About Sándor Kereki's photographs

Writer: Barakonyi Szabolcs


Hunyadi Square, Budapest


City Park, Budapest, 1976

Sándor Kereki was my neighbor. By the time I was born, he already was deep into photography. For a few years, we lived just around the corner from each other.

Looking at his pictures, I start to recognize everything. I know how the even side of Merse Szinyei Street between György Kmety Street and Aradi Street transformed; although this happened somewhat later, but for months of boring school classes at the Pál Szinyei Merse Elementary School and Secondary School, I watched the demolition of the last single-storey building across the street. Sándor Kereki attended the very same school.

For a while, we witnessed the neighborhood’s transformation together. In the meantime, I learned to see and walk, in the physical sense of the word, and he learned to take pictures, in the artistic sense of the word.

The change of seasons on Andrássy Avenue, the smells at the Hunyadi Square market, the scents in the City Park. I can feel them, as I look at Sándor Kereki’s shots. Being familiar with all the corners cannot be the only reason for me to feel them.

All in all, Sándor Kereki’s oeuvre seems to capture one city—despite the pictures he actually took in other cities in Hungary and even in Uzbekistan during a trip there—because that was the way he saw the world through his camera. Generally, a city the size of Budapest would not be enough for street photography. Heavy traffic, lots of passersby, and curious faces are compulsory.

No city in Hungary at the time was large enough for loitering urban photography, for pictures resembling those taken in metropolises. And yet, it did become large enough for Sándor Kereki, after all. This was achieved by focusing primarily on the city and its people.

In the 1970s, things looked pretty dim in Hungary. Yet, Sándor Kereki’s photos showed how much wider the world would get without this gloominess. His images were not, however, deceitful veils concealing reality, like all the tolerated or supported products of entertainment industry at the time. His pictures sought and promoted life, and that was what made them capable of transmitting vitality even from such a sinister period.

Meanwhile, I can also hear the newsreels of the time. Reports on nice things happening, like the arrival of winter clothing to stores before Christmas. Looking at Kereki’s photos recalls even news segments meant to present how people lived in different cities in Hungary. Journalists of the period had a distinct relationship with pedestrians. They approached them, and after hearing their short complaints, let them get back to their business. While life was not without challenges, people felt at least they could speak their minds.

Some recurring locations in Budapest had intrigued Kereki; markets, popular parks, benches, squares, specific neighborhoods. Times he knew the light would be good here and there. The streets and the photographer’s walks, the hunter’s instinct with which he patrolled his territory; or the places and events he evidently frequented and enjoyed capturing. In his presence, something always happened—we could think, but that is not how it works, reality does not leave a good picture on each corner of the Grand Boulevard. Sándor Kereki’s photos are results of immense commitment and patience. Having recurring locations reveal the same commitment; Kereki knew that there, sooner or later, something would happen.

It is also striking and apparent that there were far less cars when Kereki took his pictures; people walked. Downtown streets were often crowded, window-shopping on the Grand Boulevard was a common pastime. Kereki’s photos also prove that time did pass slower back then; primarily, because things refused to change, just like the regime. A 10-year gap distances my childhood memories from Kereki's photos; and the first discernible—maybe sole—change I can identify is that by my time, the bus Ikarusz 180 had been replaced by the newer models of 211 and 250.

Hungary had numerous influential photographers at the time, but they were involved in other things, in distinct subjects, they had no time for just looking about. Sándor Kereki looked about instead of them as well, and captured the people of Budapest exactly as they were, not the way a professional photographer would have framed them. Sándor Kereki’s curiosity was personal, making his gaze unique in Hungary; and how fortunate that his images have been discovered at last, allowing more of us to enjoy them.

I do not dispute that the period we talk about had important topics. Rather, I ask which topic was important when and to whom? Why a certain issue was required to be addressed, and, in a world of infinite control, what the intention was with that. I am overly cautious of this period and its figures.

When it comes to the mere gaze captured in two dimensions, the intensity and composure of Sándor Kereki’s approach has no rival. The selection of photographs debuting now on the website dedicated to Sándor Kereki revolves around gazes. Two hundred images that could easily be complemented by everyday remarks, as one can almost hear the characters’ thoughts; viewers can also imagine what people in the pictures were looking at, how they were mumbling under their moustaches. Here and now, besides decisive moments, the focus shifts to captivating gazes.

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