Report from a world once upon a time
I try to recall the great moment of recognition for you. It may have happened at that time when József Hajdú was a photographer at Postai Tervezőintézet (Design Institute of the Hungarian Post), and after some technical snapshots paid from many-many salaries and as an obligation by his job he went to work for the first time to the Postal Museum, as leased manpower and there he got hold of old photos taken by Mór Erdélyi, István Kerny and above all György Klösz, whose art has not been surpassed since then in my opinion …
A rather nice list of names for a youngster who was inexpert in museology and in photographic history, isn’t it? There are usually three options in such situations, I think the first two are not worth taking, I only mention them to you in order to shudder a little bit together with me. So it may happen that the photographer who is getting into such a situation shrugs his shoulders, makes faces and says they are bad old photos. I should not judge that, should I? Although an individual belonging to the other group acknowledges the achievement of his predecessors and performs his duty with this kind of photos, but he looks forward to the moment when he can go out through the gate of the museum and he can take out his posh automatic camera. I keep my opinion to myself this time, too. And there is a young photographer who takes the third option, and I like him for that very much, and he is Józsi Hajdú. What do you think he did? I will tell you. He selected a large sized photo by Klösz, made with an albumin process and mounted on thick brown cardboard, showing – if I remember well – a switch room in the Erzsébet telephone exchange around 1905. A beautiful photo, that’s for sure. In front of the long lines of switchboards where pretty girls with headphones manually connected the phone lines of the caller and the called party, there is even a room supervisor walking up and down, watching out that no curious girl should listen to the conversations she connected… Well, service providers still paid attention to this issue at that time, but it does not matter now. The point is, that on this photo of up to 300 millimetres in side length, on the rear wall of the room, there was, there is and there will be (that is the mystery of this photo, but I will talk about it at another time) a clock around 3 millimetres in size. And photographer Hajdú, who knows why, leaned over the photo and had a closer look with a magnifying glass to see what time the photo was taken. Never mind, he was certainly a curious fellow. But when he saw that only one hand of the clock, moreover the small hour-hand was visible, he took an even stronger magnifying glass and saw that the minute-hand is certainly not visible, because the exposition took two minutes. It was not his only experience of this kind. “The other day, I was looking at a photo taken by Rezső Beller, where a large delegation of postmen was standing on the stairs of the Parliament, sometime around the turn of the century. In this photo, I have discovered a signet-ring on the hand of one of the delegates. On a group photo of a thousand persons! It is incredible what those photographers were once capable of doing”. And from then on, the game was over for Hajdú, the photographer. He bought or received, who remembers it any more, a 130 x 180 mm Magnola camera from Czechoslovakia with accessories, a tripod and 6 cassettes, and with this equipment he went to see the world. First, he went to Rudabánya and set up his camera in a world created but later abandoned by humans, a landscape without people, but it was not an inhuman one. He showed unhealed scars on the body of the Earth, with the precision of a surgeon. Well yes, we could say, so what? Everybody can see things like this every day, supposing you go around Hungary with your eyes open. And moreover, if you also have a camera, you can easily record them for your descendants. Yes, but Józsi Hajdú sees and regards all these things to be beautiful: the deserted mines, then the desolate factory buildings in Budapest, then still later the gramophone records with photos of X-ray images of bones constituting skeletons of people mouldered already a long time ago, then a tea-set spotted by dried residue, a naked chocolate rabbit for Easter, and he is able to convey their beauty to us with his photos. Because he is not only an artist, but an excellent craftsman, too. And these two make a very fortunate constellation together. Hajdú, the photographer, creates his own world in all his photos, and it is a great achievement. Of course, he is the only active person in the world he created: he is watching and examining the traces of his fellow humans. He has his own opinion about them, although we do not really hear it from him, since he is not a man of words, but rather a man of pictures, though we can still draw conclusions. How? Go closer to his photos and try to find a single manlike creature. If you find one, then I have lost, but if you do not, it may happen that I have told the truth. Let’s continue! It may also be a coincidence with one or two dozen of his photos, but he has taken photos this way for two decades, and he shows no sign of wishing to change it basically. Those who do not know him might say that this boy is certainly a misanthrope, who hates people. Let’s not get involved in theoretical controversies, because József Hajdú, born in 1961 in Ormosbánya, is not that kind of person; his large number of friends and acquaintances would deny this false assumption. For himself. But actually, what is it all about?
