Visiting Mai Manó House in central Budapest, also known as the Hungarian House of Photography, is a must for anyone curious about the history of photography. Or, indeed, in the mood for a somewhat surreal experience.
We visited on a bitterly cold but gloriously sunny day in January. Perfect conditions in which to view the house, it turned out.
The eight-story Mai Manó House was built for Imperial and Royal Court Photographer Mai Manó (1855-1917) in the years 1893-94. Unlike Hungarian photographers such as László Moholy-Nagy, Brassaï, and André Kertész (all featured in this column in the last issue), Mai Manó appears to have been neither avant-garde nor interested in chronicling lowlife. Unless he had a secret photographic life that we don’t know about, that is.
A specialist in child portrait photography, and the founder and editor of a periodical launched in 1906 called A Fény (The Light), Mai Manó was determined to give a certain gravitas to what was then far from being regarded as an art form. Façade paintings on the third floor of the house show the “six muses of photography” and the frescoes in the sunlight-studio are clearly intended to conjure up associations with the Renaissance.
Painted to serve as backdrops to the photographs, the frescoes were apparently discovered hiding behind white wallpaper and had been covered for decades. Thank the gods of photography they weren’t painted over.
When we stepped into the sunlight-studio, it immediately became clear why it is so-called. On the day we visited, the room was flooded with light, which, along with the charming frescoes and ancient cameras, added to the sense we were stepping into a magical inner sanctum.
Mai Manó passed away in 1917 but his purpose-built studio remained in use until 1931. After this it became the Arizona bar – which may well be the most inappropriately American-themed bar name I’ve ever heard. The Arizona closed in 1944, and the house was divided into offices and apartments, although its essential character was thankfully preserved.
The building was declared a national heritage site in 1996, and two years later became the Hungarian House of Photography. Renovation, sponsored by the state and managed by Szántó and Mikó Architects is still ongoing, but is apparently close to being completed.
This makes it feel like you’re wandering through a work in progress, another reason why a visit to Mai Manó House is oddly satisfying.
Hanging on the walls of the tiny bookshop at Mai Manó House is a selection of photographs by contemporary Hungarian photojournalist László Végh, called “In the shadow of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict”. Perhaps because I still had one foot in the past, I was mightily struck by the power of Végh’s photos. This, in turn, led me to wonder about the contemporary Hungarian photography scene.
I started with Hungarian photographer Tomas Opitz who, together with Bea Puskás, runs the TOBE Gallery in Budapest. The gallery opened in 2013, aiming to show Hungarian and Ibero-American artists who combine experimentation with a dedication to high quality artistic expression and produce collectable work.
I asked Opitz if he thought Hungarian photography had a special character. “Yes,” he said. “It’s to do with the joy of discovering the world, a pleasure in experimenting and love of interaction. This was actually developed by Hungarians overseas like Capa, Brassaï, Kertész and Moholy-Nagy. Within Hungary, that spirit was kind of forgotten for years.”
How would he describe Hungarian contemporary photography? “It’s a field that’s growing,” he told me. “There are plenty of photographers doing interesting work. But the scene needs more networking space. It would also be good if there were stronger ties between Hungarian and foreign photographers and galleries.”
What other challenges do Hungarian photographers face, apart from being better known abroad? “It isn’t enough that the profession – the szakma – knows about Hungarian contemporary photographers. We need to be known by the Hungarian people, and in their homes. Galleries like ours are a great way to bring people into contact with contemporary photography, without the sometimes intimidating rigor of the museum. We’re working to create a space where the photography becomes part of you.”
And what of the future of Hungarian photography? “It’s clear to those of us that travel abroad that there’s big interest in Hungarian photography. Building a more close-knit community here comes down to how much we want it to happen. Investors with deep pockets who really believe in Hungarian photography would obviously also help.”
Like Opitz, Hungarian photographer Szilvia Mucsy is also very much concerned with the future of photography in this country.
Mucsy is one of the driving forces behind the Budapest Photo Festival, taking place between February 23 and April 30. She’s an award-winning photographer and exhibiting artist based in Budapest. Her work has been shown solo and in groups in Athens, New York, Rome and other artistic centers worldwide as well as in Hungary. She also teaches photography and is chair of the RANDOM Association of Contemporary Photographers.
The Budapest Photo Festival is the first of its kind in Hungary. It was created by Mucsy and her art-historian/curator friend Rita Somosi. Renowned photo-historian Klára Szarka is now also part of the team. The festival, which involves the largest galleries, museums and international cultural institutions in Budapest will be “an annual city-wide exhibition series representing the classical and contemporary values of Hungarian and international photography.” It has the patronage of the deputy mayor of Budapest and is part of the Photo European Network (PHEN).
Over two months there will be almost 30 exhibitions, starting with “Suffering from Light”, a show of work by MAGNUM photographer Alex Webb at the Kunstahale (Műcsarnok). The festival program also includes lectures, workshops, educational events, a portfolio review and something intriguing called a photo marathon.
For Mucsy, the Budapest Photo Festival is an opportunity to honor and showcase the unique Hungarian sense of “creativity, courage and ingenuity of our country’s photographers. We have produced so many pioneers who experimented with light and composition to reveal profound truths about the artist and their environment. Today our mission is to help contemporary Hungarian photographers promote themselves, exhibit and gain access to scholarships. But most of all we want to make the art of photography more accessible to the public.”
Let’s hope this happens. Because Hungarian photography has a unique and inspiring heritage, both for photographers and the people who appreciate their work. The excellent work being done by so many contemporary Hungarian photographers deserves to be far more widely known.
You can find out more about Mai Manó House at www.maimano.hu.
Details of the Budapest Photo Festival are at www.budapestphotofestival.hu
The TOBE Gallery is open to the public between 2 and 6 p.m., Tuesday to Friday or by appointment – go to www.tobegallery.hu
Photographers worth checking out
I’m grateful to Tomas Opitz for this short list of contemporary Hungarian photographers doing interesting work.
Anikó Robitz – http://anikorobitz.photo
Szilvia Bolla – http://szilviabolla.tumblr.com
Ákos Major – www.akosmajor.com
Gáspár Riskó – www.gasparrisko.com
Gábor Arion Kudász – www.arionkudasz.com
Lilla Scász – www.szaszlilla.hu
László Végh – www.laszlovegh.com
Ádám Magyar – www.magyaradam.com
Márton Perlaki – www.martonperlaki.com
Péter Puklus – www.peterpuklus.com