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Pictures Reflect Different Paths of Progress for Female Photographers

“Picturing Progress: Hungarian Women Photographers, 1900-1945” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts deals with the specific experience of an emerging group of artists in a very specific historical timeframe. With 80 works by 21 photographers, it’s an unwieldy but ultimately revealing show that speaks to larger issues and themes in the history of photography.

On one front, it’s essentially a debut of photographic works by women who, though they achieved a certain amount of fame during their careers, aren’t exactly household names here. On another level, the exhibition is a telling showcase of the rise of women photographers in Eastern Europe in the first part of the 20th century, in between World Wars, with Hungary as a case study.

But through Hungary’s experience you can hear in the background the exciting noises made by an explosion of photographers in Eastern Europe during that period — many of them women. The exhibit gives us snapshots into what interested these women photographers, where they aimed their cameras, and where they didn’t.

And finally, the exhibition, spread throughout several rooms, sits in close proximity to another display. “Louise Dahl-Wolfe: Fashion Forward” is a rather expansive show of black-and-white photographs by one of the pre-eminent fashion photographers in the latter 20th century — a woman very much in the forefront of the artistic dramatization of what was basically a commercial genre of photography.

The Louise Dahl-Wolfe exhibition isn’t meant to be an appendage of the Hungarian show — in fact, it’s situated more comfortably next to an exhibit about famed fashion designer Mary McFadden. But photographs are photographs, and one of the things you can’t help but notice about the tightly focused Dahl-Wolfe display is how different her career path and work are from that of the featured group of Hungarian women.

This has nothing to do with quality but everything to do with freedom, a quality earned with difficulty and determination by the Hungarian women, but acquired almost as second nature by Dahl-Wolfe.

You won’t see any of Dahl-Wolfe’s irreverently inventive images among the Hungarians, nor will the names in the Hungarian exhibition be quite as familiar. And you won’t find any famous portraits or individual photographs that jump out at you. What you will find is a kinship with Dahl-Wolfe’s creativity — an accumulative range with a wide net that has persevered and been preserved over time.

Becoming a photographer in the early 1900s in Hungary, or Eastern Europe in general, wasn’t exactly an easy career path for women, nor for that matter was getting any sort of higher education. It was a time of huge changes in a society still geared toward agriculture, when industrialization saw a large influx of people joining the urban work forces. Well-off women could study art and photography by going to other cities in Europe — Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Prague —or they could work with male professional photographers in their studios, learning the trade.

As it did elsewhere though, World War I created an explosion of possibilities for women, who entered arenas normally reserved for men, who in turn were fighting (and dying in astounding numbers) in the multiple fronts of the Great War.

You can see the storm that was brewing in these photographs, which turned the lens away from classical studies, portraits and traditional scenes, and focused instead on social issues, documenting the starving, struggling peasants as well as the electric life of cities in the aftermath of war.

In particular, chronicling the lives of the poor attracted many women photographers, who found an honest romanticism and gritty reality in the subject, as seen in Kata Sugár’s “Girl Herding Geese,” Kata Kálmán’s “Begging Child” and Nora Dumas’s “A Peasant Slicing Bread.” These are perhaps some of the best photos in the exhibition because of their raw beauty and talent, even though there was no tradition of photography in pre-World War I Hungary.

What’s also striking is the hungry variety in the exhibition — from social justice photography to classically artistic images, including Olga Máté’s eggs and mushroom still life, Marian Reismann’s ballerina studies, and Éva Besnyo’s compelling portrait of Gypsies playing music.

The portraits — such as the one by Kata Kálmán of pianist Annie Fischer with Iván Hevesy — are at once dramatic and respectful. In fact, Kálmán and Máté emerge strongly in this display, with Kálmán working toward naturalism while Máté turns everything into self-conscious but affecting art.

Finally, and here is the connection felt most strongly, both the Hungarian and Dahl-Wolfe exhibitions are exercises in nostalgia. These works on the wall capture a world that no longer exists and approaches to art that seem passé today.

Women photographers in Hungary and elsewhere no longer need to gingerly dance around the world with such tortured circumspection, but can find their way into it directly and confidently — yet another picture of progress in a constantly developing world.

Note: “Picturing Progress: Hungarian Women Photographers, 1900-1945” is part of “Extremely Hungary,” a yearlong festival of Hungarian visual, performing and literary arts, presenting more than 100 programs at cultural institutions in New York and Washington, D.C.

“Picturing Progress: Hungarian Women Photographers, 1900-1945” runs through July 5 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave., NW. For more information, please call (202) 783-5000 or visit www.nmwa.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014