Karol Kállay and the soul of Slovakia

A couple of years ago, my wife and I visited the Slovak National Gallery to see the exhibition of Medieval and Baroque art. When we arrived at the cash desk of the gallery, the lady behind the counter enthusiastically informed us that with the entrance ticket, we get free entrance to the other temporary exhibitions currently on display in the gallery. Her advice was: go and see the photography exhibition of Karol Kállay. And so we did.

Up to that point, I never heard of Kállay or saw any of his work. After that point, I became an admirer.

Born in 1926 in Čadca, all the way up north of Žilina, close to the Polish and Czech borders, Kállay travelled all around the world as a photographer. He shot for fashion magazines in New York and Paris, he published series of photographs of countries like Hungary, Albania, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Japan, the USA, Jemen, Egypt and Morocco, and received various international awards for his work. On 4 August 2012, Kállay died at 86 and left a legacy.

While his work from all over the world is fascinating and beautiful, it was not what attracted me. Throughout his career, Kállay would often return to his roots and produce the most intimate, emotional and absolutely captivating series of photographs of Slovakia and its people.

Two nuns, dressed in black robes and white headpieces, standing on the old medieval city wall of Bratislava, staring out across the city with the St Martin’s Cathedral in front, either contemplating their faith or just simply enjoying the view; a couple sitting on a wooden bench on the Petržalka bank of the Danube, with the still unreconstructed castle of Bratislava looming across the river in the background; a boy in ragged clothes, staring straight into the camera lens with eyes that betray a life of hardship, poverty and survival; a shot of the Jewish quarters at the base of the Castle hill, unbeknown to its fate when perhaps a few years later the Communist would tear it down and wipe it from the map of Bratislava forever.

I could go on and on describing what I see when I leave through one of Kállay’s photobooks in front of me. Anyway, it would come down to the same conclusion, no matter how many photographs I look at. It is pictures like his that tell the true story of a city, of a people and of its history. These are not beautiful pictures in the Photoshop kind of way. They are not retouched to make it look better. Some of them may even be a bit blurry. But they are pure, spontaneous, funny, emotional, sad, sometimes even relentless in its brutality, but above all, immensly powerful in telling a story. A story of the mothers walking their babies, of the lovers on the bench, of the elderly ladies selling their vegetables at the side of the road. A story of kids playing in the streets of Bratislava and of shepherds herding their sheep on the hills of Zvolen. A story of nuns, of war-torn hearts and a story of the forgotten people.

His images are not mere moments fixed on film. They truly are a window into the soul of the Slovak people.

All images are used courtesy of webumenia.sk