János Szász photos capture 20th century Hungary 

click to enlarge János Szász
  • “Architektura” (1970) by János Szász is a prime example of the Hungarian photographer’s high-contrast work.
Elegant, black-and-white photographs by János Szász hauntingly capture Hungary’s communist era.

On view at Robert Koch Gallery through Jan. 31, “János Szász” features works by the 20th-century Hungarian photographer (1925-2005), who is not well-known outside his home country.

The show focuses on his work from the 1950s to the 1970s. Prized by collectors, his bold, strikingly graphic and cinematic photos are vintage prints made by the artist himself.

Szász’s saturated blacks and bleached-out whites give the images a surrealistic, painterly feel. Using skills honed as a sign painter, Szász used his own chemical concoction for developing in the dark room and then bleached out sections of many prints by hand, using sponges and paintbrushes to achieve his desired effect.

“Architektura” from 1970 has the composition of a German expressionist film still and captures brutalist architecture — popular in the Eastern bloc — at its best. It is also an exquisite example of Szász’s highly syncopated dance between high-contrast palette and composition.

Shot at a vertiginous angle, a concrete stairwell takes on a majestic presence in blinding light and pitch black. The stairs, with tiny white squares and double-striped lines leading to the top, are cast under the building’s blocky shadow. At the top of the steps is a human silhouette, backlit in mid-motion. The construction dwarfs the figure, and the image captures a feeling of monolithic power.

“Rhythm” from 1960 and “Auditorium” from 1970 also illustrate communism’s colossal presence. Both are shots of seemingly endless rows of theater seats. “Rhythm” has no people, while “Auditorium” shows one man sitting alone. The near absence of humanity makes the theaters architectural and coolly beautiful, faintly haunted by the powers that built them.

The show also includes Szász’s more peopled photographs: snaps of beach bums, dancers, circus performers, construction workers, fishermen and ordinary people (and animals) trudging through Hungary’s bleak, snowy winters.

In “Herd” from 1971, a flock of sheep looks like it is lit by nothing but the moon, the animals’ nubby wool positively tactile.

“School Ball” (1965) is a sweeping cinematic blur. Taken from an aerial position, the picture is of a densely populated dance floor, with the dancers’ faces a beautiful blur — much like a Gerhard Richter painting.

IF YOU GO

János Szász

Where: Robert Koch Gallery, 49 Geary St., fifth floor, S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes Jan. 31

Admission: Free

Contact: (415) 421-0122, www.kochgallery.com

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Lauren Gallagher

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