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“I became preoccupied with the collection, and not my own images”

Interview with Sándor Kardos, founder of the Horus Archives

by Róza Tekla Szilágyi and Szabolcs Barakonyi

Kardos Sándor is a a Hungarian cinematographer, film director, photographer born in 1944. Kardos graduated in 1969 from Eötvös Loránd University with a degree in Hungarian and People’s Education, and in 1973 from the College of Theatre and Film Arts as cinematographer. Between 1972 and 1979, he worked at the Mafilm studio as assistant camera, and from 1979 as cameraman; later, he was cinematographer and director at the Hungarian state television.

After directing several feature films, documentaries, and TV shows, he became the cinematographer of A kis Valentinó (Little Valentino). Made with director András Jeles, the film is considered outstanding in Hungarian cinema for its overwhelming atmosphere and stark artistic imagery to this day. The two continued collaborating on Dream Brigade and The Annunciation, the visual language of which also testifies to Kardos’s sensitivity and virtuosity. Throughout his career, Kardos photographed more than 30 feature films and more than 100 TV movies and shorts.

Parallel to his professional work, Kardos is involved with collecting amateur photography. Named the Horus Archives, his collection has been expanding for more than 40 years, becoming, in terms of size, the largest private collection in Hungary. Comprising primarily amateur and family photos, the Horus Archives can be regarded as one of the first private photography archives internationally, with international interest toward it evident in the number of European exhibitions, foreign publications, and artistic interventions.

Flipping through family photos, Kardos realized already as college student that regardless of the length of his training, the creation of certain scenes would always remain beyond his capabilities. Quoting Sándor Kardos: "I learned a lot from amateur photographers, from the hundreds of thousands of people whom I cannot know personally."

What did growing up in poverty mean to you?

Children are not aware of living in poverty. Although we did. My father was an alternate representative of the Social Democratic Party of Hungary, my mother came home from abroad. Both called for punishment in the sense that they were not given any kind of work. An additional sin of my father was that he did not defect to the Communist Party. He really could have achieved a lot, had he fallen in line, but he never did that.

To this day, I’m very proud of my parents that I never witnessed anything shady at home, ever. I never had to be ashamed of what my father or mother did. Because they carried on under miserable conditions silently. This is particularly surprising in my mother’s case, as she used to be a renowned dancer in South America and in Egypt, and from that reality, all of a sudden, she ended up in the Budapest Ghetto. In all her life, I never heard a single complaint about how much better it had been before. She was ironing rags in our kitchen, with which workers later wiped grease off their machines. I think I was 12, when I got a pair of pants of my own for the first time, because my parents had found a defective one that they could afford. Up until then, I wore the clothes of friends’ and relatives’ older children, which wasn’t simple, as I used to be a fat kid. And that was quite rare among us.

We had a great many family living in the West, who occasionally sent us clothes. One package included a US army underwear that was my pride and joy. Only, I couldn’t show it to anyone at school, which always reminds me of the writer István Örkény and Hungarian poetry. It was Örkény who said that Hungarian poetry is like having a diamond in your pocket, but not being able to show it to anyone.

Sándor Kardos with his parents

Where did you live at the time?

On the corner of Kertész Street and Wesselényi Street. Back then, Kertész Street was called Nagyatádi Szabó István Street.

This is worth mentioning only because the ghetto wall ran between two buildings on that corner. And, lucky me, I receive pension from the Germans even today, having spent one year in the ghetto as a newborn baby. If I had told an Arrow Cross Party member that I would make serious money out of the situation once, they would have laughed their heads off.

What youthful experiences inspired you to deal with visuality later?

I studied at the Madách Imre Gimnázium, where I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic Hungarian teacher. But already in elementary school, I got awfully lucky with Gyula Muraközy. You should know that whenever you read Ancient Greek literature in Hungarian, 90% of that was translated either by Devecseri or him. Also, he was a fantastic person.

