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“The whole of the past century is there, hidden in albums.“

Miklós Tamási interviewed by György Simó 

by György Simó

Fortepan is the largest, constantly expanding, Hungarian-language, free online archive of photographs. 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. Fortepan Masters has selected from the legacy of 20th-century Hungarian photographers found in the online archive.

In an earlier interview you said in connection with Fortepan that it was in fact a feverish dream. It is a good expression because it simultaneously includes the dream-like nature of this work, while also having a somewhat charged meaning. Why did you use this expression?

I would not have thought I had used those two words about myself or Fortepan. I think I have found work for myself that I can do as long as I live. I would not really like to do anything else. Maybe I would return to exhibitions from time to time. After all, I worked at the CEU for 16 years and during that time I was involved in installing exhibitions, working together with others. Concretely we put things on the walls and I miss that kind of manual work a little bit. So I may move somewhat in that direction, but I would continue to deal with archives and photos as I have always done since secondary school.

So it is a dream from this aspect. I think I am where I like to be and would not much like to be somewhere else. And it is a dream to work with photographs in the sense – and I think it is true for all of you – that it is a very personal contact with something that sets off things, sometimes dreamlike things. At such times you imagine something into a photo, a figure in the picture, a photographer, a series, an album, a bequest and a negative. You imagine matters in and behind the picture, which we could call a dream, even if it is every so often unpleasant and oppressive and they’re things I would not like to see. But that’s what a dream is like. It can turn into a kind of nightmare. My work is dreamlike in the sense that I am doing good things and I feel good about where I am – and it is dreamlike also in the sense that I must leave much to my imagination and this is what leads me to make decisions. 

The fact that your work is so subjective is interesting to me because whenever I try to think of the speciality of Fortepan, the duality of a historical attitude and the editorial, specifically subjective narrative of history are striking. Being personal and subjective selectivity are especially important for us in this book – intentionally personal selection, that is to say a kind of creating reality. The whole of Fortepan’s archive has this same duality: on the one hand, it intends to present a visual memory of the 20th century, that is it has the ambition of making a catalogue characteristic of historical archives and, on the other, you are emphatically in the centre of it all. In fact, it is a one-man show.

I’d rather say that although there are pictures which I personally include, there are also photos which simply must be in it. With these it isn’t a question whether to include them, even if I am personally not specially attracted to them. 

The question is how this canon is formed.

Well, some experience was required and in fact I’ve been concerned with the 20th century not only through photos but otherwise, too. I can tell which images are worth remaining with us. Yet don’t think that what is not on Fortepan does not exist – on the contrary. Such photos are partly scanned and partly the original negatives exist. From the beginning I have been concerned with how comfortable my situation is. The pictures do exist, even if I don’t upload them on the website. They are there with the families or the photographers, and it is sure that one day it will be worth someone else having a go at collecting, saying: “OK, let’s see those that they thought were uninteresting.”

Fortepan began as a personal interest and not only does it work but by now it has some significance beyond itself. What is not on Fortepan is forgotten. That increases the editorial responsibility of Fortepan, which therefore necessarily indicates a departure from the natural freedom when you started out.

Oh, no, not at all. Such responsibility doesn’t interest me at all. I don’t have that sort of living up to something, or at least only in traces. I don’t feel any pressure to upload something on the site merely because others expect me to do so. Should I do something like that, I don’t feel I’m being forced into it. Thank god you don’t see what is left out. From this aspect it is a job without control. That is exactly what makes it cool. You can’t say what you miss because you don’t see what isn’t uploaded on the site. 

However, e-mails are coming ... there is a type of email when someone is looking for some very concrete object: for example, they ask about a photo of a Hajdu washing machine, which they are unable to find on Fortepan. So it happens that someone is looking at the site presuming that it would cover the whole encyclopaedia of socialist production, although that is not the aim at all. We can show what we have a photo about – and a key word.

That’s true. When I say there are gaps in the collection, I have either heard it from you or I’ve read it in an interview with you.

There are certain things I will never upload. Yet, within two minutes quite a few readers see how much is missing, instead of how many things are on the site. It is often what they are looking for. Absence can also be a very personal matter.

