Péter Korniss

Cowherd driving his cattle at dawn
Szék (Sic, Romania) 1974

“Péter Korniss is one of the outstanding living Hungarian photographers, possibly the best-known abroad, as innumerable prizes and distinctions attest. His success relies in a combination of simple denominators. There is the sheer beauty of his pictures, a superior mastery of technique, his capturing of a valuable tradition, coupled with a message that is deeply humane and communicated in a language that is easy to understand. Still, Korniss’ art is more complex than that.” So László Beke wrote in the article “The Framing Eye of Péter Korniss”. It is very hard to say something better about Péter Korniss and it is possible to add that we can learn from his work the respect and love for people, the respect for life. He shows for us that the real life consists from many simple things, each of them is a little miracle. Korniss’ photographs are a wonderful gallery of miracles, where the main is human being and can’t be something more important in life than this.

Miracles of Life
Interview with Péter Korniss
by Sens Unic Association

Your albums entitled “Inventory” and “Attachment” appeared after 31, respectively 41 years of profound documentation. What will occur after 51 years?

Thank you for your optimistic question! In 2018 when I’ll be 81 year old – hopefully the book will be richer with a newer part. Let it be surprise!

You moved to Budapest in 1949 and came back to Ardeal in 1967. How did you find it? What memories have you got from your childhood in Cluj?

I was born in Cluj (Kolozsvar) in a Hungarian family in 1937. I lived in town and I hadn’t known anything about folk culture. I had my schools and my friends in town. I have very warm memories about my friends from my childhood and it was difficult to leave town and to adapt to Budapest in the first years. My strong and deep relationship with my best friends from Cluj had lasted till their death.

Suppose you hadn’t been politically expelled from the law school, what do you think you would have become? Would you have expressed yourself through photography?

If I had finished the university very likely I would have become a layer. I had my first camera only in 1958 because I thought I should start a new life and that was photography.

Where did the idea of your first project “Inventory” and then “Attachement” come from both with such a long period of researching?

The idea started in a very simple way: In 1967 a choreographer friend of mine took me to Sic, a small Hungarian village in Transylvania. It was Saturday evening and I just stepped into the Dance House. I was amazed by the traditional scene, the folk dresses, the dances. It would have never occurred to me that such a world still exists and I had no doubt that this would disappear sooner or later. I thought photography was a possibility to preserve this disappearing world and I thought I should capture and show this to people.
The idea was followed by many decades of research, a lot of travelling and building up relationships. I started with taking pictures of folk customs in Hungary where I could still find some of the traditions alive, but in those years Transylvania offered much more. The traditional peasant culture could be seen in many regions. After having worked in Hungarian villages of Transylvania for some years, in 1974 I travelled to Maramures where I was astonished by the richness of the traditional Romanian culture, the colorful dresses and the people’s hospitality. From then on I was photographing both Romanian and Hungarian traditional life and culture in the villages of Transylvania. Without knowing it at the very beginning I was working in the spirit of Bela Bartok, the great Hungarian composer, who collected Romanian folk songs too and published them in Bucharest in 1905! I think working in both Hungarian and Romanian villages was unavoidable and very important.

What kind of memories do you have from Ardeal? How do you consider it after 20 years?

I have plenty of wonderful memories from Transylvania. Each trip was a special experience and I learnt a lot not just about the traditional peasant world but also about communities and culture. I have always felt the hospitality and warmth of the people in Transylvania – both in Romanian and Hungarian villages – and that made me richer in a human sense.

People changed dramatically between 1967 and 1998. What do you think about these changes? Are they positive or negative? Would you start a new project of the Inventory kind? Is there still something to show?

Life has changed dramatically after 1989. The isolation of the the rural ares ceazed to exist, many people couldn’t make their living, many started to work in the cities and abroad, many families lived apart. The traditional culture was fading away in front of my eyes and I was witnessing the arrival of a global culture. I was lucky to have been able to capture this transformation with my camera. This is the subject of the second part of Inventory (1998) and this is also the dominating element of the Attachment (2008) in which this process of transformation is shown in a geographically broader scale including Hungary, Slovakia and an other Romanian region, Moldova.

Girls in the dance house
Szék (Sic, Romania) 1967

Do you remember any beautiful moments related to the period when you started the research for the Inventory?

I think one of the most decisive moments was a wedding at Sic which I photographed in 1971 and where I became friend with the newly weds. Their daughter became my Goddaughter and our relationship is still very strong. This fact is one of the reasons that so many of my photos were taken at Sic.

