The Language of the Lens

Jews have played a central part in the history of Hungary. Before the First World War, five per cent of the country’s population was Jewish, and between a quarter and half of university students were Jewish. More than 300 Jewish families were ennobled for their contributions to national life.

For one of the smallest nations in Central/Eastern Europe, Hungary has also produced a surprisingly large number of internationally celebrated photographers. As far back as 1931, the British journal Modern Photography published a list of “The World’s Hundred Best Photographers”; no less than eight of the names were Hungarian, more than from any other country, of which three were Jewish: André Kertész (born Andor Kohn), László Moholy-Nagy (born László Weisz) and Martin Munkácsi (born Márton Mermelstein).

Eighty-five years later, these three names are still among the most famous twentieth-century photographers, and two more Hungarians were later added to the pantheon: Brassaï (born Gyula Halász) and the great war photographer Robert Capa (born Ernő Friedmann). All made their international reputations after leaving Hungary in the 1920s and 1930s, when antisemitism had become rife in the country; all of them changed their names to disguise their Jewish origins.

Many explanations have been put forward for the number of Hungarian Jews who took up photography as a career. An eminent Hungarian Jewish immigrant to England, Andor Kraszna-Krausz (founder of the immensely successful Focal Press), once told me that it was traditional in pre-Second World War Hungary for boys to be given a camera in their early teens as a birthday present. This happened to Lucien Aigner (born Nové Zámkyl), Károly Escher, Rudolf Balogh and Zoltán Berekméri, among others. I venture to suggest that this happened not on their birthdays, but at their Bar Mitzvah celebrations.

Another possible explanation is that the Hungarian language has very little in common with any other. Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell (born Kornel Friedmann), was partly “driven towards photography” because he was “born in Hungary, a small country where a language is spoken which no one else in the world understands”. Robert Capa once said he became a photographer because it was “the nearest thing to photojournalism for anyone who found himself without a language”. It surely makes sense that Hungarians sought non-verbal ways to communicate when living abroad. Over the years, many Hungarian musicians have also made hugely successful careers throughout the world.

The Jewish Hungarian immigrant to England, George Mikes, once wrote: “Historians are preoccupied with the reverberations of centuries; photographers preserve the great moment for us.” So it is hardly surprising that it is photographs that bring us closest to the some of the tragic events of the twentieth century, and to the tragic drama of the devastating Revolution fortnight in 1956. Though three of the five world photography stars were still alive at the time, none of them photographed it.

The man who is perhaps the best-known Hungarian photographer outside his homeland today, Péter Korniss (whose father was Jewish), had not yet taken up photography at the time. But his life, like that of so many, was profoundly changed by the Revolution. Aged 19, he was in 1956 a first-year student reading law and philosophy at Budapest University of Law. Invited to join the student Revolutionary Committee, he attended just one meeting but that was enough to get him expelled when the Revolution was crushed. Two years later, he found work at the Budapest Photographic Cooperative, which led to the career that made him the internationally-famous figure he is today.

Nineteen is, of course, by no means too young to know how to use a camera. The youngest photographer represented in these pages, László Haris, was a mere 13 years old at the time of the Revolution, but already convinced that he wanted to be a photographer. So frightening was the political situation in late 1956 that he determined not to keep his photographs of the Revolution, burning all his prints and negatives. Only forty years later did he discover that he had failed to destroy two prints and, a decade later still, he was approached at the opening of one of his exhibitions by someone who had known him at university and who had kept fifteen enlargements of those powerful pictures. Of these, Haris has said: “It’s a fact I was technically lacking back then. But there are four or five of the 15 pictures I wouldn’t do differently. I am particularly proud of the one taken in Kisfaludy Street.”

One Jew who did witness the Revolution and took dramatic photographs of it, was Erich Lessing. Austrian rather than Hungarian, Lessing was born in Vienna in 1923, five years after the Austro–Hungarian Empire collapsed as a result of the First World War and Hungary declared itself a democratic republic. Lessing is still alive in Vienna, aged 93. He emigrated to Israel (at the time British Palestine) in 1939, when Hitler occupied Austria, and, after trying various other occupations, took up his childhood hobby of photography to become a professional. Back in Austria in 1947, Lessing worked for Associated Press and became a member of the prestigious Magnum Photos—one of whose five founding members was Robert Capa. His work can be seen in many of the news magazines of the time, including LIFE, Picture Post and Paris Match. His coverage of the 1956 Revolution earned him the American Art Editors Award and—36 years after the event—Hungary gave him an award named after Imry Nagy, who became the leader of the Revolution.


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