It is quite clear you have the desire for this work to express how you would like to see the 20th century – it shapes Fortepan visibly or invisibly.

Yes, that’s something like we tried to set up. When I am looking at the incoming photos I know exactly what I would like to leave out. In this sense Fortepan is not really an objective archive. If someone wants the latter, let them turn to the Hungarian News Agency, although strangely enough it provides an even more distorted image. At the same time I always say and seriously think that you should not believe it was indeed like this. That is how it is in my mind and how I remember it. There is no such thing as an objective photograph or memory. They are entirely personal matters. The difference is only in that I don’t try to deny it.

Yes, and neither do you deny that in this sense you yourself are Fortepan. Yet, it can be heard that the archive is also a specific institutional model of our memory concerning the history of the 20th century, and – as you put it at one point – it can be done in other communities and other countries. If it is so personal, how can it be repeated elsewhere?

The method itself can be copied perfectly. Very briefly that means: please, collect – at flea markets, during the annual household rubbish clear-out, at auctions – convincing relatives or asking for pictures from friends and then scanning them all in. This kind of collecting whereby the entire 20th century exists hidden in albums is actually working everywhere to the west from the centre of Europe. I am not so sure whether it would work in the former Soviet Union.

It’s because photography characteristically talks about reality and everyday life better and in more detail in a democratic environment than in a dictatorship. One’s scope of activity was much more limited physically in the Soviet Union than, say, in Austria – not to mention financial and technical matters. The more widespread the middles classes, the more photos are taken and thus a broader selection can be made.

If there are pictures necessary for such a collection in many places, why haven’t more similar archives been set up?

I’ve seen many cases in recent years when someone has been involved with personal photographs and in my experience the same thing seems to have resulted from every collection. A bit like the Hórusz Archive in Hungary (the famous cameraman Sándor Kardos’s collection of about one and a half million private photographs – ed.). It’s as if all the collectors focused on oddities, grotesque things, peculiar cuts, dirt, blurred images and such uninterpretable matter. They may think that since professional, press and art photos exist, of which the best possible, consciously composed images are held in museums and traditional collections, then they do not look for those.

So what is left for them? The oddity, the absurd, the eroded, the incomprehensible. From the outset their approach presumes that the amateur photo is like that, while it is not true at all. Amateur photos can be as diverse as institutionalised photographs. Moreover, there are many precise amateurs pointing beyond professionals, even such who terribly overcomposed their pictures. It is only that we were not concerned with them because they did not match our preconceptions. I am sure there is much more in the albums than can be traditionally seen on the surface.

There is another, formal problem. Those who collect private photos usually collect them on paper. Collecting negatives has not become a copied practice despite Fortepan’s activity. When you see collections of amateur photographs or exhibitions, characteristically, photos that have been found are often, relatively speaking, presented in galleries. And these found photographs are usually always original vintage pictures on paper – those interested collect them. I have not met a collector who would have collected negatives. Found photos are actually not collected because of web enterprises, but in order to frame and hang them on the wall – unlike we who are interested in the information that can be also seen on the negative. We are a digital archive in this sense and not an art collection.

It is a specific problem concerning the art trade. What is not on vintage paper is not valuable and is not worth collecting. I find it far more exciting when you say that every similar archive is somehow the same today. Fortepan’s originality or, as it is called in the world of start-ups, its disruptive, radical feature is that it simultaneously goes against several canons including the existing canon of civic archives. It is difficult to grasp why, but in my opinion it is because of you. It is being organised around a personality for whom it is not primarily archivist or librarian features that are important, although you are working with their technology. The primary principle is your personal and simultaneous involvement with the 20th century and quality photography. That makes it different from other archives, which intend to serve (the public) in some way or another.  

Yes, you are right. Yet the collection is large enough to include smaller fragments which are valid artworks in themselves. I would like to put something together which can be broken down into a thousand parts, while the person who is working with it would not feel their hands are tied. It is rare that I cannot decide in three seconds whether I want a photo. Obviously, someone working with photographs learns to make a decision quickly – especially when he/she selects pictures for an infinitely large collection. Of course, there is nothing more convenient than that.