At his first exhibition two decades ago, he displayed his photos about closed and abandoned mines to the public. Of course, it is a great achievement. Make an experiment! Take a photo of the pretty twenty-year-old daughter and the grandmother of your neighbour! At the same time, with the same camera and among the same conditions. You can guess what the result will be. The grandmother may be beautiful, but what about Jucika? You need to make more preparations with her. Well, it is somehow similar to this plundered and abandoned world. If you take a photo with your mobile phone, you will almost certainly not produce the same effect as Józsika with his apparently obsolete and apparently heavy and really big camera. “I began to take photos of factories around 1988-89, but it became obvious to me only in 1990, in the year of the regime change, that the beautiful factory buildings located mostly in the suburban districts of Budapest had been doomed to decay. The beginning of the nineties was an ideal period to take photos. I could get access to any factory with the credentials of Budapest Gyűjtemény (Budapest Collection) and sometimes I was even accompanied by an attendant who assisted (or rather set back ) my work. In 1998, Városháza Kiadó (City Hall Publishers) published my album Industrial Landscape in the series “My Budapest”, selected from my photos taken between 1990 and 1997. When the book was published, quite a few of those buildings had already been demolished, and the process did not seem to stop”. (József Hajdú, 10 February 2004) These factories were mostly built in the late nineteenth century and survived two World Wars, a revolution and various other events, but they did not survive a peaceful regime change. And you may not think anything, but I still feel that the city has been rather more impoverished than enriched by the light-structured shopping mall built on the site of the former screw Factory, or with the rebuilding of the Ganz Factory, the Shipyard, the Gas Factory and the former textile factories, whose former shape can no longer be recognised. A kind of culture has been destroyed this way, replaced by something shabbier, inferior and false. And it is not only the mourning over old buildings... The introductory essay of the book entitled Industrial Landscape was written by Mihály Gera. He was not mean about acknowledgements, although otherwise he is rather outspoken, stingy, sarcastic and critical. “Frankly speaking, they are still awe-inspiring, even with their crumbling walls and falling mortar. They are all self-sustained units. We do not want to believe our eyes, reading that one of these buildings was a slaughterhouse, the other one was a mill, the third one was a pig farm, a brewery or just a boiler room. It is evidence that once architects wanted to create spectacular beauty, beyond utility. József Hajdú does his best to create a situation in order to show the best aspects of these buildings, that are gracious and stately in spite of their huge mass”. An author with the simple signature “Ng” wrote in a more poetical style in the 2/1998 issue of the architecture and design magazine, Octogon: “They are beautiful, just like very old actresses after a benefit performance, when the curtain falls. Hajdú is focussing on the object with all his talent, he is waiting for the best light, he realises the best possibilities of the photo, instead of realising himself. There is time in this book, you can feel that the photos have been exposed by the photographer after careful preparations”.
I am not the only one to praise the photographer of the Postal Museum, who does not lack great predecessors; if he stands up on his tip-toes and looks ahead, then he can see exceptionally talented people in the queue before him, like the Allinari brothers, Edouard Baldus, Eugen Atget or György Klösz, who has already been mentioned, in order to make our national heart beat faster. Just like them, he made his black-and-white photos on large negatives. Of course, because of the technology, I do not have to say that he is not especially the photographer of the moment, and he is not interested in things happening in one hundred-twenty-fifth of a second. He has a different, more intimate and more private relationship with time. Accordingly, he carefully designs and elaborates his photos in his thoughts, in terms of composition and technique. He prolongs the values of traditional photography. In the opinion of Gábor Kerekes: “His photo series, entitled Kőbánya (District 10 in Budapest, the “stone quarry”), of twelve photos, shows even the smallest details and precise real tones in a surrealist way, and it is a good representative of this genre. The genre assumes that the artist applies his technological knowledge on a high level. It is detached from the content; it is pure photography. The purpose is to emphatically enjoy the visual shape”. (The Fourth…i.m.) Hajdú walks on the road consequently, or he rides his yellow bike, and he is characterised by a high level of consciousness. He does not hurry and does not improvise. He is like that. “A few years ago, I took photos of closed mines in Rudabánya and Kőbánya. I found it very exciting that the crowds of people had barely gone, but nature already began to re-conquer these areas. In fact, it was a logical step that after the closed mines, I turned towards buildings doomed to demolition and death. There are plenty of examples in Angyalföld (Budapest’s 13th District), where I live, but I also frequent Váci Road, Kőbánya and Soroksár”. (Szilágyi: “Old masters…”, Népszabadság, 6 December 1994) “I go around town on a yellow bike, or by public transport, and I take notes when I like something. More recently, I have also been taking notes and making sketches with a mini-camera. Then I go back again and again to a particular site. It is nice to take photos of buildings, because they do not run away. You can watch them leisurely; you can observe the change of seasons and the light, the clouds and when is the best time to take a photo, when there is the smallest number of cars in front of the building. Based on your observations, you can decide when to go back with a larger 90 x 120 mm or 130 x 180 mm camera. If you fail to take a good photo, you can repeat it. Therefore, taking photos of buildings is a grateful subject – unless you are pressed by deadlines, because then the whole thing is rather just suffering….”