So, my early, major experience with him was a double math class, when the math teacher had other business to attend to. And a two-meter-tall man with grey hair and blue eyes stepped in, and started telling stories. Well, it took me 10 years to learn that in those two hours, he recounted episodes from the Iliad and the Odyssey, in his own words. And I had a remarkable class that included children of ancient-régime intellectuals, like me, or of military officers, and impish Gypsy kids, too. And this extraordinarily diverse crowd listened to him spellbound. When the math teacher did arrive 20 minutes before the end of the class, we practically hissed him off, demanding the story instead. Which made such a deep mark on me, that years later when I applied to the ELTE Faculty of Humanities, and was asked to describe the Shield of Achilles, I remembered it from this class.

I was always good in Hungarian literature, in secondary school my teacher was Miklós Kispéter, a former film theorist. But don’t think that it was him who guided me toward films, because he never talked about himself. It was only later that I accidentally pieced it together who he actually was, and that he had a book in the 1930s titled A győzelmes film (The triumphant film). Before that, I knew him only as a Hungarian teacher.

Probably I turned to filmmaking eventually because my father was a photographer. Thanks to him, I knew photography already at the age of eight.

Sándor Kardos at around 12 years old with his cousin Ferenc Herczeg's Ljubitiel type camera

What did you study?

I have a degree in film and cinematography, in math for secondary education, and also I have a certificate in people’s education.

After ELTE, you applied to the College of Theatre and Film Arts. What was the perception of the institute at the time, and what gave you the idea to study there?

First, I must add that my father didn’t go to school, ever, not even to elementary. His mother, who raised him and his siblings by herself, combed his hair before he’d leave for school, but, as he walked out the door, school was on his left, and the Lehel market was on his right, and there he could steal food. When his mother took him to the year-end ceremony, the teacher patted him, saying, “And who are you, son?”

However, workers’ education was incredibly ambitious back then. My father received a highly progressive education, after all. When I was at university, he was the one to supply me with literature. He had a friendly relationship with all the used-book sellers in the neighborhood. Because of his past, my father told me I could become a cameraman or a photojournalist or whatever I wanted to be, but I had to get a degree in humanities first. You see, I went to ELTE because I was told to do so; otherwise, I wouldn’t even have dared to. And the truth is, I’ve never regretted it! Because having to sit through 12 thousand years there was a privilege. 

My father had an affinity for cinema, he talked me into making a documentary about the awakening city already when I was a schoolkid. Later, it dawned on me that he must have had seen Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis when he was young, and that could have prompted him.

Anyway, I was not exactly a good student, except for Hungarian literature. But then there was this play or celebration at school, where I took photos in the morning and in the evening, and I developed the pictures during the night, and took the processed photos to the principal and the teacher first thing in the morning. Something like this grants you a certain status. I saw the future of this in becoming a photojournalist or a cameraman. One time, the state television broadcast the year-end ceremony of the Madách Imre Gimnázium, the crew working with enormous cameras and headphones stood on tall platforms; and I was dying to be the one standing up there once. In time, of course, I realized that getting up there was no big deal, and that real merit was to be achieved elsewhere, not on that platform.

What did you submit in your portfolio to the film college, and what was it like to encounter for the first time the intellectual milieu that would later become your own? 

When I applied to film college, I already was a fourth-year university student at ELTE, where I had one final year ahead of me, which I completed part-time in the end.

My experience in photography helped me get admitted. At ELTE, there was a so-called Amatőr Filmklub (Amateur film club), which was an unusually free venue at the time, in an ideological sense. At the Amatőr Filmklub, we could arrange to have two Pentaflex 16 cameras; I don’t think there was another piece in the whole country, and we had two. The opportunities there allowed for some expertise; those 16mm films, for instance, had to be developed somehow.

You should know about the admission, that János Herskó was a powerful man who had exercised influence as far as filmmakers were concerned. The college was still careful to prevent the number of directors and cinematographers from growing too high. Cinematographer classes of 6–8 students were launched every three years, attracting hundreds of applicants. At this point, János Herskó was already familiar with András Jeles and myself, because he was jury member at the Országos Amatőr Filmfesztivál (National amateur film festival). By the time I applied to college, I had received cinematography awards from him two or three times. Also, once he took me to the film factory, too, and introduced me to György Illés, who later became my teacher and mentor.