This week I came across a photo that made me shiver. In a village garden a guy between sixty and seventy is slapping a woman of a similar age on the face. It was absolutely authentic to me. You don’t see the slap itself, only the movement – the hitting will happen in the following seconds. That is how they are standing in the garden. It rubs the existence of domestic violence in my face, which I very rarely see in a photo document – I can’t even recall anything similar. Your presence as a photographer in an intimate situation – it sounds awkward here – can at most come about by chance, while everything is authentic – the characters, the environment and the violence itself. You can immediately see in this photo that it is no joke. I know that if we load it on Fortepan we will come across this image on other surfaces from time to time. It will illustrate domestic violence. After all, it is a significant topic in public life and in the press, too. 

Yet you have also said somewhere that you would not include a chained dog in the archive, although that is also an existing and important issue in life.

Precisely. That’s exactly the problem. Where is, if there is, the line between a chained dog and domestic violence? It often occupies my mind and I think what perhaps makes me decide sometimes is what I would like to remember and remind others about. It was a similarly hard situation when we were scanning suicide photos in the Budapest Police Headquarters. Suicide is clearly a part of life. It is not a peripheral element, being clearly present in the 20th century. The question is whether you want to illustrate it with a picture. There may be stories which are better illustrated with words. Everything does not necessarily require a picture, yet you come across one.

I am sure if I came across a photo of a suicide I would feel I cannot resist. I could not expound a thesis which says that a chained dog and suicide were not part of life in the same way as love. The courage with which you dare decide what is included guarantees that Fortepan is coherent and, of course, that as a viewer you are not alienated or get bored. It is important for us to understand how your decisions are made and where the limits of Fortepan are.

Intimate aggression, intimate hostility or intimate villainy are characteristically absent from Fortepan, whereas I always let through everything bad that was created by the system and not the individual. Unfortunately it was such a century. It is important to show that when a political system, a state system or a repressive organisation is aggressive against an individual or, say, a representative of a state, a soldier or a policeman is aggressive. Therefore lynching in 1956 or a march of deportees must by all means be part of the site. When I exclude a theme and a picture what I’m governed by is that I consider the individual a villain. I do not like that. That’s why when a family photo should be presented about a bad person I usually say let’s not rather do it.

To that extent I would like to present a consoling image about the century behind us.

A gatekeeper is unavoidable with every archive, yet with traditional archives this role is taken up by the museum specialist, an institutionalised role that has become bureaucratic.

I’ll give you an example which perhaps broadens our discussion. An American branch of ours has started under the name Fortepan. It is still in its infancy, but they have great ambitions. There the editors, not the person who initiated the project alone, decide what to include in the collection. There are four of them, they work with Excel and vote. It would be terrible for me to confer with anyone. I could not cope with that at all. However, they believe in that and get into huge discussions over issues for which life is short. I don’t do it on my own simply because I am so self-assured, but because I think it can only be done in that way.

How long is it sustainable?

As long as it interests me. 

By ‘raising’ amateur photography and crowdsourcing photographic heritage Fortepan represents an important, democratic act, while adhering to an authoritarian logic in its organisational structure. If that is so, you should choose an heir. There have been examples in the arts whereby founders of a school selected their own successor. If Fortepan gets included in a larger organisation without you having arranged it, what will happen can be suspected. Busybody committees must necessarily appear and the selection of pictures will become less personal. Whereas if you choose, if you do, the next curator of Fortepan – perhaps you create the mechanism for selection – then he/she can define the next period. Thus a new era can open in the life of Fortepan from time to time.

It would need some thought, but I am not concerned with that. It’s a fair point. What you want to know is that, for example, in order for Fortepan to be in Austria, an Austrian is needed who similarly to me dares to make decisions, otherwise the whole matter would be of no interest. I agree with that, but I cannot enforce it. A museum specialist with traditional logic can only with difficulty get it into their head that Fortepan is more than everything possible being scanned and uploaded on the internet.

A museum of photography would be our natural place. However much we may think that we are dealing with history or perhaps design – we aren’t. Here we are dealing with photographs. Our medium would not be the National Museum’s Historical Photo Department or the Museum of Transport, although we have many photos about transport. The big question is when or how we would be at home in a museum of photography.

