Towards A New Hungarian Photography

For a small, landlocked European country with no shared language, Hungary's role in the history of photography is disproportionate. Without the contributions of André Kertész (born Kertész Andor), Brassaï (Gyula Halász), László Moholy-Nagy, and Robert Capa (Endre Friedmann), the world of photography today would be very different – without even mentioning the contributions of the lesser-known Martin Munkácsi (Márton Mermelstein), Robert's brother Cornell (Kornél Friedmann), Lucien Hervé (László Elkán), or György Kepes.
Many of these artists turned their backs on their native country to live and work in the diaspora. Brassaï became famous for his photographs of Paris at night, while Robert Capa is widely seen as the prototype of the dashing male photojournalist working in the world's hot spots.
It is important to be aware of one's tradition. But tradition can also be an anchor that holds you in place, preventing progress. Decades under direct and indirect Soviet rule contributed much to Hungary becoming a photographic backwater until the fall of the Iron Curtain. Then, the symbolic fence cutting by the Austrian and Hungarian foreign ministers provided some of the most inspiring visuals of a new era (contrast this with the recent erection of new border fences in Hungary). But it is less the larger political situation in Europe that contributed to the country's rebirth as a vibrant location for photography than the emergence of a single school, the Photography Department at Budapest's Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (in Hungarian Moholy-Nagy Művészeti Egyetem, short MOME).
In 2018, the department celebrates its 33rd anniversary, the occasion of which demands a look back. Yet quietly but steadily a new strand of photography emerged that is Hungarian in origin but mainly contemporary in essence.
Marrying its uniquely Hungarian cultural (and of course photographic) tradition with larger trends observed in and imported from countries abroad, MOME's photography department has produced an impressive number of skilled and talented artists, many of whom have already made their marks outside of their home country.
Founded in the academic year of 1984-1985, the department has so far had four Heads, Gábor Kopek, Tibor Miltényi, Ábel Szalontai, and Gábor Máté. Each of them brought their own distinct personality and ideas to the table, with Kopek's task being the most daunting: how to get a new department off the ground and localize it in the larger world of photography? What should be its overall aim? Should there be a focus?
As I already noted, a few years after its founding the Iron Curtain was dismantled, transforming the country's society and opening it up to Western European ideas. To what extent this vast transformation has been a success or not is less interesting to me than the fact it happened at all. For this writer, born in West Germany, 1989 and the following years were a rupture only to a relatively small degree. I find it difficult to imagine having been born roughly 200km further east and having to readjust my life to new realities.
These new realities arrived during the department's relative infancy, and it's important to keep this in mind. But of course, now, near the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, a generation of photographers has emerged who are largely oblivious to the upheaval, either because they lived through it only as children or because they were born afterward. What did not change was Hungary's overall role as that relatively small country with its own unique language, even now as a member of the European Union.
While originally heavy on a classical documentary approach, the department has now embraced a much larger variety of photography, a fact easily apparent from the variety of its graduates' work. “I believed in the necessity of academic education,” says Gábor Kopek about the beginnings, “but my emphasis was on creating new publicity for the medium and initiating an intellectual workshop. […] By founding and defining photography as an independent course, I wanted to elevate it to the same level as fine art, theatre, film, etc.”
For him, the key was and still is “to work on philosophies and not in genres (portrait, commercial, journalism, etc.).” This approach enabled the department to weather photography's transition from analog to digital technologies: “We did not take part in the debate between digital and analog. We have focused on free thinking, interdisciplinary approaches, and quality.”
Gábor Máté stresses Hungarian photographers' critical attitude as a central aspect of both the classics and today's practitioners: “The location and language have not changed too much, so we have the same kind of motivation of understanding and the ability of empathy.” As current head of the department, Máté makes this the central tenet of his ideal of how the department should function. “I try to drive the department to keep this tradition of critical attitude and understanding by making courses with titles about relevant issues,” he says.
