“It’s like panning for gold.”

Conversation with photography historian Klára Fogarasi about photos in best rooms

For decades Klára Fogarasi has been studying photographs depicting peasant culture. Her volume In the Village of the Old World appeared 20 years ago, since when it has been impossible to find. For more than two decades she headed the Museum of Ethnography’s Photographic Archive Collection, and she still regularly goes to the museum. MúzeumCafé spoke with her there about the hidden values and interpretive possibilities of historical photographs.

In traditional peasant culture at the beginning of the 20th century, having photographs taken was a serious, festive occasion, when people would don their best clothes. A photographer was sought to record all the main stages of life, such as engagement, marriage and childbirth. The festive clothing, dignified bearing and facial demeanour all helped to concentrate the status, ideals and social and ethical norms in the photograph. In the early years of the last century only better-off peasants could afford to have their photographs taken. It became a mass phenomenon during the First World War, when soldiers departing for the front had their pictures taken with their families. These photos from the turn of the century to the 1920s can be regarded as representing the ‘classic era’ in the period when the peasantry became more well-to-do.

From the order of seating to the types of pose, everything had a meaning in the photos. Apart from the styles in the images, they reflected a stable system of values and the hierarchy within the family. You can see from the bearing and countenance of the father that he was the head of the family. In addition to those taken in a studio, in the years following the turn of the century photographs taken in a village situation were also equally formal.

If a photo is very important for someone, it is also essential how it is kept. The personal relation with photographs, the bond and affection for them, also appeared in their use. In villages they were put on the walls of the best room, underneath the tilted mirror. A bridal wreath was placed around images of the bride. Visitors would scrutinise them. In fact, early on the photo was an object actually replacing the person.

It is thought that the first ethnographic photograph, a daguerreotype, was taken of Jóska Sobri’s family in 1847.

The photographic collection of the Museum of Ethnography holds several thousand of these images, which were purchased from photographers’ studios across the country in the early

1920s by István Györffy, Károly Viski and Gyula László Snr. with a view to surveying the habits of the peasantry vis-à-vis photography. A huge collection was gathered from these provincial studios and today they provide evidence regarding folk costumes of times past. The work of a photography historian is like panning for gold. A huge quantity of not-so-interesting material has to be sieved through in order to find a real gem.