The admission procedure comprised three rounds. The first was an interview, and I had to present my photos. In the second round, we had to write an essay on the film La rivière du hibou (The Owl River). And we had to make a film in the third round. The college had a production team, led by Mária Matejka. They were amazingly helpful, there were three producers, a minibus, and I could go on.

On Csepel Island, there used to be a place called Jaj-telep (Yikes-estate), where people lived in makeshift shacks. Everyone had a job but was poor anyway, and without a home, which is why they’d built their cabins here. At the time, the municipal council recently had decided to demolish the buildings and evict the dwellers; this was what we made an admission film of. Doing short “move-in-ons,” at the intersection of film and photography. When we approached Herskó with this idea, immediately he signed the necessary paperwork for the 35mm camera and the corresponding lab costs.

I found that this attitude persisted throughout college; you could generally do anything, but if your film was crap, they told you so.

How did you find employment after graduating from college? What were your first works?

The practice was that the strongholds of film production—either state television, or the film factory—guaranteed employment, and automatically hired us.

I was offered a position at the television, but I insisted on being involved with cinema, and went to the film factory. According to criteria there, one had to do 15 feature films as focus puller, before being appointed as cameraman. That was the depressing rule. I owe an awful lot to János Kende in this respect. Already a world-famous cinematographer, he took me on as second assistant camera on a number of productions.

Sándor Kardos works with an Arri 35 BL camera, with the later film director but at that time still with focus puller Gergelly Fonyó, late 1970s, early 1980s

Coming back to photography; having always been taking photos, what made you go after found images, and even keep them? What was the first photograph in the Horus Archives?

I was a second-year student at college, and I was maniacally into examining photos under the magnifying glass. I wanted to come to understand reality, and I thought that with this method I would. A grave delusion still valid today; nevertheless, something did come out of those pictures.

Looking at my mother’s family photos did not bring a sense of discovery. However, flipping through the pictures of my then-wife’s family, now that made a huge impact on me. My father-in-law went to school to nuns because they were poor, and the nuns provided free education. There was a group photo, depicting the whole class, around 12 kids, dressed as Hungarian hussars; my father-in-law, the captain, was kneeling beside them with his sword drawn, and the first row of kids, balancing on their knees, pointed toy guns at the camera. That image had such an effect on me that there is fully identical composition in The Bridgeman, when Batthyány is executed. There, I did the exact same thing: everyone is aiming at the camera, they even soot the lens when they fire their guns.

Excerpts from the movie The Bridgeman

When I scrutinized this group photo with the magnifying glass, I noticed that one of the kids had a glass eye. Another one of them was kneeling in the dirt with no shoes on. And all this was accompanied by their teacher, a nun with such a mean face, I couldn’t even carve one like it with an axe. My other great realization about the same picture was that a soldier sat in the trench, a ditch on the other side, and he cast such a glance at the camera, that I couldn’t grasp it for 10 years, how that particular gaze could be made. At the time, I was already busy with exam films and I worked at the television, so I knew from experience that producing such a look was impossible, if I were to go there as a filmmaker, people would never look into the camera like that.

This bugged me for years, and it took me a really long time to apprehend that if it’s a war correspondent photographing, they leave the trench at the evening and go to the city, visit a brothel, a theater, or a restaurant, and, therefore, soldiers on the front do not take them seriously. However, if the same photo is taken by a fellow soldier, who must jump out of their trench the next day and join bayonet charges, who can die just like the others, that’s a different scenario. A shared fate is what can engender such faces.

So, this was what put me on a path to collect these gazes, because I won’t be able to recreate them as a professional cameraman, ever. These images indeed are unique, thanks to which, eventually, my Leica ended up on a shelf and the rest of my cameras in the cupboard, because, under the spell of found pictures, I barely take photos anymore. I became preoccupied with the collection, and not my own images. And I’m convinced that if somebody discards a picture that I later take out of the trash and I claim that photography, then, essentially, I’m doing pretty much what the greatest photographers are. Because what they do isn’t, in this sense, too distant from cherry-picking life’s spectacles. Whether the recognition that something is a worthy scene comes before exposure—in, let’s say, André Kertész’s mind—or 10 years after it, is totally irrelevant to me.

