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A Forgotten 20th-Century Photographer Who Folded Her Work into the Fabric of Life

November 28, 2016

My first reaction upon seeing Told and Untold: The Photo Stories of Kati Horna in the Illustrated Press was: “How is it possible that I have never heard of this person?” The surprise was engendered by the realization that the work in this retrospective exhibition — which was curated by Michel Otayek and Christina De León at the Americas Society — holds its own next to that of all the canonized photographers from the same period with whom I am so familiar.

Born in 1912, Kati Horna was a photographer, a Hungarian Jew, and an émigré. After seeing the show, I immediately wrote to my mother — also a Hungarian Jew, born in 1923 — to ask if she had heard of Horna. The answer was no. That Horna was unknown to both of us may be in part because she spent her productive adult life in Mexico. It may also be because she eschewed stardom, identifying herself as an art worker rather than an artist. It may also be because she was a woman. László Moholy-Nagy, born in 1895, was an émigré too, but he landed in Chicago and was associated with the Bauhaus School, making him a much more familiar figure, even if he and Horna shared a home country and a visionary imagination. One might summarize Moholy-Nagy’s overall project as a proposal for the reimagining of spatial relations in order to construct a more enlightened future; Horna’s project focused on circulation — the power of context and the exploration of distribution networks as a way to create and disseminate meaning. For Horna, the circulation of images, rather than the standalone photograph, was the principal arena of investigation and action, motivated by the belief that she could bring about positive social change.

Horna’s early life experience was a series of exiles requiring her to adapt repeatedly to different cultural environments. Although the first few photographs in the exhibition are single images taken in Hungary, Horna moved to Berlin as a young woman, gravitating toward a group of intellectuals and writers who were drawn to the Marxist theoretician Karl Korsch....

Read the full art review here.