Pictures and Pixels - Photographic Art and Beyond
National Salon 2016

Klára Szarka

Unnecessary lists

While aesthetes, art-philosophers and museologists speak of the post-photographic era, a mindful photographer stubbornly points the lens towards the subject, so that the information gathered via the light sensor turns into a digital signal, into a picture, in accordance with their artistic intent. They then reveal the spectacle, transposed using image editing software, to an audience that is as hungry as ever for (photographic) images. Behold the relationship between pictures and pixels nowadays.

One of the most popular photo sharing sites has only been around for five years, but twenty billion photos have already been uploaded to it. The image of the exploded towers of the Kodak factory, synonymous with the photographic industry, the destruction of an industry that made photography accessible to the masses, makes no impression on today's photographing masses, the hundreds-of-million-strong community of photo sharing and social networking forums. They feel this has nothing to do with them. Photo historians are kept awake at night by the fear that the photographic imprint of the new millennium will suddenly be lost in the clouds.

The dilemmas thrown up by the situation may not be resolvable, but they can be exposed in the context of a largescale collective exhibition. The transformation of Hungarian photography, so fastidiously proud of its past, its integration with international trends or its introversion, as the case may be, can be reflected in the mirror of works created in the past decade or so. This could be the mission of the National Salon in 2016, not the writing of a new canon. Not least because writing a canon – if at all necessary – should only be tackled after a comprehensive and all-encompassing review. And it is impossible to present, in a single exhibition, everyone and everything who, or which, is believed or merely suspected to have produced work of relevance to contemporary photographic art. We have tried to show the most diverse palette of colours, but even despite our best efforts a few shades have been left out. Nevertheless we believe that this review of several hundred of the latest – or at least, nearly the latest – photography and multimedia works could be a source of inspiration for artists, audiences and researchers alike.

We only sought exhibits that were created in the past decade, but certainly in the 21st century. We did not set out to recycle the exhibitions and albums of past years, but to give space to creations that have not yet been put on display. While the Pictures and Pixels exhibition may not show perfect consistency 22 » « 23 – an impossible undertaking where a hundred and fifty artists are involved – we did try to do more than just place the various genres, styles and motivations side-by-side.

Of course, everyone will have their own take on the list of artists: everyone here counts, but those who didn't make it onto the list count too. We've got used to the fact that artists are constantly being listed and relisted on the basis of political intentions – both of those in power and of the opposition – existential interests, personal ambitions, group interests and passing trends. But by its very nature the photographic image has always existed in a state of constant change and polarisation, from the first daguerreotypes to the intangible accumulations of pixels being shared on the world wide web.

Canons come and canons go

The almost two hundred-year history of photography since 1839 has unfolded amid varying stylistic trends, technological advances and radical changes. These changes were generated by the interplay between the two poles of the photographic approach, while the constant transformations had a reciprocal effect on the polarisation.

One of the poles can be briefly summed up as a documentary approach, reporting on reality, where the photographer is interested in the extant reality, and uses his or her equipment to immortalise this in an image. When the medium emerged, it was self-evident that the main endeavour of those who used it would be documentation.

At the other pole, this new technical means of imagemaking puts self-expression before everything else. Here, the motivation is not to capture the reality that has come before the light-sensitive material. Fox Talbot, in his book The Pencil of Nature, published in six instalments from 1844 onwards – the first work of specialist literature on photography – devotes a separate section to the artistic possibilities of photography, in addition to the chapters on the opportunities for documentation. Given the nature of photography as a means of depicting reality in exacting and minute detail, his advice was to seek artistic opportunities in the form of unusual ways of depicting reality. He believed that the nascent photographic art form would fit in well with the Dutch school of painting, taking as its subject "scenes of daily and familiar occurrence". So in sense, he intended to meld the two poles.

Photography existed in peaceful unity until the end of the 19th century. The artists drifted casually back and forth between the two poles. They didn't talk much about self-expression and art, but craftsmanship, a certain aesthetic endeavour, was very much in evidence. To see this we need only take a look at the photographs who declaredly took on a documenting role in the second half of the 19th century: evidence of this can be found in the work of Francis Frith or John Thomson, György Klösz or Timothy O’Sullivan, Nadar or Ferenc Veress.