Fortepan comprises only pictures and bits of information. We sometimes miss the real story behind the picture, the oral history, don’t we?

Yes. The most frequent question is whether the photo we see is reality itself or only illustration. I assert that it is certainly reality. That makes it painful. But you, as you go from one photo to another on Fortepan and see the same slapping image in an unpredictable environment, may think it is only an illustration. To me that is perhaps enough, because I would not like you to experience the same pain as me.

To what extent was it conscious that time would be the only organising principle of the site?

It could not have been any different in the beginning. Something was needed to link the photos together and there is no better tool than time. Earlier when there were 5,000 photos I was able to view Fortepan from the beginning to the end. At that time it was rather more like a novel than today, something that you dip into now and again.

You can become submerged in the site even today, but we try to help specific research better.

Due to the uncertainty that results from the nature of collecting you may not always know the date of a photo precisely.

I know that we messed it up a lot, but there isn’t much of a way back now. We should have used different colours to distinguish the year of a picture where we simply guessed the date from one where we knew it exactly. We should have helped historians with as much. Today I can no longer do it because there are more than a 120,000 photos on the site.

You don’t have the reverse of every photo, do you?

For some time we have always written down what can be read on the reverse of a picture. But naturally it only works with paper photos, since in the case of negatives there are no such notes.

Part of Fortepan’s mission is that while it maintains the visual memory of the 20th century it provides an opportunity for widespread access to the culture of “picture reading”, to use the words of Szabolcs Barakonyi, the editor of this volume. It is an essential issue from the aspect of the future of photography: there is a uniquely intensive “explosion of images” in the world, while only very few people can “read” pictures really well. Yet Fortepan as a data base and raw material makes similar projects possible.

I have no illusion that this project can reach into visual education. At best we have put pictures in the mind of someone who is anyway concerned with photos. So in some way we have nevertheless dipped into this world. It turned out that not only photographers’ oeuvres are there and that a photograph can be interesting not only because, say, it was taken by André Kertész, but it can simply be a good photo. That’s where we’re going – the first reaction should not be to look at the picture caption.

I had the idea earlier that if, for example, a Brassaï or a Kertész happened to be acquired by us we could have an auction such that we would include the Kertész photo among a hundred pictures, but you would not know which one it is. The other 99 are also great and the Kertész may not be such a good photograph.

This of course would be fine if even after the purchase I wouldn’t say which one was taken by Kertész.

Something like that could hold a mirror up to archives, like Banksy’s picture-shredding performance did to auctions and the art trade. 
The ambition of this volume is to emphasise how Fortepan includes the image-creating talent of a Kertész, Vivien Mayer and many others in a collective and often anonymous form. That’s what we have called collective photography. The artistic value can be found in the archive, but it has to be pinpointed – it must be separated from the historical or ethnographic elements or even authorship, which are usually emphasised. Besides that there is also a brand new photographic historical feature: in spite of not knowing who the photographer is, virtual or collective oeuvres can be presented.
By the way, are you thinking of including new or forgotten authors in the canon?

We are, so to say, cooking with what is brought to us. I am not into investigating and discovering an oeuvre. If pictures by a photographer with a good name are brought in, I will deal with that.

So far it has never happened that we were able to promote an author in the photographic canon. From this aspect if Fortepan has a weakness that it is. We are not very good at the representation of authorship – it is because the individual is just one among many. Only a few people look at Fortepan by clicking on a given photographer.

Did all the professional authors get to you by chance?


I think that the archive has a very strong group of photographers, who are sometimes better than the most well-known ones of the period.

Yes, but you can still not rewrite the canon. They who did not publish were invisible and now in vain are they uploaded on Fortepan.

I have the energy for the pictures to be uploaded and then if later an editor or a photo enthusiast finds them, he/she can click on their names and can see what they actually did.

It is important that those who bring in their photos also decide about the pictures to be used. Among others this desire moves and takes forward Fortepan: the authors of these photos may expect them to live on.

Yes, but in reality we see the second generation many times. It is not the photographers with whom we get into contact, but their children or grandchildren. The actual authors we are dealing with are usually over 70.

