LONDON (Reuters) - Robert Capa once said “It’s not enough to have talent, you also have to be Hungarian,” and a new London exhibition on five leading figures of the medium shows that he was only partly joking.
“Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century” at the Royal Academy focuses on Capa, Brassai, Andre Kertesz, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkacsi, who were all born in Hungary.
All, apart from Capa, were born in the 1890s, all were Jewish though not strictly religious and all changed their birth names — indicative of the anti-Semitism they experienced at varying stages of their lives.
Yet they were not part of a “Hungarian school” despite these connections, and the exhibition, which runs from June 30-October 20, throws up as many contrasts and comparisons as it does similarities through more than 200 images.
It opens with a room featuring photography in Hungary itself from around 1914, including many rural scenes, often idealized in the “Magyar” style, by photographers including Rudolf Balogh.
Included is the earliest surviving picture by Kertesz, the 1912 “Boy Sleeping.”
The show then moves on to World War One, triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
Brassai, Kertesz and Moholy-Nagy were all called up to fight, but only Kertesz took war photographs although he was still only an amateur.
His “Latrine,” dated 1915, shows a row of four soldiers sitting on a rudimentary lavatory without the privacy of a screen, and Balogh’s “Soldier’s Grave,” taken in Serbia in 1914, depicts a bearded man staring at a wooden cross.
Hungary lost nearly three quarters of its territory and two thirds of its population in the re-drawing of the political map following the war, and thousands of intellectuals, many of them Jewish, fled abroad.
The exodus of the featured photographers helped explain why they went on to become such major influences on renowned Western practitioners.
That influence was underlined by Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered by many to be the father of modern photo-journalism, who said it was Munkacsi who inspired him more than anyone.
Upon seeing his 1930 photograph of three African boys playing in the water, he remarked:
“It is that very photograph which was for me the spark that set fire to the fireworks ... and made me suddenly realize that photography could reach eternity through the moment.”
Moholy-Nagy went to Germany in 1920 and became an influence on the Bauhaus movement, and Munkacsi arrived in Berlin in 1928 where he worked for the mass circulation “Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung.”
Kertesz moved to Paris in 1925 a year after Brassai and they immediately made an impact, becoming friends with famous artists and taking pictures of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.
All but Brassai went further west to the United States, although Capa also covered the Spanish civil war which broke out in 1936 and took the seminal image “Death of a Loyalist Militiaman” which is featured in the show.
The dramatic photograph of a Republican fighter taken apparently at the moment he was shot dead has been argued over for decades, with experts declaring it both a genuine snapshot of death on the battlefield and a posed fake.
One suggestion offered by the Royal Academy was that Capa, believing there was no danger, had asked the fighter to run down a hill for a photograph when he was picked off by a sniper’s bullet.
Capa went on to become one of the world’s most revered war photographers, with famous images that include a blurred picture of U.S. forces landing on the beaches of Normandy in 1944.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White