The end of the 19th century – somewhat similar to the present day – saw the emergence of masses of amateur photographers, who instantly multiplied the number of pictures taken. In line with the business aims of the photo industry and the spirit of the age, people boldly and obliviously snapped up photographic devices. "You press the button, we do the rest" went the Kodak company's slogan, virtually everywhere in the world, at the end of the 19th century. What had become of the peaceful unity that photography had enjoyed when only the discerning elite had the means of taking photos? It was precisely at this time that the emergence of the first conscious photographic art movement, the Pictorialists, brought about a marked change, a stark polarisation. For these artists the camera and reality merely provided the raw materials for their works of "self expression", which were created using complicated and unique technologies, and which differed starkly, in both their appearance and limited production runs, from the average photographs that were being produced increasingly en masse. The first canons were written by the artists and ideologues of one hundred years ago, bringing order to the increasingly broad and confused medium of photography. It seemed that, in contrast to everybody else, the few who were armed with individuality, craftsmanship, and technical and aesthetic knowledge, were producing valuable and/or artistic creations.

At the beginning of the century the avant-garde opened up a new horizon for technical imaging media (photography and film), and also began to explore the medial issues. It became obvious that photography is an exciting tool for artistic approaches that are not photographically motivated. The lessons and experience gained have an influence to this day, but this was not what dominated the canons of the past century. The brutal political processes of the 20th century, technological and scientific changes and many other factors besides, led to another reversal of the poles of photography. The birth of the press photograph, the impact of magazines capable of reaching millions, the elemental interest in tragic or apparently hopeful historical events with an impact on hundreds of millions, brought the other pole – the documentary, reporting approach, with the aim of describing reality, to the fore. And with the experiences that this brought, by the 1930s a unique and autonomous set of tools for photographic image-making appeared to be taking shape. The photo-like photograph gained validity and value. A new canon that was diametrically opposed to the school of Pictorialism started to be written by what is now regarded as the classic generation of the last century: André Kertész, Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson or, on the front line, Robert Capa. For most photographers, for decades, it was obvious what had value. And perhaps this could even be seen as photographic art. The mainstream artistic and museological community, however, for the most part resisted any aesthetic evaluation (appreciation) of "reporting pictures".

The poles started to reverse again at the turn of the last century. The press, in its original form, collapsed in on itself, burying the traditional forms of press photography. The 20th-century photographic photo was deemed an anachronism, representing the bygone analogue era. So Capa and his associates took up their places on the walls of the great museums, and even in of art galleries, as the relics of a past that is alien to the present, post-photographic age. Today's canon-writers have turned their attention the visual arts, for which the new technical media and the complex intermedial use of such tools is self-evident, and to the art trade, which by its nature tries simultaneously to probe and influence success, and demand among collectors, in terms that can be monetised or precisely measured. The press photo and documentation compete for the "consolation prize" with the deluge of digital amateur pictures. The "photographic" photo described in the canon in the last century, meanwhile, is forced to define itself in the face of the torrent of images – generally far more discerning than those of the last century – produced by the burgeoning ranks of amateur "photo artists" on the internet.


A good picture? That's not enough

It's getting easier and easier to take a "good picture" as defined in the last century. The classic examples can quickly be found on the internet, and with the millions of modern mobile handsets we can successfully hunt for the latter-day equivalents of André Kertész's broken benches and grotesque dancing girls. And even if something still goes wrong when making the exposure, clever software can fix it. The platform offered by the net makes everything and everybody equal. Websites, blogs and photo sharing sites essentially present the great artists of our age in same way as they do the tireless dilettante, the amateur with a good eye, or the hobbyists who are just clicking away for themselves and their friends.

The digital revolution sealed the fate of the already sinking photographic infrastructure of the last century, which has since disappeared without a trace: the small-town photographic studios, the Forte factory (originally the Kodak factory in Hungary) and the Hungarian Optical Works, cultural engineers and experts, hundreds of amateur clubs, learned masters and humble students, illustrated newspapers with print runs in the millions, dark-room tricks, amazing feats of photography using East German equipment, photo-reports about life, human interest stories, etc. But it seems that the successors do not miss this vanished world in the slightest. The past only has a role as a curiosity, an object of nostalgia or retro chic. In the past decade and a half a highly educated generation has come to dominate, armed with an international outlook and social networks, that hardly has anything to do with what are today regarded as the classic Hungarian photographic traditions. It's by no means unusual for many of them to live and work abroad for longer or shorter periods of time. Sometimes it's not even easy to decide who's Hungarian and who isn't. It seems that their work is also leaving its stamp on the image of this collective exhibition – naturally alongside the active older artists, and the promising young ones at the start of their careers.

Photo galleries, and the public and private collections that take an academic interest in photography, also have a substantial impact. The proper collecting, archiving and conserving of the photographs, and their handling as artworks, has come to be expected (even if it is not always feasible). Similarly, the appropriate presentation of historical and contemporary photography in the most important Hungarian galleries and museums has also become the norm.

