Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Profile: Peter Korniss

Nightshift for András Skarbit - Image by Peter Korniss

The final photographer in this trilogy of posts looks at the work of Peter Korniss, a Hungarian photographer who made a name for himself during the early 1970's photographing the traditional peasant culture in Transylvania.

Korniss started the project called 'Inventory' in 1967 and over 31 years photographed and recorded the customs, the unique clothing, the music, the dances - of a remarkable people isolated due to geography from the outside world's influence. Even in the late 1980's, many of these people continued to keep traditions unchanged for decades alive and as such, a strong community spirit bound the community together. Korniss realised that it was just a matter of time before these old traditions would disappear; he decided to record the day to day life of these Hungarian and Romanian villages.

Peter Korniss was born in Kolozsvár, (Cluj, Romania) in 1937 but in 1949 his family moved to Budapest. After being expelled from university for political reasons, he managed to get a position as a photographer with a popular Hungarian women's weekly magazine called Nők Lapja. He worked at the magazine for thirty years but worked in various positions with photographic organisations including The World Press Photo Exhibition. Korniss has won various national and international awards for his work over the years with his most recent award being the Pulitzer Memorial prize, awarded to him in 2004.

Although the Transylvanian images are his most widely renowned piece of work, Korniss also photographed another long term project called ' The Guest Worker' that followed the lives of migrant workers who had broken away from agriculture to work in the city. During the 1970's, over 250,000 lived an existence of having to find work in the city, living in workers hostels during the week, leaving family living in the village and taking the train at weekends back home.

Eventually Korniss singled out one man, András Skarbit, who he photographed from 1978-1988, only finishing the project when András retired. The photographs not only reflect the complicated life of one man but also show a people, community and country in economic transition. By the late 1980's the rural migrant worker had all but gone. András Skarbit died in 1999 at the age of 74. Up until he was photographed by Peter Korniss, he had only had his picture taken 14 times. I've always believed that the story of the ordinary (or in the case of András Skarbit should that be extraordinary?) person is vastly more important (and interesting) than that of a celebrity. The fact that the images were taken over ten years is remarkable and offers a much broader perspective of András Skarbit's life during that period.

Korniss tapped into an area of photography that was immensely popular during the 1930's - the human interest story where the lives of ordinary people, cultures etc were documented for magazine readers to see. Many magazines like LIFE and Picture Post used human interest stories, often running them side by side with the celebrity stories. Sadly the human interest story died with the magazines that made them so popular - Picture Post closed during the late 1950's and LIFE folded in the early 1970's.

Peter Korniss is another photographer i discovered during 2007 along with Roman Vishniac. Korniss had written an essay about his photographic work for a book and mentioned Curtis and Vishniac as influences. I studied documentary photography for a number of years and i find it rather sad that both of those names were never mentioned during all that time. All of the photographers covered over the last three 'profile' posts had one thing in common - they were recording unique cultures with unique traditions, colour and characters for future generations to see. Sadly, for one reason or another, these cultures were destined to disappear until only the photographs and memories remain.

The next photographer profile post looks at the legendary Robert Capa whose life was as fascinating as his images.


All Images by Peter Korniss

Top right - Dancing couples - Szék (Sic) 1967

Left middle - Peter Korniss

Right middle - Rush hour traffic

Bottom right - Shephard with his flock - Szék (Sic) 1974

1 comment:

Susanne in Key West said...

Hi Richard,

this is a very interesting post about Peter Korniss. Interesting for me because I'm born in Hungary too, I liked to read about "my people" and everything connected to my father country.

I like your blog, Richard! And thanks for adding me to your friends list. I really appreciate that.:-)

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