There are themes which could and should be found. Such archives and such secrets – and that’s perhaps the nicest part – could be searched for. For example, the pictures of the Holocaust in Hungary or of the socialist state security apparatus are not represented in the archive because no one has brought them in yet. Nevertheless, where there is a secret is always interesting. Does Fortepan have any ambition in this respect?

What you are simply asking is whether there is any topic or collection where I am pro-active, if there is a photographer, a topic, a collection or period which is worthwhile for me to begin enquiring about or searching ... I would say that something like that is not on my mind for the forthcoming years. Yet I have such a theme: we have been trying to organise the processing of the BUVÁTI archive. The institute was involved with Budapest’s urban architecture from 1949 – I know that the whole lot is there in the Kiscell Museum. These photos are only on negatives. Every year we write a letter to the Budapest History Museum indicating that we would still like to process the pictures because we think they deserve something much better. They are mainly photos of streets and buildings in Budapest – and I am explicitly interested in the city. I can’t see why on earth we cannot scan them.

My relationship with Budapest is visible on the site ... There are a lot of photos about the capital, although not only because of me.

The reason why these pictures come up is because Budapest has always been Hungary’s only big city. It was here where urban life could be photographed. I wish we had such a compilation of Szeged or Pécs, but unfortunately we don’t. Yet it was possible to take photos in Budapest while hiding or semi-hiding. There are people who could take photos of the city’s romantic or unknown faces, and of course there are many off-the-beaten-track parts – far less so for Pécs or Szeged, because they can be seen in a day.

It is clear why you don’t open up the archive for digital 21st-century photographs, but whether you extend it to the 19th century is not as trivial. The oldest Hungarian daguerreotype depicts the market square in Zalaegerszeg – a perfect Fortepan photo in its content as it is.

I think it’s our fault. There are plenty of accessible 19th-century photographs, only our operational model was simply not suitable to extend collecting to that era – I know the period far less, it’s an uncertain field for me.

But you would have this dilemma about the aspect of its photographic significance.

Opening to the 19th century is not a question – we are going in that direction, but I would not like to change the approach whereby we are not collecting photos taken after 1990.

Your own value choices seem to take precedence over historical representation. It is your decision that urban spaces and buildings are over-represented on Fortepan: buildings and people are equal in rank for you. 

It isn’t only because of that. I think that the past for contemporaries can primarily be interpreted via buildings. The visual experience of history, especially family history represents a very important desire in people. Most people are looking for emotional threads which connect them with the past. This thread can be very strong when it is about a building, especially the place where we lived, the scenes of our childhood when an old image of a street suddenly opens up a window to the past. From then on it is not only a streetscape but my own personal memory. 

Our past is mostly incomprehensible for our children. They lose their way in it, but they start thinking when they see a streetscape. Young people can also connect with it as they can see their personal spaces.

The part of photography that presents the built environment becomes increasingly interesting, despite the author’s will. Time does it good. That is why I select and upload so many such pictures because I think local history is important.

I think the key is to solve a puzzle, to solve a picture and hunting is somewhat connected. Getting lost in a pile of photos and finding something exciting are always very thrilling. Hunting, ambush, hit. What interests me most is when a compilation of photos is brought in. Processing, selecting, descriptions, uploading are less so – it’s as if they were not connected. According to Miklós they can be discarded. 

Do you still go searching through rubbish clear-outs?

Yes, we are going to the first district of Budapest next week. The season always starts there. Of course, my situation is much easier today. People mostly bring me the stuff they want to throw out. Increasingly often, they do not even want them back, since they would have anyway got rid of them. It’s very rare that something would be left for days without me looking into it.

Social solitude is actually your world. Many people would be unable to be alone only with pictures in a room of this size.

Maybe, although it perhaps would do good to many. 

You select those photos where you yourself would like to be. It is a built-in prejudice in the archive which, like an obituary, tries to present more of a rose-tinted image.

An obituary is a good parallel. What I’m dealing with has gone. Everything I see does not really exist anymore.

For me everybody did not necessarily die and I don’t have the disappointing knowledge about the past that I have about the present. 

The archive and the collection seem to be appearing as two independent entities. There is the somewhat undermanaged archive, which would require more money, resources, a structure, digitising and people, and the collection curated by you in which we can all freely roam.