Large photo exhibitions and photography salons held in the Műcsarnok in the past served as a kind of conquest, the settling of a score for photography, which in Hungary was by no means regarded as fully-fledged art form. The present National Salon, with more than a hundred Hungarian artists from at home and abroad, no longer struggles much with such "complexes". It is symptomatic, however, that on this occasion the photograph and media art have been grouped into a shared space. Time will tell just how warranted this was.

Diversity and consciousness

We wrote that the end of the last century saw another reversal of the poles, and the art of documentation, the "photographic" photo, lost its magic and, many believe, its credibility. It's interesting to note that some of today's photographers seem to be stubbornly perpetuating this past that apparently cannot be laid to rest. For them the digital, internet-based and virtual foundations are simply a given, but their thinking about pictures remains essentially unchanged, while others take the opposite view of the present reality.

The works arriving for the National Salon centre on five main themes: The place where; Facing; Body Image; Viewpoint; Magic. These are valid in respect of both the aforementioned two poles, and also reveal what has not been discussed until now, despite being self-evident. The changes in the approach to photography could be tracked fairly precisely in the almost two hundred years that have passed, as we have already described; but these trends were never purely unidirectional. Often the most important oeuvres of many photographers were produced in spite of, and contrary to the polarisation, barely acknowledging it. Indeed, often the most exciting works were made, and continue to be made, precisely in the "middle ground" between the poles. From one perspective André Kertész appears to be an irredeemable documenter, but from another a sovereign proponent of selfexpression.

This mixture, relativity, attraction and repulsion also seems to be valid with respect to the greater part of contemporary Hungarian photography. There are few easily labelled artists, and a more thorough analysis can also reveal relativity and reciprocity in the gestures of creators who had appeared quite unambiguous at first glance. A good many works could be simultaneously presented in several of the thematic categories at once if this were possible. It is also revealing that we placed the majority of works into the The place where category. These pictures mainly depict The place where we live, where the changing natural and manmade environment, the social constellations that frame our living space, our civilisation and cultural circumstances are realised. In other words, they document reality in its broadest sense. Their genre and style, however, is usually far removed from the documentary, reporting school of the 20th century. They are far more dispassionate and aloof, contemplating, but barely qualifying the facts. Here every artist endeavours to narrow their theme and pare down their style, avoiding the classic visual narrative.

Facing also does not encompass the traditional portrait. Rather, these portraits, self-portraits and group photos give visual reflections of social phenomena, the fundamental questions of self-identity and the philosophy of life. That is to say, they often form a bridge to The place where.

Body Image is closely linked to the works in Facing section, but it addresses the problems of identity, life and death, or sexuality, in a more specifically and, by its nature, more sensuous way.

The approaches taken by the artists in the Viewpoint section are truly diverse. A good many of the works in this category are gravitate towards the pole of self-expression. Others among them, however, go against the traditional polarisation. It seems that where these works are concerned, the unique, abstract and literal viewpoint is just as important as the extant one from which the artist creates a visual view, the picture. The digital revolution has generated a flurry of historicising experimentation, and many believe they have found their viewpoint here. Contemporary artists use virtually every obsolete process and raw material they can find, mixing the latest technologies with the old processes. The perpetuation of "classic" experimentation can also be observed. Creators of pictures with scanners, artists who draw and paint onto the pictures by hand or with a computer, technical modifications to the picture, extreme macro or wideangle (panoramic) shots can also be found.

A good many of the pictures in the Magic section owe their existence to the rich opportunities afforded by computer software. But photos that aim to depict the non-existent are by no means a new phenomenon: in fact, these efforts are almost as old as photography itself. At the turn of the millennium some thought that the opportunities in this area would be infinite. A pixel-generated new visual world would be born, the age of a new kind of creativity would dawn. Now we know that the real "Magic" only works when it is close enough to our own reality, to our thoughts and feelings, for us to experience it. And although virtually anything is possible with computers, the artists still don't push themselves out into the irrelevant realms of the unknown. On the other hand, older "tricks" are also capable of working their magic on us, just as they did on viewers fifty or a hundred years ago.

What seems to be perhaps the most important general aim – and this is true of almost every exhibitor's works – is the desire to achieve a profound state of consciousness. It seems that only concentrated, streamlined, consistent and very deliberate creative methods make it possible to get away and stand out from the "rival" masses of pictures burgeoning on the internet. This is why a project-based approach has become so important and ubiquitous: the artists – often in conjunction with their curators, or "supervisors" – come up with some kind of precisely describable, and usually literally described, project and plan. Their pictures are phases in the implementation of these plans. And this provides a broad, but nevertheless definable space for the creative process and for interpretation. By narrowing, it concentrates. And it leave neither the host, nor the art lover, the museologist or the prospective buyer on their own when it comes to the question of interpretation.