Of course, he took other kind of photos besides abandoned mines and doomed factories that lost their original functions. In 1998, everybody was surprised to see his exhibition entitled X-Ray Records in the Bolt Gallery in the 8th District of Budapest, which has unfortunately been closed since. The exhibition was opened by Dr András Nyulászi, a doctor of Mentőkórház (Ambulance Hospital). At the first sight, we encountered a horrible scene. We saw medical X-ray images that had lost their original function and gone through a manifold transformation. The images taken in the 1930s and showing a broken arm, a damaged skull and a thorax were usually thrown into the garbage, or in better cases, they were recycled in order to extract their silver content. Some inventive sound-recording specialists who lacked raw materials discovered that the X-ray image – having lost its validity – was on a thick layer of plastic coated with emulsion, which was very much suitable for any sound-recording with the usual cutting equipment for 78 records. And once they discovered it, they did it. Music, performances and festive speeches were recorded on the images of tibias and skulls. From then on, it was an easy job: they were cut into a circle and labelled with, e.g., Anna Kapitány sings her hit “We have a nice evening”. I have chosen this one because it still exists, and she really sings it; the public was able to hear it at some exhibition openings. The world was receptive to this exceptionally strong work of Hajdú. The photos were displayed at Fotokina, the largest photo exhibition in the world, organised in Cologne, then at the Art Academy in Berlin, in Budapest at the Media Model exhibition at the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle Budapest, and at the exhibition Digitalized Bodies in the Ludwig Museum, but even in New Delhi by Nessim Gallery. Originally, the emulsion of the film recorded the images drawn by X-rays and later recorded the sound scratched by the cutting needle into the grooves. Then Hajdú made objects of photographic art from this strange co-existence: 90 x 120 mm Polaroid negative film-plates, contact prints, as well as black-and-white analogous blow-ups. I think the contacts he made from sound recordings cut into X-ray images are among the best contemporary photos in recent years. Zoltán Trencsényi wrote: “The spectacle is more than astounding: the image of a skull, cut around in circle is turning on the table of the record-player, and we can hear the hit We will have a nice evening, sung by Anna Kapitány, from the grooves cut into the film. A negative showing a thorax plays the song, When the peach blossoms. We could say that music and singing really come from deep in the soul, but let’s not be morbid, also because in the thirties, X-ray negative sound-recordings were not even accidentally made as a joke, nor perhaps for some kind of a surrealist combination sale. Lacking raw materials, music or festive speeches were recorded by ingenious amateurs and the sound engineers of the Hungarian Radio on rejected X-ray plates coated with emulsion. (…) This time, József Hajdú also noticed and developed something that a less attentive or less sensitive person would easily find as something completed and finished”. (“Music from X-ray images”)
He made his tea-photos on Polaroid 55 positive-negative film. He went through the utensils used – I emphasise: used – for the ritual order of tea-making, and forced each of them to have a function different from their original purpose. They became models in front of Hajdú’s camera. The residue accumulated on the edge of the glass during several years, the residue on the bottom of the porcelain, the filters… all of them are the visualised appearance of the peculiar ritual order of an exceptional drink. Interestingly, “the reincarnation of time becomes a sculpture, a monument” on these photos, as was written by art historian Károly Szűcs in the foreword to the catalogue. As well as: “WABI, the smallest unit of the harmonic play of Japanese aesthetics is shown to us. The status of form and spirit (material and odour, vapour, breath) deeply, but imperceptibly hiding in each other, an existence increased in hardly acting and in hardly being present. József Hajdú’s photos increase a small and apparently insignificant thing – the life of tea – to a monument and the monumental”. I should not forget to add that it was also exhibited at the Bolt Gallery, and we cannot be grateful enough to gallery manager Jenő Detvay for having prepared a tiny catalogue including everything important from this exhibition. “Recently, I took photos of utensils I use for making tea in the series, entitled Tea Photos, in super-close-up among interesting settings. The utensils have only been rinsed over the course of years, and have became tarnished and discoloured. The small details have been exhibited in 500 x 600 mm blow-ups. I have been thinking about this idea for three years: these objects are among the most personal belongings that you take in your hands every day, and you always see them differently, depending on the way you feel”.
The report from a world once upon a time about a reporting photographer ends here for today. To be continued.
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