Yes, but if each were done separately it would result in Fortepan having fewer and fewer pictures instead of having more. I would discard 80 per cent, photos which I have in fact included because I am building an archive and not a collection. A vast number of photos I thought important to be preserved got included, otherwise they would have remained unknown. Yet the 80 per cent do not affect or motivate me personally.

Such an institution always has its own line of development and growth. Fields of activity double, new colleagues join and he who has built up the collection to fit his own personality does not often accept that. It could become the point when the archive and the collection must separate institutionally. But of course, it is also possible that you can grow from the present 120,000 to a million photos and function in the present model.

I’d rather try to do that because I don’t see much chance for institutionalisation. At present we live on six million forints. If there were an institution with several times as much – whatever it would be called – which would archive relevant things correctly (I would also keep to not scanning in every rubbishy item) then far fewer pictures would probably be included in my Fortepan.

To change the subject: some 21st-century technologies may even help with discovering things about a picture – for example, with the support of face recognition or artificial intelligence. What do you think about the future of photographs in the 21st century? The deterioration of picture quality and depreciation of material are your hobby horses. At the same time, digital photos often enrich the imagery of pictures in terms of quality.

It is always an easier and more realistic enterprise to collect objects rather than files. We are very lucky in that we are dealing with objects, although we work in a digital enterprise – negatives, paper photos, albums, picture postcards, anything. 

In addition you can collect objects with the feeling of security that what you have with you is reality itself.

It is also a question who will collect digital content technically and how. I do not see it clearly yet. If someone were to suggest making a Fortepan of the present time, how would we approach the work? Would we start looking at Flickr? Would we start to correspond with those who uploaded them, who are represented by nicknames? It would be very difficult to reach the authors. I think that working with found photos of the past is morally more acceptable. You cope better with anonymous authorship when you see a photo of the 1930s than with a contemporary picture. I feel it is amoral to add ‘unknown photographer’ to a photo taken in 2020, because you can really learn who set up the file. It is theft in the present, yet it is collecting from the past.

What happens with the photographic value of the pictures in this case?

In order to be able to answer I should see the photos. I don’t look at pictures taken in the 21st century – at most on my wife’s phone or in the press. I don’t see the type of photography created when as an amateur you take pictures of your family on your phone. For that one should look at Facebook and Instagram, but I haven’t the knowledge about those. I could say that the present is untrue and contrived, dishonest, there aren’t captured moments, etc. But to tell the truth, I don’t really know.

And your interest has dwindled with the end of the 1980s. Photography gradually became democratic during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the beginning photography required very complicated technical expertise, then it got simpler gradually and more and more people acquired the tools needed for photography. By today taking photos has become an everyday activity for masses of people. A camera is at the disposal of a security guard, an instagram user, a dictator, in fact everybody. Everybody and for everything. Can the conclusion be drawn that it is no longer worth collecting photos?

In fact, I have the problem that the present isn’t interesting – by present I mean the last thirty years. Photography has not simply become democratised – everyone can take photos – but the internet has appeared in parallel. This is, in fact, the essential difference between the 20th and 21st centuries. The game was not really decided by digital cameras replacing analogue ones, but by sharing and the ‘performance’ that has been formed around it. You play a role, achieve an effect and collect likes with a photo, but you don’t actually take photos for yourself any more. You take them for the interface where you’ll upload. That’s how and why something happens to the picture. It is no longer characteristic that someone is interested in Alkotás Street and therefore they take a photo of the tramline being welded there, then it is developed in a lab at home and in the end placed in an album. Today he/she immediately wants to show himself/herself.

And who we want to share with is no longer the family circle but the whole world.

Yes, today when you take photos, you also publish them, unlike an amateur author of the 60s who did not, in fact could not do it. At the same time, both interest and ambition have disappeared from the pictures. I’m interested in the photographer who, although an amateur, takes a photo of another person whom he/she does not know. It represents a watershed. People usually take photos of those who they know. But when stepping out you take a photo of an unknown person because he/she is reading a newspaper – that interests me. It is so well ingrained in me that when someone asks me from time to time what should be photographed today I usually answer, try to take photographs of those whom you don’t know. It is very difficult because you must step out of your comfort zone. Today a diminishing number of people do it, although millions of pictures are taken. Fewer and fewer people dare to take photos like that.

