Small reflection of Debrecen: the album Gondy-Egey

On the occasion of the day of Hungarian photography, we have been picking from the photos of the legendary photographer duo of the 19th-century Debrecen Károly Gondy and István Egey. The reorder-book saved almost 40 thousand pictures, of which nearly 2 thousand are accessible in our database as well. The material in the album is not only a social depiction but also the revival of the 19th-century Debrecen with actresses’ and noblemen’s portraits and inevitable family photos. 

We, the people of Debrecen by God’s grace

The heydays of large photographic studios were at the turn of the century and every town that wanted to seem posh had at least one. Not only in Debrecen, but also in Hódmezővásárhely (József Plohn’s studio), in Szeged (the brothers Brenner) and in Temesvár (József Kossak’s studio). The oeuvre of the pair Gondy-Egey was a special one because their album (or rather a reorder-book) survived and was purchased by the Déri Museum of Debrecen in 1923. As photographers were artists in vogue, almost the entire population of Debrecen visited their studio in the period.

Piac Debrecenben XIX. század - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-NDThe 19th-century Debrecen is known typically from descriptions of foreigners; for example people’s memoirs who had to spend their time there during the war of independence and who considered the town atmosphere very special. The civism is the feeling when you belong to your town so much that you do not believe in anything coming from outside of your town wall. The recollections that sugarcoat this period are worth taking with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, this civilian consciousness was a kind of bastion of the resistance against the Habsburg authorities, due to its traditional way of living and closed community.

Károly Gondy arrived in the city in 1863 presumably, and became an assistant in a studio. He was an alien that did not really know the customs of Debrecen, walked in German clothes according to the fashion of Pest – because he had to ‘be a German’ in Pest so as not to be markable – but exactly this made him flary in Debrecen. Gondy was born in Pest in 1836. His mother was an elegant lady, but his father was more or less unknown and Gondy was registered as a bastard child. He was educated in Pest and entitled himself an engineer, but the truth is that there were not any institutions in Hungary that could issue an engineer diploma between 1853 and 1873. One thing is sure: he turned to natural sciences very early, he went to a trade school, but at the same time, he loved drawing and was receptive to arts.

Jóna Dániel - Déri Múzeum, CC BY-NC-NDAs he was always emphasizing: he found his real home in Debrecen, but at the same time he used to mention his childhood in Pest that was rich in important experiences – probably in order to compensate the blame of being German. However, he was already 45 years old – and had been living in Debrecen for twenty years – when he decided to get married in 1881. The girl he chose and her family, the respectable family Jóna, are interesting because they exemplify very well the awareness and necessity of Gondy’s resolution. His fiancée Róza Jóna, who had got pregnant before the marriage and took back her respectability by getting married, was an honoured member of the civic city. The importance of being honoured is shown well by the fact that becoming a civilian of Debrecen was a task for the photographer. He wanted to think and look with the head and the eyes of a man of Debrecen and wanted to stand for this approach in his publications too. If he could not be a citizen of Debrecen, he could not be proud of living in the city.

The photographic studio

Nendtwichné fia kutyával -Déri Múzeum, CC BY-NC-NDThe popularity of the studio was partly due to the fact that Gondy’s studio was the only one in the city and partly to the technical novelties of course. Károly Gondy had several ‘inventions’ during his career, for example the innovation of adjusting the angle incidence of light. Photographers could compete against one another only with their technical knowledge, because they made identical photos practically. This is the reason why coloured photos (chromotypes), tableaux, albums, projection-prints and artistic retouching, which made photographers real artists according to Gondy, could become so popular.

Immortal pictures

In his whole life, he aspired to serve the public wealth or at least the benefit of the civic city. Unfortunately, his efforts to become a city bourgeois were in vain. If he did not write, did not make fireworks, he was not a topic to talk about, he was not elected as a deputy, was not invited to balls or in boards of presidency. Even when he was invited to make photographs, he appeared at events as ‘Gondy-Egey’. Even less is known about his partner István Egey. He was 8 years older than Gondy and participated in the war of independence as a private soldier.
He was already married when they met, but the beginning date of their partnership is uncertain. The name of the studio Gondy-Egey appeared first in an advert in the paper Hortobágy on 30th July 1865. Much as he wished to be immortal, Gondy felt that he was lost for the posterity and there would not be any reason for remembering him. He was absolutely wrong about that! His photos show us families, middle-class people and children and dogs, all of them in their best costumes posing slightly mannered, but besides them, you can also see the photographer himself.


Translated by Zita Aknai

Sources: Szabó Anna Viola: Gondy és Egey fészképészeti műintézete Debrecenben (A Magyar Fotográfia Forrásai 5. Debrecen, 2008)