they were forced to leave their homeland to seek out opportunities abroad. As exhibition curator Colin Ford points out: "They all disguised their Jewish origins partly because after the First World War, Hungary had a government that was anti-Jewish, anti-left wing and anti-intellectual. Until the First World War, Jews in Hungary were very well assimilated. However, when Admiral Miklós Horthy took over as dictator, he introduced the Numerus Clausus, limiting the percentage of Jewish people allowed to attend university to five per cent. This meant that Hungarian Jews often had to leave merely to get a university education."

Another point Ford thinks may be key is how the photographers acquired their first cameras - and again Jewishness was a crucial factor. "I was told by Andor Kraszna-Krausz, the founder of the Focal Press, himself a Hungarian Jew, that he was given a camera when he was 12 and it was quite a standard birthday present for a teenager. I suspect that a camera was a traditional barmitzvah present."

Moholy-Nagy's Photogram, Germany, c. 1925

Moholy-Nagy's Photogram, Germany, c. 1925

So who were the five photographers and what was their major contribution to the history of photography? "The first of the five was Brassaï, who was born Gyula Halász," says Ford. "He settled in Paris, then the centre of the art world. He is best known for his photographs showing Paris at night. Henry Miller, the American author, called him 'the eye of Paris' and based one of his characters on him. Brassaï also photographed the underside of Paris life, the prostitutes, the brothels and the seedy cafes."

Ford's favourite, however, is Kertész, whom he knew well. "For me, he is the greatest of the five. To my mind he is more inventive even than Henri Cartier-Bresson. He used to compose situations that were aesthetically original. There is something special about the intimacy of the photographs that he takes."

Kertész, who was born Andor Kohn in Budapest in 1894, was already an amateur photographer in the First World War and took photographs at the front. "They are extraordinary photographs and photojournalism almost starts there," Ford says. "A newspaper in Budapest ran a competition for serving soldiers to send in photographs taken at the battlefront to win prizes and Kertész's photos were included."

Kertész's family hoped that he would follow them into business but, wanting to be a photographer, he moved to Paris. There he worked with Brassaï, whom he taught to take photographs at night. When Brassaï published his successful collection of these photographs, Kertész was annoyed, according to Ford.

"Kertész had taught Brassaï to take those night pictures, he lent him his camera, and now Brassaï had beaten him to press. Two years later he published his own book, Paris vu par André Kertész. He wasn't interested in the underside of Paris - he liked people, he was quite sentimental, so the pictures always have an emotional content. He saw things out of the corner of his eyes."

Kertész frequented the famous Café du Dome where he got to know many artists, including Picasso and Chagall, many of whom he photographed. His portrait of Chagall is included in the exhibition.

In 1936, Kertész was invited to work in New York for a year and stayed for the rest of his life. "He got stuck there partly because of the war and partly by the fact that his wife set up a business," Ford explains. "Three of these photographers were in New York when the Second World War broke out and they all were classed as enemy aliens, their cameras were confiscated and they were not allowed to take photographs."

After the war, Kertész spent 30 years working for House and Garden magazine but in his spare time he continued to take what Ford describes as "emotional and beautiful sidelong glances at the world".

László Moholy-Nagy is perhaps the most radical of the five. A teacher at the influential Bauhaus School in Germany, he persuaded its founder, Walter Gropius, that photography was a subject that should be taken seriously and taught photography courses there. He then came to England where he lived for three years before moving to Chicago in 1937. He used unconventional perspectives and bold tonal contrasts to produce photographs that tended towards abstraction, and experimented with camera-less images and photomontage.

The least well known of the five is Martin Munkácsi, born Márton Mermelstein. Originally a sports photographer, he moved to Germany where he took a famous photograph of the film director Leni Riefenstahl as well as photographs of Hitler's inner circle, quite an irony for a foreigner and a Jew. When the Nazis nationalised the newspaper he worked for, he left for New York where he revolutionised fashion photography.

"He had never taken a fashion photograph when the editor of Harper's Bazaar asked him to photograph swimwear. He said that he did not want to take it in the studio but on the beach. He could not speak English at all, and had to instruct his model by means of hand gestures. But that photograph changed the whole face of fashion photography. Fashion photography had been pretty girls in pretty clothes in studios with beautifully controlled lighting. He took it out on the street. He turned fashion into photojournalism,' says Ford.

It is the work of Robert Capa, who has been described as "the world's greatest news photographer", that is the most familiar in the show. Born Endre Erno Friedmann, he covered five wars over a period of 18 years until he was killed while working in Indochina. His choice of name came from a childhood nickname - "Capa" is the Hungarian word for "shark".

The exhibition includes one of the photographs he took in Israel in 1948 when documenting the country's independence. James Fox, former chief editor of Magnum Paris says: "Capa took his photographs not for art's sake but for publication. With most of his subjects he was able to maintain a distance but the Israeli work was a subject that was close to his heart. He became more involved with the people."

The exhibition also contains works by some 40 other Hungarian photographers, many of whom are also Jewish. They include Cornell Capa, brother of Robert, himself a noted photojournalist. He worked with Israeli photographer Misha Bar Am taking photographs of the Six Day War in 1967.

Another Jewish photographer with a connection to Robert Capa was his neighbour and friend, Eva Besnyó, whose works are also included.

Having left Hungary, none of these photographers ever returned. As Ford says: "The lifestyle had gone, the synagogues had closed and by the end of the Second World War much of the Jewish population had been exterminated. This comes out in the work of some of them. For Kertész, you can see the difference in his Paris and New York photographs. In Paris he was confident and at home, whereas in New York you sense his alienation and that the European culture that he loved is far away.

"Similarly Munkácsi became ill after the Second World War. He stopped taking photographs and wrote a nostalgic novel about his home in Transylvania. He wanted to go home, but it wasn't even part of Hungary anymore."

'Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century: Brassaï, Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy, Munkácsi' is at the Royal Academy of Arts until October 2.

Last updated: 2:24pm, July 13 2011