"These images indeed are unique, thanks to which, eventually, my Leica ended up on a shelf and the rest of my cameras in the cupboard, because, under the spell of found pictures, I barely take photos anymore."

You mentioned earlier that these images had an unprecedented effect on you. How did you resolve to collect them, too, besides admiring them?

Well, a week or so later I saw yet another powerful photo. Before long, they filled two boxes; by then, I felt I had to go down this road, or rather, that it had become too compelling to put it aside.

And when did you decide to put a name to the collection?

I cannot recall an exact date. I remember that the archive was exhibited for the first time in 1980, at the King St. Stephen Museum. They granted two rooms for the show, but I had to install it.

Also I remember that the themes of the collection had already started to take an initial shape by then. The one I was most proud of was my series on the history of aviation, into which I compiled images revolved around flying; the edition ended with a photo depicting the wooden memorial of a pilot, with the cross replaced by a classic wooden propeller, as airscrews were still made of beech at the time.

But I’ve come up with the name of the archive sometime later, I don’t know when exactly.

Besides reclaiming family photos for the archive, later you also delved into the Fővárosi Fotó Vállalat (Municipal photography company, Főfotó) collections—at a time when the Privát Fotó és Film Archívum (Private photo and film archives) staff, employed at the Művelődéskutatási Intézet (Research institute for culture), were doing the same. What other sources of images did the Horus Archives have in this early period? What was your work method?

One of my reasons for putting my collection on display already from the beginning was that, having seen the archive, a great many people brought me photos. To give you an example dear to me, from a bit later: crossing a bridge in Sidney, a Hungarian expat dropped his camera. It was a Nikon that had a shutter release on its top, and as he caught hold of it, he snapped a picture. The photo shows, beyond the blurred bridge rails, the view, including the Opera House. When this person had the photo developed, he immediately thought that I’d appreciate it, so he mailed it to me in an envelope to Budapest. And I did love it!

Also, still very enthusiastic at the time, I regularly visited house clearances. For instance, that was how I’ve found a box from my father’s press agency materials. I was editing a film at the television, when someone passing by the editing room warned me, “Sanyi, they’re throwing out photos in a makeshift plank dumpster on Lengyel Gyula Street!” I rushed there, and, by the grace of God, I stumbled upon a box of images from my father’s old press photo office. I have no clue how they had ended up on Lengyel Gyula Street, but God works in mysterious ways.

An image from the material of the press agency of Sándor Kardos' father, source: Horus Archives

I never really had much money, but occasionally I purchased cheaper collections, too, or checked out antique shops once they started selling photos as well. And, once in a while, I stole. I’ve never stolen anything valuable in my life, but I did lift photos.

Trying to compare two separate media: what does photography offer to you, that film cannot?

That’s a canny question; we both know the answer, but we cannot put it into words. Somehow, with documentaries, I’ve never quite felt what I do with photos. 

Once, I saw a Russian Civil War newscast on White Army soldiers digging their own graves. I’ve found it incomprehensible, that these people, digging their own graves, were waving at the camera grinning. While that truly was an awful image sequence, I didn’t feel it to be as powerful as a photo.

Probably the difference is that in the case of a photograph, you halt time.

There is a photo of a Waffen-SS soldier in Ukraine, in which the last living Jew is sitting on the edge of a pit for collecting corpses, and the soldier shoots him down. That moment, on a photograph, won’t just fly by, you can observe the facial expressions for an extended period, or the whole scene frozen in time. And it’s like that in other situations, too; you see love in the same way, and everything that people recorded.

When asked about the commonality between Horus images, usually you say they are as if God’s finger got in those pictures. What do you mean by that?

Mathematician László Lovász pointed out that accidental events simply reveal that the regular order of things apply. A passage in Spinoza’s political theology also concludes that there is, in fact, no such thing as chance. Chance only means that a particular moment is, for one reason or another, significant to us, and differs from other moments in our judgment. Here is another appropriate phrase: chance is God in incognito. An accident is not evidence of an irregular event, what’s happening is perfectly in order, something stands out only to our state of mind.