An engagement with photography beyond borders is equally important for him: “My goal is to integrate more and more students into our education from abroad. […] I try to push contemporary young Hungarian photographers more into the international scene.” Ábel Szalontai mirrors these sentiments: “The main goal [is] to make our photography program an active member of an international network. Our focus was and has been cooperation and dialog between universities and different professional partners.” And: “I still consider photography to be a way of thinking, not only a practice.” It is this push and pull, this meeting of the uniquely Hungarian with everything offered beyond its borders, that contributes to the department being such a vibrant place and producing such high-quality students.
“MOME is my second home,” head of the master’s program Gábor Arion Kudász states. “I started to work here while still a student 16 years ago. Today I am the second youngest teacher in the department and my career as an artist closely overlaps with my experience as a teacher.” A graduate of the class of 2003, Kudász might sit at that crucial point where the department had already opened up to larger ideas beyond the documentary form, while not having become as established as it is now.
Students eventually becoming teachers in places they studied at is not an uncommon sight in many places. All too often, these students then essentially end up carrying the old torch forward. In MOME's and Kudász case, though, the torch is less a fixed way of doing things than an idea, the idea of pushing photography forward while operating between the two poles of the classics and all those various influences flowing in from abroad.
Whether it's a generational difference I am not qualified to say, but unlike Máté, Kudász is quite a bit bolder concerning ideas around his home country: “Hungary has learned to value being walled off. Even today with internet trends [they] arrive here with a delay, but then with extra strength. I see that the success of a Hungarian photographer can/should only be measured in the global context, and I believe that our cultural dissimilarity is the basis of a unique photographic approach.” But again, these are uniquely Hungarian influences meeting what is offered beyond, resulting in the fact that “MOME has inherited the role to be [a] gateway to enter the international discussion”. This specifically includes using international networks provided by European art universities.
The expression “the proof is in the pudding” might be an abbreviated form that omits the fact that you need to taste the pudding to know whether it's any good or not. Given this, the work of students who graduated from MOME should provide the benchmark for whether or not the ideas laid out by Kopek, Máté, Kudász, and colleagues led to the desired results. With a wide set of activities around photography (presence at international festivals, working with international organizations, etc.) and an embrace of the photobook as one of its important aspects, the department has been putting their money where their mouth is.
As the diverse work presented in these pages demonstrates, it is not just the framework used at the department that is at the forefront of contemporary photography. There are now also many photographers who are willing and able to make a claim that they are as much a part of Hungarian photography as the classics. Predominantly photographed in color, the work by these MOME graduates would not be out of place in any other major European photography school.
Clearly, many of the trends currently visible in contemporary photography have made their mark in Budapest, whether it's in the form of Ildikó Péter's very formal landscapes, Adél Koleszár's diaristic observation of life, or Dávid Biró's studio still lifes that run along the lines of the New Formalism movement (to give just a few examples). Whether or not there is indeed a Hungarian sensibility that is driving the work I couldn't tell. What I can tell, however, is that the idea of a department interconnected with the larger world of photography has been very successful.
Its unique language and history aside, Hungary itself has become a part of a European landscape that increasingly is looking to form its own tradition. There is considerable pushback against this from populists, nationalists, and the far right. But to go back to an idealized time that, in its imagined form, never existed in the first place doesn't offer any solutions. What is true in society at large also plays out in the world of photography.
The photography department at MOME could have decided to emulate the classics, to create clones in their image. But the decision was made not to do that. Instead, an embrace of contemporary photography as practiced everywhere else has put the department on the map as one of the very best photography schools in Europe. I'm convinced that with time – the world of photography is notoriously conservative and slow-moving – Hungarian photography will be known not merely as being the work of those various émigré artists, the classics. Instead, there will be many other names. It's very likely that many (possibly most) of them will be graduates of MOME's department of photography.

Dr. Jörg Colberg

Visiting Assistant Professor
Hartford Art School