Do you have in Cluj, or in Budapest a ‘beautiful room’, like the one in your photographs?

No, unfortunately I don’t have. I live in a very urban apartment.

What hobbies do you have?

I love reading and swimming.

Do you find Romania changed after you the last time you’ve been here in 2008? How do you think the people changed, after they lost their traditions?

Well, I think the changes after 1989 affected many areas including human relationships. Last year when I was working on the last chapter of “Attachment” I went to Sic at Easter. I would have liked to take some posed pictures of families in their homes. I could hardly take any picture. People were busy, busy – or they simply didn’t want to be photographed. The same happened to me in a village in Hungary, in the spring 2008. I think this change is general everywhere. Life has become faster, people are too busy and on the other hand they have become more distrustful when they see a camera.

In your opinion, how will the peasants’ life be in the future?
The only thing I know for sure is that agriculture will need less and less manpower because of the progress of technology.

You love the people you take photos, from these photos one can also tell that you have only warm thoughts for them and you don’t judge them in any way…How have these people changed after the globalisation? Are the communities as united as in your Inventory?

I have always wanted to show though my photographs how I feel towards the people who are in front of my camera. I became more aware of this when I was working on “The Guest Worker” (see in Attachment, second chapter 1978-1986). I can not work keeping a distance, being cool and over objective, this is part of my character and I can not change it.

Your photos look very natural and the people are elegant and relaxed …what do you talk with them while taking the photos? They look like they enjoy the photo session. What are the steps of a photo session? Do you have fun together?

I don’t have special subjects to talk about while working. Whenever I am taking pictures my attitude is that I am interested in the people who are in front of my camera. I think the most important thing is to show respect towards them. Mutual respect is basic for building up a relationship in general.

What is inspiration for you?
Inspiration is that I think what I am doing is something important.

What is your favorite place of taking photos?
My favourite places are: Sic, Mara and Sugatag in Transylvania. In Hungary a region called Galga-mente and in Europe Amsterdam where I have worked for many years.

Do you feel any pressure coming from the part of the society, related to the way you take the photos?

How have your photos been changed by time? Do you see your old photos differently? Are they more valuable?

As everybody I am also changing, especially considering the long period I spent taking pictures on the same subject. Sometimes I discover pictures in my archive which have never published before. This also happened when I was editing the Attachment.
I think old photographs are always interesting. With time the value of a photograph can grow, especially in case of a vintage print.

When you come back from the photo sessions, do you work on them immediately or you wait a little bit, to get away from them before you do that?

I think you need time and distance to be able to evaluate your photographs. It takes time to “clean” them from your personal memories and experiences.

Do you feel nostalgic for the past times that you keep in your images?
This is a very important question. On one hand I am sorry that community feeling is less strong, human relationships are slackening and the traditions are slowly disappearing. On the other hand I am glad that in many villages the houses are healthier, lighter and more comfortable, the circumstances are better. The freedom of travelling has also improved the life of many people. I have written about this both in Inventory and Attachment.

What type of education do you think a photographer needs?
I think basically they have to learn the skill plus I think some general education is also important for a photographer.

The Inventory album has the clarity and the purity of a poem, an honest poem about people. Was the selection difficult? How important is the selection for you?
The selection of the pictures depends on what you want to say. Of course you want to publish your best photos, but eventually the editing gives shape to your work and sometimes you have to leave out very good photos too. I have to admit that editing is one of the most fascinating part of my work.

If “Inventory” was a poem, then “Attachement” is a novel, more photos, more work and more stories about people. How did this book develop and for how long?
The editing of the Attachment lasted for nine months – exactly the time for a baby. This was not on purpose but this is how it happened. The picture editor, the designer and I had been working together already on many books for many years but this book was the most challenging one.

What do you feel about your lost photographs that you cannot retake?
There is an old English proverb: No use crying over spilt milk!

How many photographs did you take for “The Guest Worker”?
I have worked on The Guest Worker project for more than eight years. I started to work on commuting workers’ lives in general but after one and a half year I was focusing on one of them. His life had a special value for me: there was harmony in him, while being a stranger in Budapest for the weekdays, he had his family, his home, his garden, his animals and his community in his village when he spent the weekends at home. I learnt that this balance was the key to his life, to the harmony in his character. This is what I wanted to reveal in the book.
So I had to spend a lot of time covering his life and I had to take lots of pictures, I think it was over three hundred rolls of 24×36 films.

October 12, 2009
Personal site of Péter Korniss:


Mother and babe-in-arms
Lészped (Lespezi, Romania) 1973

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