Zoltán Móser: Mondottam, ember... Képek Madáchhoz [Man I have spoken... Photos to Madách], Budapest: Masszi Publisher, 2002. With the foreword of István Jelenits

Coincidence that connects far away worlds” has arranged it so that just one day after I have reported on the visit of Rodin’s statues in Mallorca, the same burgher of Calais, Jacques de Wissant whom I had photographed in Palma looked back at me from a title page at a book sale. This photo album is signed by Zoltán Móser (1946), author of thirty books, photo illustrator of fifty other ones, participant of two hundred exhibitions, professor of theory, practice and aesthetics of photography at the Péter Pázmány Catholic University, and guest professor of the Sapientia University in Kolozsvár (Cluj). Besides the photo on the title page it includes thirty-six more portraits of men, women and statues of angels, apparently from Transylvania, accompanied by quotations from the renowned 19th-century drama by Imre Madách, The tragedy of man.

When dipping into the book, the first thing I notice is that these photos, in the majority representing beautiful, sharp-featured and often upsetting faces of old peasant men and women, absolutely do not move me. They leave me cold. These faces in real life would stir up definite feelings, interest, sympathy or antipathy in me, but while browsing through their photos I only feel bored. This contrast is so strong that I’m constrained to think about its reason.

When glancing over the book the second time, I discover that the photos are unfocused. They are slushy. Without exception. The details of the faces, of the hair and of the clothes are fuzzy, they get lost. Thus some powerful elements – the eyes, some deeper wrinkles, but principally the nose and the mouth – dominate the impression. The face becomes a mask. Its individual traits are eclipsed, it becomes schematic.

On a third glance I have to establish that this effect is not accidental, but intentional. Each image is pointed to a small morality, just like the “little colored articles” of the newspapers of the seventies. The photographer did not intend to photograph persons, but rather roles and clichés. Genre figures. Sentimental photographic commonplaces, whose theatrical compositions rise from the peasant romanticism of the late nineteenth century, spanning without rupture (occasionally with some Socialist by-paths) to the nostalgic Transylvanian photo albums at the end of the twentieth century.

When a photo moves me, when I find it a good picture, it usually comes from the impression that the photographer is interested in reality, he is able to look at it in astonishment, he permits it to touch him personally, and it is this unique encounter that he is photographing.

This is not what I see on these pictures. This person is not interested in reality, but in finding some matter for his well-trained sentimental clichés. He is photographing such commonplaces in a row that have been photographed by many others for the past fifty years. He avoids encounter. This is not what he sees. This is what is customary to see.

And, in addition, his clichés are but limited to a well-defined stock of the several clichés in circulation. To those ones that represent their subjects from outside and from above. With aloofness, in a stiffened posture, degraded to objects, as simplified figures reduced to their momentary role. Without love. For the consumption of the petty bourgeois who is filled with satisfaction by the easily receivable anecdotal, populist tone on the one hand, and on the other hand by the safety that he stands above the subject of the image, that it is him who looks at the person represented while it does not look back at him, and that he does not have to enter into relation with it as a person. That he can avoid the encounter.

And the murkiness, fuzziness, lack of sharpness of the images – well, that is Art. The feeling of “cloud of unknowing” and of “seeing but a poor reflection as in a mirror” added afterwards to camouflage its triviality. The three points quivering for a long time after an empty phrase. A smokescreen.

With the examples below I have also juxtaposed some images comparable with them. I had no large pool to choose from, only a few albums I had within reach at home. The photos in them were mostly small-sized, so they get somewhat grainy when enlarged, while the album of Móser is of large format, thus its images come in a better quality.

Besides, the images of Móser become sharper when reduced in size, thus for the original impression you should enlarge them by clicking on them.

Left: Irén Ács, Meeting in the cooperative, Kondoros, 1959 (from the album Magyarország Otthon (Hungary at home), detail, below it the full image. – Right: Zoltán Móser, „Do I not feel the blessed daylight, The sweet delight of being alive...”

Left: Irén Ács, Couple, Füzesgyarmat, 1963. – Right: Zoltán Móser, „And even when imagination raise me Mere hunger plucks me down and humbles me, And makes me descend once more into base matter.”

Left: Irén Ács, The dustman, 1970, detail, below it the full image. – Right: Zoltán Móser, „ life more than a dream?”

Left: Irén Ács, Mosonmagyaróvár, 1965, detail, below it the full image. – Right: Zoltán Móser, „A broken heart is quickly enough mended...”

Left: Irén Ács, István Hunya, a leader of the movement of Hungarian construction workers, 1972 - Right: Zoltán Móser, „...I have been racked by fearful visions, And I cannot tell which of them is true” (detail)

Left: Péter Korniss, Christmas, Tiszaeszlár 1985 (From the album The Guest Worker) - Right: Zoltán Móser, „Let us be wise, like god [sic]

Left: Photo taken in Ladakh by Zsolt Sütő, 2007 (detail) - Right: Zoltán Móser, „All earth can know of joy is in my smile...”

Below: Zoltán Móser, „See there, the eagle circling in the clouds...” - Below it: Ferenc Olasz, Galgó (from the album Dicsértessék [Glory be to Him], 1989)

The smokescreen covering the angels even sends forth stink of sulphur. It would come in handy to the author if he could divide the book in a perfect symmetry to three times twelve images, by illustrating the male portraits with verses pronounced by Adam, the female ones with quotations from Eve, and those of the angels with verses sung by the angels in The tragedy of man. However, the angels have but limited opportunity to speak in the Tragedy. The one who in turn speaks profusely is Lucifer. Therefore the author tacks a tiny bit of an epilogue onto the images with the subtitle “whether it is permitted to tease the angels” in which he, after a ritual act of touching every holy cow from Tamási to Rilke and Klee declares that he will illustrate the photos of angel statues – photos that are even more wasted, inexpressive and taken without love than those of the persons – with quotations from the Satan. A gruesome blasphemy indeed, which is nevertheless assisted by the Piarist professor István Jelenits who authorized the book with his foreword.

By the way, the work of Madách is a true classical collection of sentences, of which any verse selected at random can be used as a motto for anything, as it is well attested by the above captions of Móser’s photos. The album of Móser, for example, would perfectly match those verses from the twelfth scene:

Thou hast been sunk in dreaming phantasies,
And left to stray the herd thou shouldest watch.

But even more those sentences of Péter Korniss from his Transylvanian photo album Inventory:

Robert Capa, the legendary photographer of Hungarian origin used to say, “If your picture is not good enough, you were not close enough to your subject.”

I changed this motto to “If your picture is not good enough, you were not close enough to the person.”