In Walter Peterhans’s photography class, Judit Kárász was one of the few Bauhaus students who pursued social photography. With her camera she ventured a glimpse behind the scenes of bourgeois existence and documented life in poverty and social exclusion.
Judit Kárász was born on 21 May 1912 in Szeged, Hungary. After studying photography for half a year at the École de la Photographie in Paris (1930), where she expanded the basic skills she had acquired from a photographer in southern Hungary, Kárász continued her studies at the Bauhaus during the winter semester 1930–1931. At first she attended the mandatory preliminary course led by Josef Albers. Afterwards, Kárász enrolled in the photography class run by Walter Peterhans, where, as an already trained photographer, she gained deeper knowledge and received further training of her skills. Under Peterhans’s influence, she produced material studies and technical experiments like those we know today from other students of the photography class at the Bauhaus, such as the double-exposed portrait of weaver Otti Berger that was taken in front of the Dessau Bauhaus building and is attributed to Kárász.
At the age of just twenty, she was a member of the youngest generation at the Bauhaus, who, without pursuing aesthetic dogmas, concerned themselves primarily with reality instead of utopian dreams and social reorganisation. In their photographs, this generation – which included not only Kárász but also Irena Blühová and Albert Hennig, for example – sought innovative compositions in snapshots informed by a socially critical view.
After joining the Bauhaus, Kárász became actively involved in the communist student group Kostufra. Because of her open political activities (she was caught printing propaganda material) and, stemming from that, her incessant clashes with the right-wing nationalist forces in Dessau, Kárász and other Bauhausler were expelled in March 1932 from the Bauhaus and the State of Saxony-Anhalt.
The young photographer’s path first took her to the metropolis of Berlin, which at that time was a central meeting place for freethinking artists and intellectuals. Initially, Kárász found a job there as a photo lab assistant at the renowned photo agency Dephot (Deutscher Photodienst), where she worked with, among others, Endre Friedmann, who soon made a name for himself as a documentary and war photographer under the pseudonym Robert Capa. Again and again she travelled through Germany, using her Leica to capture a myriad of images that included big-city photos featuring subjects like the construction of large roads, scaffolding and bridges. These subjects were almost overwhelming, especially to photographers from Central European agricultural countries (like Hungary and Slovakia).
Between 1931 and 1933, Kárász returned periodically to her mother in her native city of Szeged. There she met young Hungarian sociographers who conducted objective observations of their immediate surroundings and searched for links in the social circumstances. In 1932–1933 Kárász became a member of the “College of Szeged Youth” (part of the Hungarian “village survey movement”). In this context, she produced photo reports on rural regions in southern Hungary and became one of the most important and most popular protagonists of Hungarian documentary photography: In the exhibition “Fifteen Kilometres from City to Farm” (a socio-photography exhibition) in August 1933, an entire special room was dedicated to Judit Kárász. There were photographs of typical figures of the region around Szeged – poor children, exhausted farmers and funfair photographs that vary from full panorama to narrowly selected detail view, but always thoroughly composed. In contrast to that, Kárász presented spruced-up wedding guests and members of the procession. With her various series, Kárász avoided creating individual “works of art”.
After short stays in Bad Harzburg and Cologne, the strengthening National Socialism led the Jewish social photographer Kárász to seek asylum in Denmark, briefly in Copenhagen and then on the island of Bornholm. She lived there with the German writer and organ builder Hans Henny Jahnn (with whom she had had a turbulent affair for many years) and his family, first on the “Bondegård” farmstead in Rutsker and during the war in the nearby “Granly” house. During that time, her photographic images were almost exclusively limited to private moments. The sole exception was an article by Jahnn about the Island of Bornholm, which appeared in 1941 in the magazine Atlantis, that Kárász illustrated with her own photographs under the name “Jahnn [and] Türckfoto” (at that time it was unthinkable to publish under a Jewish name). To gain Danish citizenship, Kárász married the painter Hans Helving in 1939; it was a marriage of convenience. After the Russians occupied the island of Bornholm, Kárász moved to Copenhagen in the fall of 1945, where she worked for “Kirsten and John’s Hand-Weaving” from 1948 to 1949 under the name Touraine.
In December 1949 she returned to her homeland of Hungary out of political conviction. From 1950 to 1968, the former Bauhaus student worked as a photographer at the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest, for which she made thousands of photographs of interiors and artworks over the course of nearly twenty years, thereby contributing to numerous photo publications. Some of the photographs she made there can still be found today on the museum’s website.
Judit Kárász died in Budapest on May 30, 1977. Once an important documentary photographer, Kárász had been almost completely forgotten until her retrospective in Budapest in 1988. In 1994, the Bornholm Art Museum organised an exhibition of her photos from the years 1930–1945, which was accompanied by a small publication.
Bornholms Kunstmuseum (1994): Judit Kárász. Fotografien von 1930 bis 1945, Bornholm.
Gaßner, Hubertus (1986): WechselWirkungen. Ungarische Avantgarde in der Weimarer Republik, Marburg, p. 574.
Iparmüveszeti Múzeum (1987): Judit Kárász (1912–1977). fotoi, Budapest.
Nádas, Péter (2005): Seelenverwandt/Kindred Spirits. Ungarische Fotografen/Hungarian Photograpgers 1914–2003, Berlin.
Nagytétényi Kastélymuzeum (1976): Európai bútorok a 15.–17. században, Budapest.