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Interview with Miklós Tamási about finding the material that led to the exhibition titled Budapest – The First Golden Age

by Róza Tekla Szilágyi

The photography exhibition displaying more than one hundred works in the Hungarian National Gallery celebrating the 150th birthday of Budapest is a huge success – so much so that the institution just extended the exhibition until 7 April. The project organised in conjunction with the Fortepan digital photo archive evokes the Hungarian capital in its heyday, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We sat down with Miklós Tamási, founder of Fortepan to find out how he came across the negatives of photographs of Budapest, hitherto unknown in Hungary, taken by a German postcard publishing company and preserved in the collection of the Deutsche Fotothek in Dresden.

The central material of the exhibition titled Budapest - The First Golden Age on view at the Hungarian National Gallery are the previously unknown photographs of a German postcard-making company depicting Budapest at the turn of the 20th century. The image material came from the collection of the Deutsche Fotothek in Dresden. How did you come across this selection of photographs that have such great historical value?

Anyone who researches something in any field often comes up with surprising results and finds something other than what he was originally looking for. This happened to me too. About ten years ago, I came across the legacy of a former East German photographer named Christian Borchert on the internet. Borchert was a press photographer from Dresden who came to Budapest in the mid-seventies, right at the time of Sándor Kereki. He had an idea: he wanted to photograph Hungarian archetypes in order to depict society through portraits, and fortunately, he built this society with a very wide and open horizon. He took more than a hundred photographs – at least that many were digitised and can be viewed on the internet – and the portraits show all kinds of figures, from TSZ peasants, rock singers to union leaders, members of the party apparatus, Catholic priests, and teenagers. And the pictures are really good. Borchert died in an accident shortly after the Hungarian trip, and his photographs are safekept by the Deutsche Fotothek in Dresden.

Christian Borchert, 1972, Photo: Deutsche Fotothek

Christian Borchert, 1972, Photo: Deutsche Fotothek

Christian Borchert, 1972-1973, Photo: Deutsche Fotothek

Almost ten years ago, when Fortepan was already operating, I wrote an email to Deutsche Fotothek asking whether this brilliant material could be turned into content under the creative commons licence. They politely replied no, because the photographs were under copyright. I was talking to someone about this body of work last summer and thought I'd check it out again, but suddenly I couldn't remember the photographer's name. I thought I would find it by entering Ungarn in Deutsche Fotothek's search engine. Then I was surprised to see the thousands of images that appeared for this search term. There were a lot of Brück & Sohn pictures, which I saw was a relatively recent material in their collection and I really liked them. I also wrote to the institution whether this fantastic material is free to use or not, to see if I can post pictures from it on Fortepan. They gave a positive answer. However, there were no high-resolution scans of the material, so we started talking. Meanwhile, András Török and I went to László Baán, to whom we showed the material and received positive feedback. The meeting confirmed that the photographs are old enough so that we do not necessarily recognize the locations, but we definitely can sense that what we see is Budapest. 

After that, we travelled to Dresden with István Virágvölgyi to personally put together the material for the exhibition, and there it was revealed to us that we Hungarians will be the first foreign project showcasing images from the Deutsche Fotothek. They safekeep six million photographs, but they have never shown their pictures abroad.

The Pest embankment viewed from Franz Joseph Bridge (now Liberty Bridge) looking towards Elisabeth Bridge, 1905, Photo: Deutsche Fotothek / Brück und Sohn

Why could this be?

The world thinks very narrow mindedly. It was the creative commons licence that made it possible for us to be able to display such photographs, all we had to do was search. If our idea was to bring over vintage photographs, the management side of the whole project would have been much more complicated.

The curators, on the other hand, do not look at these materials that much – and I note here that I am not fully informed either, because although in the case of the American collections I definitely check on an annual basis what has been subject to free use, but I have never looked at the Spanish ones, for example. This should be dealt with, because if, for example, someone in Madrid processes a Spanish Civil War material, and it turns out that there is an international brigade member who was of Hungarian origin, and they have the entire material, they will digitise it and upload it. But there is no energy left to try to reach out to Hungary and share the news on the existence of such material. So, either the Hungarian curators are looking for materials like these on the internet, or no one is.

Central Abattoir, 1903, Photo: Deutsche Fotothek / Brück und Sohn

Speaking of the exhibition, was there an initiative to transfer the Brück & Sohn material from Dresden to Hungary?

I think that this digitised material can now be exhibited freely, but the Germans would not part with it. When we were planning the exhibition, I received an email from an art historian that vintage items from this material were being advertised at an English auction house. Then I bought about thirty pictures for myself for roughly one hundred and fifty thousand forints – we exhibited four of them. Apparently someone from Brück & Sohn escaped some vintage photographs back in the day – maybe around the time the company went out of business. But I'm only saying this now because you raised the question: well, anyone could have bought these.

In this sense, Fortepan is not a museum, our goal is not to take care of vintages – but the question arises as to whether the Hungarian public collections actually have an insight into what Hungarian-related items are circulating on the international photo market.

József (Joseph) Boulevard, 1904, Photo: Deutsche Fotothek / Brück und Sohn

How much information do you have about the photographers who took the cityscapes that are used on these postcards?

