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Abstraction in white and black

Visiting is free of charge:
September 27 – January 14, 2024
Capa Center – 8F Gallery
Curator: Gabriella Csizek

Photography can be a refuge, especially in those times when there is nothing to identify with within the limits set by reality, or what you can identify with is miles away from what is desirable and even extremely far from acceptable. Photography is then an opportunity to step out of this external determination, and as a creative process, it is also an opportunity to experience freedom. It is creation.

The life of Dr. János Szász is worthy of attention not only because he was able to turn everything that obstructed his path into a creative force but also because he consistently carried it through, even if, in those days, it did not receive genuine appreciation in the domestic community. And his oeuvre would have deserved attention even at that time. His bold compositions evoke the paintings of László Moholy-Nagy, his pure objectivity reminds us, among others, of the works of Csaba Koncz, and his architectural photographs are reminiscent of Lucien Hervé’s images. His photographs taken on the snow-covered landscapes are companions to those of the Italian Giacomelli and the Czech Koudelka.

His social status within the given system fundamentally determines his life. After graduating from university, being a class-alien, he cannot enter the legal profession, so he works as a decorator and graphic designer, then studies to become a photographer. From 1958, he works as a building photographer for the Pécs Design Company, capturing the planning and construction of the first socialist district of Pécs, Uránváros (“Uranium City”), and the changing city.

In Szász’s imagery, the prefabricated houses under construction, the momentary events of the street, and the vanishing world of vernacular architecture always appear in a tight composition, with a free use of perspective. He shows the world around him as a structure of reality visible to him, whether photographing the curved line of a farmhouse porch wall and its meeting with the firm straightness of the roof or directing his attention to the vines lined up in the snow in an orderly row.

He sees not only in shapes but also in rhythms, giving his images built up from repetitions a pulsating quality. In many self-edited, cropped images made after enlargement, people abstracted into figures appear in the space of a horizontally cut field of view, doing whatever they have to do, lacking any personality. His visual world is also characterized by abstraction, which in his work can be interpreted not only as a degree of abstraction but also as detachedness from the “here and now”.

By eliminating the shades of grey between white and black, he reaches their absolute extremes, making the space they create unreal, in which the figures that appear exist almost only as shadows of themselves. He achieves this by a process of his own, incorporated into the chemical process of enlargement, because not only the taking of the photographs but also the enlargement process is part of his imaging activity. In this sense, his images, to some extent, are born in the darkroom, too.

He is a founding member of the Mecsek Photography Club, founded in 1957, a colleague of Rezső Halász, Miklós Lantos, and Ernő Tillai, and an active participant in the workshop. He regularly submits pictures to competitions abroad and often achieves success. He exhibits at numerous international photography salons from Sao Paulo to New Delhi. From 1958, he publishes in photographic magazines and writes specialist books; from 1962, he teaches at the No. 1. Vocational School in Pécs. In 1966, he launches the National High School Photography Competition.

In addition to capturing the changing cityscape, in 1960, he is also commissioned to capture the disappearing architecture of villages. The result of this work, starting at that time and eventually spanning a decade and a half, is the volume In the Footsteps of Our Rural Architecture (Technical Publishing House, 1976), which has won awards both within and outside the country.

As long as his health allows, he works intensively in the quality and with the method he found at the beginning of his career. When, because of his eyesight deterioration, he can no longer take photographs, he teaches and organizes, and his life is still filled with photography.

After his death, his oeuvre has been cared for by his family, and the eighteen years since then show that they have managed it with care and expertise. Nowadays, his images can be found in both domestic photography collections and in many leading institutions abroad; his photos are sold at auctions abroad (e.g., Sotheby’s London photo auction) and represented by renowned foreign galleries (Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco, and Eric Franck Fine Arts, London); his life-work is covered in both the Hungarian and international press (L’Oeil de la Photographie, Weltkunst, Artmagazin, Fotóművészet,, San Francisco Chronicle, and Wall Street Magazine).

An important step in the presentation of Dr. János Szász’s (1925-2005) photographic oeuvre was the exhibition presented in 2023 at the M21 Gallery of the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter in Pécs (curator: Gabriella Csizek), which included part of the material of the first retrospective show held in 2022 at the Kepes Institute in Eger (curator: Károly Kincses), supplemented with selected works from the family archive. The current exhibition is essentially a selection of the latter, with a particular emphasis on the works from the early period.

Step by step, his work is thus taking its rightful place in the history of Hungarian and international photography. However, a complete elaboration of his oeuvre is still to come.

Gabriella Csizek