There is another, east European speciality in the genesis of Fortepan, which is due to the need for reconstruction. Memory politics is very problematic in this region. Perhaps it is not so in other countries, because historical identity is continuous there. Here history comprises dramatic schisms and reinterpretations.

I’d rather say that in Hungary there isn’t memory but memory politics. 

I feel strongly in your motivation what every central European thinker’s experience is: at last after 1990 it was possible to legitimately bring back the hues, pictures and atmospheres of vanished, deceived and hidden worlds. An important part of the real world could not be authentically present earlier, because it was forbidden. This absence, these schisms as pictures show only half the world in certain periods are especially exciting. A black person in Moszkva Square in the 1960s – in London it would not make a photo, however here it has special contexts. Half of society is usually absent in photos here. The working class in the 20s and the world of the traditional middle class in the 50s and 60s were absent in the pictures.

I agree with you more or less. Public life always interfered with natural memory somewhere and laid down the law regarding what to remember. For us to look back at the 30s from the 70s and 80s is like a dream. At the time people still wore normal shoes and had hats on. They sat on Thonet chairs in the porch. Fortepan wanted to show that dream, too – that the dream in fact existed and so did middle-class culture. This country was such a good place, too.

I have a favourite photo I found a long time ago and I often recall it – by the way it was deciphered, it was taken in a village in Upper Hungary at the turn of the century. Someone is looking out of the photograph, taking a picture from their own room, from where he sees a roof and a stork sitting on the chimney. I feel like framing it – this is the world which is perfect for me; the moment when this country – whatever it was called – was good as it was. But the more you read, the more you realize that it has never existed.

Should Fortepan be included in the curriculum? 

Let me turn the question round. For me when I went to school the 20th century remained in pictures. Unfortunately in very crappy pictures. We remember those photos in textbooks, they were trash and retouched ... yet it is pictures we primarily remember from the books. If you look at it from this aspect it is very important what pictures are included in schoolbooks when you are 16 or 17. It is important for an editor to attract attention by selecting one or two of the many pictures and say “let’s look at these”. The fact that I am still so interested in 1956 and the Hungarian revolution is due to that. I still remember the photos in the textbook of lynching in Köztársaság Square and I did not want to believe that the whole caboodle would have been about that – that you can pack in such important events in two-three photos.

Was Hungary the happiest then?

Yes, on 23 October, I am sure of that. I tried that on historians and they agreed. Can you suggest something else instead? 

Yes, any non-historical weekday. A maximum of one million people were active in 1956. If I look at it from the aspect of figures, any summer day could be happier in the country than those when you were confronted by history.

I could perhaps accept that an ordinary Sunday in the summer of 1982 was good. But I could not compare it with a historic moment.

Who owns a Fortepan photo?

I think it is a common treasure, it belongs to all of us. As time passes there is no other way but the one we are on – Creative Commons, that is to increase the quantity of photos which others can rightfully share or use for their own works. 

We must be very glad if a teenager today is interested in the 20th century. We must be happy for everyone who is interested in anything from the past. 

Only the blind cannot see that you need not sit on photos, but work with them in the collection where you are working as a collection manager or museum specialist. There is nothing more interesting than sharing. The institutes which do not choose this way are very narrow-minded. It is not my idea and it is not only about Fortepan, much more about the changes generated by the internet. If there’s something good with the internet it is exactly that we can share the information, emotion and knowledge that a photo offers an infinite number of times.

In addition, the traditional business models have also changed in the past ten years. Today you cannot make money with a printed publication. The attitude that if you withhold a picture it will perhaps make you wealthy has changed very much. Yet museums still associate money with printed publications. For them it is still elementary how large a picture is when published. That is how the fees are calculated, although they would gain more financially if it appeared online.

That’s also the reason why I don’t see a better approach to photos that have been found than making them free to use, moreover in high resolution. I don’t know who took it, but let everyone use it. And it works. It has hardly happened in the past ten years that someone has asked me to remove their pictures. 

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