The question of who photographed this material was a burning question from the beginning. Anyway, we couldn't do too much in this matter, because we couldn't find anything in the Brück company archive. We only found the Budapest-based contact person, his name was Taussig Artúr or Artur Taussig. He was a man of Czech origin who was active in Budapest for an unknown number of decades and dealt with postcards. We managed to discover that the Brück and Taussig families may have known each other. We don't know why the Brücks came up with the idea at the turn of the century that they would now try to deal with postcards from Budapest. This was virgin territory for them, neither before nor after they had any Hungarian-related material. Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany were their real territory. It is conceivable that Taussig pulled Brück in and said that he would like to represent Brück's interests in Hungary. There is some business relationship between Taussig and Brück, but unfortunately we have not found any archival material. 

Parliament building, 1907, Photo: Deutsche Fotothek / Brück und Sohn

We don't even know if the Budapest material is by one author or more. A picture, identified by Fortepan forum member László Lajtai as one of Klösz's photos, also appears in a cropped version on a Brück postcard, published more than fifteen years later.

György Klösz – Kerepesi Road 3 (now Rákóczi Road), National Theater, 1905, source: Fortepan

Do you think these postcards were produced in Hungary?

The locations were mostly written in Hungarian characters on the postcards, so I have a suspicion that they may even have been printed here. Maybe Brück actually ordered this entire service from Taussig. He entrusted him with the selection of locations and the execution of the project. When I first saw these pictures online, I thought they were glass negatives. In Dresden, we were confronted with the fact that they are not glass negatives, and a good part of the pictures are first-generation reproductions, and another part are second or third-generations of reproductions – so their quality is getting worse and worse. That's why there are roughly 240 photos on Fortepan, because the rest of the pictures are simply not good enough quality. Perhaps they created reproductions from the glass negatives in Budapest, because a film-based copy might have been needed due to the printing process, and at the end the glass negatives were not preserved. This would surprise me because, although it takes up a lot of space to store these glass negatives, they could be washed and reused. What we know: it is certain that the scans used in the exhibition were not made from the original glass negatives, because those did not survive.

Anyway, this wonderful story would stretch the limits of our exhibition, but it is interesting how such a family business in Germany was able to operate for more than a hundred years, during mostly and typically dictatorships. Including the Stasi's East Germany, which was surely not a place for free speech, they used all forms of censorship. How was this company able to navigate this very tight and controlled East Germany in order to publish postcards? This is very surprising to me. Incidentally, there is no precedent for this in the socialist world.

Propaganda about a country, and postcards are a primary form of propaganda, was operated everywhere by state publishers – in our country, for example, by the Fine Arts Fund. You couldn't just create your own business and publish postcards, all press organisations had to register. There were no postcard publishers in Hungary, they were all nationalised.

An interesting parallel is that the György Klösz legacy became public property when the entire material was nationalised in 1949. By then, Klösz's son already specialised in maps and postcard publishing, and had a printing business. All sample books and copies, pre-press products and production-related copies – precisely the type of material that remained at home with the Brück family – were taken and thus ended up in the Budapest City Archives. Strangely enough, not only was the Brück company not nationalised in Germany, but the company operated for quite a long time. It even survived the changes in 1989.

From the exhibition Budapest. The first Golden Age, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest, photograph: Hungarian National Gallery

How did the photographs of Frigyes Schoch come into the picture while planning the exhibition? 

When the Dresden material came together, I felt that it would not be enough for an entire exhibition, we would need more interesting and high-quality photographs to fill the show. That's when I suggested to István Virágvölgyi that we should add another image corpus to the exhibited materials. These extra photographs would also shift the attention a little bit towards Fortepan. After all, we have an author, Frigyes Schoch in the Fortepan archive, who has city and family photos from the same era, but in a completely different format, stereo photos.

Schoch Frigyes – Liberty (József Ferenc) bridge seen from Gellért Hill, 1900, source: Fortepan

Schoch Frigyes – Franciscans' Square (Kígyó Square) with the Inner-City Church of St Francis, 1902, source: Fortepan

How did you get to know Frigyes Schoch's photographs?

Márton Kurutz, who has been working at the Film Archive since 1988, contacted us in the early days of Fortepan. He brought photographs from the Schoch family, and we scanned them – I didn't even meet the family. This Schoch legacy is significant not only because it contains amazingly good cityscapes, but also because it is the largest Hungarian stereophoto legacy in terms of numbers. During the scanning, we came up with the idea that since the family would give up the material, we should give it to the photo collection of the Hungarian National Museum, so luckily the photos ended up in a good place. We had some similar actions with Fortepan: the photographs of Pál Berkó and Sándor Bojás were also put in the Hungarian National Museum in a similar way.

1  Abbreviation of termelőszövetkezet ("farmers' agricultural co-operative").
2  This database contains the digitised copies and descriptions of the photographs of cityscapes, castles, buildings and objects taken by one of the best known figures of early Hungarian photography, György Klösz (1844, Darmstadt, Hessen – 1913, Budapest) between 1875 and 1913. 

Opening image: Kerepesi Road (now Rákóczi Road), 1905, Photo: Deutsche Fotothek / Brück und Sohn

Fortepan is the largest, constantly expanding, free online archive of photographs operating from Hungary. It was named after the Fortepan photographic film manufactured in the former Forte Factory in the town of Vác. The photo collection does not exist physically, but has been accessible online since 20 August 2010.

Budapest. The First Golden Age
Stereograms and Postcard Images from the Collections of Fortepan and Deutsche Fotothek

November 15, 2023 – April 7, 2024
Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

The curator of the exhibition is István Virágvölgyi, co-curator is András Török.

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