I picked up the phone one morning and heard a man say in Hungarian, “Korab Boldizsar vagyok,” I’m Balthazar Korab. He needn’t have followed up by adding, “I’m a photographer.” I had known that for some time. As a young design magazine editor I was drawn to his crisp, moody, beautifully framed black and white images of the built environment, including the best of modernism. But I did not know, until that morning, that we shared a homeland and were both shaped by the cold war.
His story, like mine, began in Hungary. He came to the US in 1955. I arrived here in 1956. We were both refugees from post-WWII Eastern Europe. He left Hungary in 1949 when the Iron Curtain closed around the Soviet Union’s newly claimed satellites. Eight years later my parents whisked my sister and me out of Hungary, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and crushed the revolution.
After I heard Korab’s voice and I learned of our shared beginnings, I redoubled my interest in his work. His color photos taught me to appreciate the modernist innovators who built a small mid-western town, long before I visited there (Columbus, Indiana: An American Landmark, 1989). Then I found out that his intense images of Eero Saarinen’s work also revealed the story of the architect’s design process. In 1955 when he arrived in Michigan, Korab was hired by Saarinen to document the design development on buildings that were destined to gain iconic status. It’s not hard to make the connection between the initial fame and historic legacy of buildings like Dulles Airport in Virginia and the photographer’s eye.
Balthazar Korab: Architect of Photography
By John Comazzi
Princeton Architectural Press, 192 pages, $40.00
Image courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press
Balthazar Korab always wanted to be known as “an architect who makes pictures rather than a photographer who is knowledgeable about architecture,” John Comazzi tells his readers. Korab’s career can hardly be summoned up so easily.
The story of the celebrated architecture photographer begins in 1920s and 30s Hungary where he was raised in an upper-middle-class family, studying art, music, and poetry, even as his country was rocked with economic and social instability. With the aftermath of World War II he was forced to flee Hungary and landed in Paris where he studied architecture at École des Beaux-Arts. In between his formal studies he traveled through Europe, documenting the relationships between architecture, culture, and public life. It wasn’t, however, until he moved to Michigan and began working as a staff photographer for Eero Saarinen, that Korab established himself to be the man who documented midcentury modernism.
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