|Philippe Gras went to Hungary in the spring of 1990 as photographer of the Autumn Festival of Paris, the General Manager of which, Michel Guy, had decided two years before to organize a special tribute to Hungarian music. Travelling with a representative of the Festival, Philippe was in charge of photographing composers and artists picked up to perform a few months later in Paris.
Hungary was a complete discovery for him. As a professional photographer, he had travelled around the world for more than twenty-five years, in Europe and beyond, from one Festival to another, driven by his curiosity for all forms of Jazz and music, in their popular or elaborate expressions. In this process, he became more and more widely recognized as one as the best specialists of musical photography. In 1983, he travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia, bringing back a book of photographs of Angkor, the access of which was at this time quite perilous. As photographer of the Paris Autumn Festival, he went in 1989 to Bhutan, capturing images of an exceptional ethnographic and stylistic quality. But when he landed in Hungary one year later, it was with a completely fresh eye.
The country was then at a turning point. The summer before, the Communist government had decided to dismantle the Iron Curtain running along the Hungarian frontier with Austria. This initiative opened the way to the fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November. But in October already, the Hungarian ruling Party had chosen to disappear, leaving behind it a new Constitution introducing a multiparty system and freedom of expression. Free elections took place in the spring of 1990. They brought to power a coalition of fierce opponents to Communism.
This transition took place without serious hindrance. But Hungary was still floating between two periods. The new leaders had no idea of how to rule a country. Kádár, the old communist viceroy, pushed aside in 1988 after a reign of thirty years, had left an economy crumbling under heavy debts. As everywhere in the Communist world, the end of centralized economy and collective ownership was producing a sharp drop in national product and standard of living. The atmosphere was therefore far from cheerful in the streets of Budapest. Democracy did not fill people’s bellies. Clothes were shabby, and grey was the city. The general outlook was of “Eastern Europe”. Once in a while, though, one could perceive faint signals of change.
This is the world at the same time distant and familiar which Philippe Gras brings back to our memory, as he goes strolling through the Hungarian capital city. Of course, he went a little beyond the strict fulfillment of his contract with the Autumn Festival. As always, he captured for his own pleasure, day and night, images of people, as well as images of buildings, of bridges, of tunnels… These photographs were never shown before their discovery in Philippe’s archives, after his sudden death in 2007. They allow us to look at Budapest at a very precise moment of its history. But also in the timeless munificence of its majestic river and in the amazing contrast of its two banks, molded by the genius of its great architects, civil engineers, and city planners.
Former French Ambassador to Budapest