The Task of Art…November 29, 2014
As a photographer and photo historian I am both blessed and cursed. I have command of a huge swath of photographic history ranging from the earliest days of the medium to the present. It informs my work with the vast array of images I’ve seen in museums, studios, books, and galleries. I try not to allow it to limit my own creativity.
My interest as an art historian has long been focused (the pun was unintentional but warranted) on photography of the early and middle 20th century, especially modernism. For more years than I can remember, I have been working on a very special project: a survey of Hungarian expatriate photographers who made America their home. It’s never been done in a thorough and systemic fashion and it’s a story that needs to be told.
The legacy of Hungarian photographers in this country is rich and deep. Andre Kertesz, Lazlo Moholy Nagy, Georgy Kepes, Robert Capa, Nikolas Muray, and dozens more, departed their native land between WWI and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, made their way to Berlin and Paris, and, eventually, the United States. Hungary, arguably, is among the very most significant exporters of great photographic talent and a reservoir of artistic genius almost unequaled in the 20th century. I have been doing research and looking at photographs in collections across the country and in Europe. The task of curating this exhibit and writing the catalogue is daunting in only one way: there is so much great photography to be seen and shared.
My readings have included countless biographies and histories. Archival research comes next. My most recent read was a book published under the auspices of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts and their long time, brilliant photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker (who shares ties, like me, with both Rochester, N.Y. and Virginia). It was a set of letters written during a twenty year period by the great Parisian photographer, Brassai. A Hungarian, of course, (Gyula Halász was his real name), he first ventured to America in 1957 and then journeyed here several more times. Sadly, he never called America home so he falls outside the scope of my project, ever so slightly. In these letters to his parents, he writes of his trials and travails as a painter, writer, and then photographer. His first book, in 1931, Paris At Night, is a classic. In one of his letters he wrote something that could be a mantra for my own photography as well as a premise for what I love about art. I’ll close with this quote for you to ponder and enjoy:
“The task of art is not to be real but to express reality…our task is solely to translate [its] essence.”