Back to the Future, the 19th Century in the 21st Century

The 19th Century in the 21st Century focuses on the work of contemporary artists who employ techniques, methods, processes and themes that in one way or another resemble those of early nineteenth-century photographers. As well as being inspired by the pioneering years of photography, they build upon them in surprising ways. The current condition of photography is reminiscent of the early years of the nineteenth century when, because it was not yet a crystallized, standardized medium, experimentation was unconstrained. The new medium was the plaything of laymen as astronomers, mathematicians, doctors and chemists, who set to work like alchemists, catching light, sensing time, mapping the world and leaving traces. Photography’s potential was investigated with great curiosity. Like learning a new language, it changed the way we saw ourselves and the world. The new medium was used with huge enthusiasm for all kinds of purposes and applications. Photography was above all a useful tool. Not until the twentieth century was it deployed in a truly free and artistic manner.

Those working in the photographic medium today are once again typified by an urge to experiment with techniques, processes and materials, and by an open, non-conformist mentality. The analogy with the nineteenth-century pioneers applies on both a technical and a mental level. Contemporary artists are experimenting more and more with nineteenth-century techniques, producing cyanotypes and photograms, and reinterpreting nineteenth-century themes. They use contemporary materials and variations on those themes, so the innovative results are sometimes a long way from the original techniques. Experiments are taking place with techniques that were unimaginable in the nineteenth century, such as Photoshop and 3D printing, in an open, investigative spirit that reflects the mindset of the nineteenth-century photographers who, in their own day, defined the boundaries of photography and expanded them.

The work of the contemporary artists in this exhibition is characterized by an appetite for experimentation, by crossfertilization and by a multiplicity of hybrid forms. They pay a great deal of attention to the physical creative process and to the material qualities of their work, returning to the basic principles of photography: light, photosensitive materials, emulsion and chemical processes. By purposefully experimenting, they create radically new artworks that sometimes only distantly echo the photograph but also tend in the direction of drawings, sculptures and paintings.

The contemporary works in Back to the Future. The 19th Century in the 21st Century enter into a remarkable dialogue with outstanding nineteenth-century works. The parallels and connections between the two are not a matter of hard science but of pertinent associations. This kind of openness is a reflection of the spirit of visual freedom characteristic both of the pioneers of the nineteenth century and of the contemporary artists in this exhibition.

Participating artists: Sylvia Ballhause (DE), Karl Blossfeldt (DE), Bownik (PL), Matthew Brandt (US), Sam Falls (US), Jenő Gothard (HU), Spiros Hadjidjanos (GR), Thomas Hauser (FR), Nicolai Howalt (DK), Adam Jeppesen (DK), Thomas Mailaender (FR), Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs (CH), Johan Österholm (SE), Jaya Pelupessy & Felix van Dam (NL), Antal Pribék (HU), Stephen Thompson (GB), Simon van Til (NL), Ferenc Veress (HU) and various anonymous artists.

Loans for this exhibition are from ELTE Gothard Astrophysical Observatory (HU), Foam (NL), The Archive of Modern Conflict (UK), Medical Museion / University of Copenhagen (DK), The New Carlsberg Foundation (DK), Dick Meijer Antiquities (NL), Hungarian Museum of Photography (HU), Un_Spaced (FR), Galerie Eva Presenhuber (CH), Martin Asbæk Gallery (DK), Yossi Milo Gallery (US), LVMH Métiers d’ Art Collection (FR), NBA (DE), Die Photographische Sammlung/ SK Stiftung Kultur (DE), Ravestijn Gallery (NL), Episcopal Library of Székesfehérvár (HU) and from the artists. We are grateful to all of them.

This exhibition is an initiative of Foam in collaboration with C/O Berlin, Germany.

Curators: Kim Knoppers (Foam) and Ann-Christin Bertrand (C/O Berlin) in collaboration with Claudia Küssel (Mai Manó House), curator assistant: Zsófia Princz (Mai Manó House)

‍All images by Imre Kiss © Magyar Fotográfusok Háza Nonprofit Kft 2022