What do you think is the influence of the Horus Archives? Are there processes that it may have sparked in Hungary?

I’m extremely proud that András Bán once wrote, paraphrasing Gogol, that “We all came out from under Sándor Kardos’s overcoat.” And if this was true, all the better. For quite some time, I had absolutely no idea about the influence of the Horus Archives; but now I can see it. It has an international reach, too, and a great many teacher friends at a variety of universities and colleges assign Horus pictures to the kids as essay or discussion topics. Or, someone at the former University of Theatre and Film Arts had applicants analyze such images as part of the admission interviews.

Source: Horus Archives

Do you monitor the Archives’s afterlife?

I don’t concern myself with anything beyond, having created it, its maintenance; except random things catching my attention. Recently, a Dutch collector of Hungarian descent visited me, and I showed him three things: a couple of the categories, the Rákosi album, and the pseudo stereographs. I can’t even describe the effect those images had, even the word genius came up. That’s when I can witness the force of these pictures. But I limit myself to such occasions; or to the aftermath of the yellow Horus book’s cover photo, of the little girl in glasses, for which I had to pay one million Forints in court due to personal rights.

Was that photo worth a million?

For sure! My poor father was not aware of having made such a precious shot, when he put sunglasses on the cross-eyed girl and took her picture.

What would you say, are there masterpieces among vernacular photos?

There are. It is only photography that truly enables this. Because a photo surpasses the response time of either the photographer or the model, and a masterpiece happens before anyone knows it. And that’s only possible here; for a ballet composition, for example, or music, you’ve got to have a preconception. Literature or music cannot be created without preconceptions, otherwise the whole thing becomes, at least partially, meaningless. Photography, however, allows for the creation of something not predetermined on a conceptual basis.

Can we say that when you, a collector wielding the means of representation, select a particular photograph that no one needs, then it is you who becomes the author of this masterpiece?

I believe you can. Although the truth is, it’s not me who turns it into a masterpiece, I merely recognize it as such.

Under the arch of the Madách Houses, an old lady had a tiny photo studio. And she kept a wooden plate there, and for years I regularly dropped by—just like at Főfotó—and the lady would let me take the discarded photos from the wooden plate. It was here that I found the photo of someone whose face, at the moment of exposure, was obscured with a newspaper by a benevolent friend, but the cover of the newspaper was illustrated with a face, too. And the photographer considered this scrap. I told myself, “all the rest may be scrap, but not this one.” This is what you just described; yes, recognizing in this case has creative value.

Does the gesture of recognizing, discovering the picture, conclude the task, or the task is completed with the gesture of actual presentation, letting people other than yourself see the image? Where does the process end?

The creative process ends with recognizing.

What I recognized can lead to recognitions in people, which would stir them to go on with their business in a slightly different way. It’s the same as encountering Michelangelo’s Pietà, seeing that it’s sculpted so masterfully, you can tell from its form that the flesh is already dead. If once in my lifetime I’ve seen something like it, I may later think about certain things differently.

As far as you are concerned, what is the future of the Horus Archives?

This reminds me of the joke with the goldfish. When a Gypsy, a Jew, and a Hungarian together catch the goldfish that tells them, “I will grant each of you one wish. Well, Gypsy, what do you wish for?” “All my people are scattered around the world; it would be nice to be together once again in India.” The goldfish snaps with I don’t know what, and all the Gypsies are in India. “And Jew, what do you wish for?” The Jew says, “it’s the same with me; how nice it would be, to have all my people in the Holy Land.” The fish snaps, and all the Jews are in the Holy Land. Finally, the fish turns to the Hungarian, “You Hungarian, what do you wish for?” And the Hungarian goes, “after these, just a drink for me.”

Jokes aside, I wish that the idea of the collection endures even without my brain. That the Horus Archives outlives me. That followers emerge who can curate this.

Get to know more about our Uncovering of the Horus Archives project here!

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