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Sándor Kereki – Budapest in the seventies from a boy’s perspective

by Szabolcs Barakonyi

Our exhibition titled Sándor Kereki – Budapest in the seventies from a boy’s perspective was on view from December 7, 2023 to February 4, 2024 in Capa Center, Budapest. Sándor Kereki was born in 1952 and at the age of 16, while still in high school, he started taking pictures with the camera his father gave him for his birthday. He never studied photography in a formal school setting. Sándor Kereki put down his camera in the early eighties. Before that, for a good ten years, he was walking around the city, looking for situations, looks and faces. He took his photographs for himself, for his own entertainment and never for someone’s request. He did it in an age when people still allowed themselves to be photographed.

Sándor Kereki’s photos in the Hungarian seventies evoked the now internationally recognized category of street photography. His closed and completed oeuvre consists of seven thousand exposed negatives. We are very fortunate to be able to select today’s fresh-looking images for the exhibition together with him, and to bring the exhibited material into dialogue with the photographic lessons of the time that has passed since then.

You can read the introductory text, written by Eidolon curator Szabolcs Barakonyi, and explore the exhibition’s interiors.

Photograph: Imre Kiss/Capa Center

Sándor Kereki received his first camera for his sixteenth birthday from his father. Miracles could not be expected from this Zorki 11, one of the first full-automatic cameras from the Soviet factory that copied two Japanese models to make it. After all, it measured light by selenium-based sensors around the lens, so the camera calculated exposure based on the light shed on the photographer which only matched the amount of light on the subject in overcast weather. But technical reviews are rarely interesting in themselves – similarly to art which is the most intriguing if it transgresses, bypasses, or supersedes the established rules.

In the Lexicon of Basic Concepts section of his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilém Flusser defines the photographer as “a person who attempts to place, within the image, information that is not predicted within the program of the camera.”While Sándor Kereki is a person who overrode the program of his own camera when he got annoyed by the constraints of the apparatus and figured out how to disable the automatic functions of the Zorki. He discovered that if he put the camera in flash mode but didn’t add the flash, he got a fixed shutter speed and he can adjust the depth of field through setting the aperture on the lens. Armed with this knowledge, he used his first camera for years, albeit in a limited way, in manual mode.

Photograph: Imre Kiss/Capa Center

Thanks to his good eyes, success did not take long to come – barely passed a year with him roaming the streets of Budapest, his camera in his hand, when one of his images of angling boys in the City Park made it into Magyar Horgász, and then Pajtás magazines. In the following years, his photos were regularly published in various newspapers and he often won prizes in photo contests. Sándor Kereki didn’t become a photojournalist reporting on world affairs, although regarding the broadest categories of photography, his photos reflecting everyday life could certainly have fallen under the documentary genre. But within that, to be more precise, his oeuvre can be best classified as street photography.

Photograph: Imre Kiss/Capa Center

His curiosity is authentic, and he was not motivated by opportunistic compliance with the system. His images are not illustrations of the socialist world glorified in the press of the era, but a classic press photographer career would have started with an internship in the photo section of a newspaper. Drawn in 1963 by János Kass and István Mácsai, noted visual artists of the time, the map in the exhibition clearly shows the areas of the city that Kereki visited during his hikes looking for good themes – the family moved to Terézváros in Budapest in 1961. The graphic map shown was based on its 1968 edition. Going closer to this map, the telltale names of the squares and streets can also be seen, like the Road of the People’s Republic, Shock Worker Bridge, Lenin Boulevard, Marx Square… and we have already embarked on a time travel on the Ghost Train of Socialism, à la Péter Bacsó’s memorable period comedy The Witness

Sándor Kereki took more and more photographs after enrolling in his secondary school’s camera club, and then started to send his photographs to contests, where he was often among the prize winners. The selection here presents the language and forms of notification of the recognitions of amateur photography of the time that might seem strange today – from telegrams to the evaluation labels announcing the photos selected and not selected for contests, competitions and exhibitions. Sándor Kereki only had his own camera for a year, when his photo appeared on the cover of Magyar Horgász (“Hungarian Angler”) in april of 1969 and on the cover of Pajtás (“Young Comrade”) magazine in August the same year. The archival materials shown here only provide a brief summary of his photographs published in printed material – as a curiosity, we show the poster of Sándor's first exhibition that opened in R (Budapest) in 1973. The archival materials presented here are selected from the period between 1969 and 1974. Photograph: Imre Kiss/Capa Center

Luckily, however, we can take part in another much more uplifting time travel as well in this exhibition. Sándor Kereki started photographing as a teenager, and already stopped it as a young adult. In those ten years while he was growing up, a whole oeuvre was created. In the beginning, he couldn’t have worked in the press due to his age, and a teenage boy couldn’t have been too interested in ideology-influenced work day after day either anyway. He might have guessed that during the 80’s and 90’s in Hungary, it wouldn’t have been possible to make a living from his photography, fueled by his genuine interest in exploring the world and himself. Although he was knowledge-wise ready to become a professional photographer, he chose a different career and started working as a cameraman at the Hungarian Television.  

Photograph: Imre Kiss/Capa Center

Sándor Kereki submitted his photos to Fortepan in 2021, as a result, 1,774 of his photographs can be seen on the website today – an event reported by most Hungarian photography websites. In his essay written for the album summarizing Sándor Kereki's work as a photographer, published on the occasion of the exhibition, Zsolt Petrányi describes the appropriate way to approach Kereki’s photographic world: “The era in which his photos were taken is gone as if it never existed – the system, the society, and the object culture have all changed for good. Even though it lives on in the memories of the older generations, these images should not be seen through their eyes but with through those who are re-discovering the values and human gestures of this bygone era. We believe that the only reason why Kereki's honest, self-motivated shots could not be taken today is that the settings around the subjects, the cityscape, the clothing and the design of household items have changed. Similarly to the work of posthumously discovered Vivian Maier, and the work of Helen Levitt, the pioneer of color street photography, the presentation of Kereki's enlargements is an important task because it also transcends time and space, and viewers are dazzled by the versatility, irony, and humanity of his images.”

Photograph: Imre Kiss/Capa Center

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