Known Unknowns – a new horizon of Hungarian contemporary photography

The notion of a horizon, understood both in an environmental, cultural and psychological way, can be approached as a pivotal point in regards to this project. From an environmental point of view, the Hungarian landscape: the lowlands of the Great Plain covers the majority of the country’s territory and draws a ruthlessly omnipresent horizon.
From a cultural perspective, the low horizon became part of the patriotic spectacle and national cultural identity that Hungary forged for itself throughout the last centuries. It has also been a central motif of the landscape paintings that developed from the 19th century onwards in Hungary that the contemporary public relates to easily, with pride and pleasure. In terms of psychology, the horizon represented in these painting is not a simple element of landscape depiction but is loaded with psychological and emotional content, concentrating in itself the condition of the people who contemplate it and evolve in its presence day by day. It is an apparent line that dramatically separates and divides earth from sky and the symbolic realms connected to these two categories. The horizon therefore constitutes a boundary, a landmark that certainly does leave its trace in the culture, psychology, and mentality of its people. Without having the pretension to declare it to be a scientifically proven fact, one can certainly relate this to the notion of environmental psychology: more precisely place identity and associative cultural landscape.
This thin horizontal line that divides but also links in a permeable way different territories and realms constitutes a characteristic trait of the photographic selection presented in this publication. The works revolve around pairs that outline naturally and are more complementary to than opposed to each other, such as conscious and unconscious, reality and fiction, full and empty, presence and absence, present and past, nature and culture, abstract and realistic, as well as humorous and frightening, composed and awkward, reassuring and unsettling, or hopeless and hopeful. None of the works selected in this publication can be strictly categorized, as their first or second level interpretation match to more than one category, and it is generally left to the viewer’s sensitivity to decide which pairs manifest in each work. However, it might be useful at this point to illustrate this idea with a few examples.
The first major group revolves around the hierarchic system “below and above”, in which one of the pairs that delineates most obviously is nature and culture; the works of Gábor Arion Kudász exploring lost natural spaces and landscapes rewritten by human activity, Gergely Szatmári pointing at the challenges of urban life and the relation of people towards their environment, or Sári Zagyvai playing on the transitions between the existing physical world and the computer-based virtual reality. Closely connected to it, reality and fiction appears as another significant duo in this photographic material, with Katalin Kovács’ surrealistic shots of her naked family members at night in their countryside environment, Dávid Biró’s constructed spaces focusing on the correspondence of the photographic medium and perception, as well as Milán Rácmolnár’s study conducted in the artificial environment of the zoo, investigating the impact of Photoshop on human vision. The third pair that also belong to the above can be identified as the conscious and unconscious realms, and manifests, for example, in the portraits of fathers Eszter Herczeg draws through objects, in Alíz Veronika Ács’ photographic exploration of personal, transcendent, spiritual experiences, perceptive and accidental irregularities that can occur in our daily lives, or Marcell Piti’s Inner Landscapes, in which he questions how specific locations shape the identity of an individual.
Another group is concentrated on antithetic feelings such as the reassuring and at the same time unsettling series of Ildi Hermann that confronts the playfulness of childhood with the harsh reality of being a grown-up, Benedek Bognár’s project shedding light on the need we feel to construct our own universe in order to understand a world that sometimes seems alienating and chaotic, or Alida Kovács’ scale shifts which alter our interpretation of a scene and its meaning.
Hopelessness and hopefulness appear intertwined in Andi Gáldi Vinkó’s complicated relationship with her homeland, in Adél Koleszár’s documentation of socially discriminated people in Mexico, who are trying to escape from the brutality of the country by finding faith, or in Viola Fátyol’s initiatory journey through mourning, sorrow, and joy with the help of a close-knit community. The composed versus awkward couple is outlined in the anxieties and clumsiness of becoming a woman depicted by Hanna Rédling, in András Ladocsi’s classical portraits of children whose personality and identity is constantly evolving, or in the group portraits of workers realized by Anna Fabricius, who deliberately sets her models off balance in order to know them better.
The third loose unit, which allows as much formal association as it does symbolic interpretation, gravitates around the ideas of empty and full. A tension between abstract and concrete composition characterizes the practices of Ábel Szalontai and his curiosity for the underlying content, non-obvious meaning, and correspondences and correlations in the world; Enikő Hodosy’s study of scars and bruises of the body, which evoke strange landscapes and become allegories of wounds in the soul; and Péter Puklus’ projects, which despite being centered on personal, intimate subjects, bear universal validity through their symbolic content.
Presence and absence are hidden but essential components of Sári Ember’s photographic homage to her birthplace, São Paolo, as the symbol of fertility and conception. While András Törcsi’s manipulated, distorted reality and places of total alienation build on the stress of facing the wild all alone, Krisztina Szalay explores this thematic duo through both the isolation and attempts of assimilation of the Chinese community in Budapest. In another approach, the collision between present and past manifests in the bizarre encounters of modern urban planning and the ancient Roman architectural heritage discovered by Máté Lakos, in Antal Bánhegyesy’s investigation of how irrationally Romanian citizens relate to the broken past of the Ceausescu era, as well as in Sára Timár’s retrospective of Hungarian culture houses and how these institutions became a bizarre juxtaposition of modern-day consumerist entertainment and faded attributes of cultural-political authority that once controlled the arts life.
To be a Hungarian contemporary photographer is certainly a challenging enterprise, knowing the burden of its world-famous tradition. To write about Hungarian contemporary photography is also an ambitious task, considering the international literature it has so far generated and the countless directions it is taking right now. The purpose of this project is therefore multiple: first, to look back at the last 33 years of the photography department at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design Budapest and acknowledge the work that has been accomplished there for three fertile decades is crucial. Second, to highlight an institutional direction that has given birth to what Hungarian art professionals informally mention as the “MOME style” is also essential. And third, but maybe primarily, it is our obligation and responsibility to shine a new light on the generations of photographers that came out of the institution that allows expectations shaped by the overwhelming tradition of Hungarian photography to open up to a fresh visual language and contemporary approaches.
The THIRTYTHREE project features the work of 46 Hungarian photographers born from different generations of MOME University students, 46 positions selected on the basis of their outstanding visual impact, complex narrative and associative potentials, and multi-layered visual language recognizable among many. From report or socio-photographic characteristics to atmospheres of fashion shoots and references to classical landscape, still life, or architecture photography, the works that compose this publication reveal a variety of sensitivities that all spring from the same root and that altogether open up a new horizon in Hungarian contemporary photography.

Róna Kopeczky

acb Gallery