A Gift for Light – Local History in Photographs

“Photography is not an Art. Neither is painting nor sculpture, literature nor music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings; the tools he uses in his creative art.” Alfred Stieglitz’s provocative statement in his article Is Photography a Failure? was published in New York’s The Sun on 14 March 1922.

It was Stieglitz who encouraged the Metropolitan Museum to collect photographs. He first presented the museum with a significant collection in 1928, which included his own works. Photography was represented in two ways in the course of museum collecting – as an individual work of art and as a historical source. Of course, these two approaches did not in any way exclude one another, as was also the case with painting and graphic art.  However, photography separated the two approaches more emphatically. The section looking at the history of photographic exhibitions in the volume which was edited by Alessandra Mauro and published in 2014 primarily reviews exhibitions of so-called artistic photographs.*

The collecting of photographs and exhibitions in Hungarian museums, on the other hand, approach the role of photography as significant in both aspects, and this is especially important because it has pointed the way to specific exhibitions similar to the one in Szombathely.

The Savaria Museum in Szombathely, western Hungary, has launched a series of thematic exhibitions. After one focussing on the history of the local Jewish community two years ago, May this year saw the opening of the second exhibition held in the museum’s ceremonial hall under the title A Gift for Light – Personal. The curator, Krisztina Kelbert, structured the principal concept by employing a number of themes. She used photographic works to illustrate the history of the town within 18 themes. In addition, it was important that the prints were selected personally by the curator, which she assembled from the photographers’ equally subjective works. As a result, the presentation of local history, absent in Szombathely (as in many other places, unfortunately), has in this way become a daring and unusual ‘product’. Both the artistic and aesthetic values of the photographs, as well as their documentary content are important. Nevertheless, the curator supplemented and enriched them with further detail, personal stories mainly based on interviews, diaries, recollections and contemporary press sources. The dialogue between the photographs and historic texts represents the chief source of the originality of the exhibition, which encompasses more than 100 years between 1861 and 1963. In that period 84 photographers worked in the town and a selection of their photographs, totalling altogether 420, is displayed at the exhibition.

* Alessandra Mauro, Photoshow. Landmark Exhibitions That Defined the History of Photography, London, Thames and Hudson, 2014.