Joint illustrated article series by the Capa Centre and Fortepan
Heti Fortepan 62.
2022. April 13.
Even Colors are Different in the West
The Death Agony of Capitalism in Color Photos
Passing by Hegyeshalom (a border village between Austria and Hungary), colors get a different shade. Upon leaving the border and the monotone greyness of the Comecon, color pigments heighten, neon lights pull you in, and lip gloss becomes lively on women’s lips—even though they open for others, not for the average broke Hungarian. From the 1960s on, more and more Hungarians received passports to the West. A hard currency allowance of 70 dollars, a list of addresses of expat friends in the pocket, and the indispensable photo camera on the neck: the following is a selection of color photos of the obscure object of desire from the Kádár era, from the Fortepan archive.
In one of the typical jokes of the era turning empty socialist propaganda slogans on their head, a Hungarian gets a tourist passport to the West. When he gets back home, his friends gather around him asking:
“Tell us, what did you see?”
“I saw the death agony of Capitalism.”
“What can I say? It’s a pretty beautiful way to die.”
Though it certainly remained a privilege, more and more people were allowed to travel from Hungary to the West after 1963. In spite of the fact that passport applications were reviewed by the party secretaries of the applicants’ workplace, administrative authorities could still reject them without a reason. While red passports, allowing travel to fellow socialist countries, were less likely to cause problems, a blue one, valid for the rest of the world, including capitalist countries, could only be obtained by the grace of power.
The borders of the open world and of individual freedom were not the only thing marked by the different colors of personal documents. Wanderlust and longing for faraway places was also painted with beautiful colors by those who found state socialism too grey. Though Maeterlinck’s play for children about the bluebird of happiness was frequently on stage in those days (it was even turned into a children’s fantasy film in a Soviet–American coproduction), the only people who believed that the bluebird was not to be chased in faraway countries were those who had no other choice. Those who could, started off on the yellow brick road beyond the red and white barriers to Emerald City.
Color photos by Hungarian tourists appear more and more often in Fortepan’s collection of over 150,000 photos from the 1960s on. Most of them are, obviously, typical tourist pictures: street views of European cities, the whirl of cosmopolitanism, shopwindows, neon lights, and luminous strips in the night created with long exposure. Huge neon signs of Cinzano, Kaiser Bar, and Reisebüro on Kärtner Strasse in Vienna; fonts from another, faraway-yet-familiar world: western newspapers, western cigarettes, beautiful cars, and beautiful women. Europe.
The quality of the material used by photographers to capture the colors of the time is of course important. Behind the Iron Curtain, the most accessible color camera film brand was ORWO, produced in the GDR, but it lagged behind in color quality compared to the once popular but hard-to-buy Agfachrome reversal film, produced by the Belgian AGFA company, or to the even more inaccessible Ektachrome produced by an American company, Kodak. The top of the tops in quality was Kodachrome, also by Kodak, but it was basically out of reach in Hungary for an occasional photographer. The color rendering of these materials is highly affected by the conditions of their storage during the decades passing between their development and scanning: if they were kept out of the reach of sunlight, in a bag, cut into strips of six frames, stretched out horizontally, or in a curled-up filmroll in a shoebox, in a damp basement.
In any case, it is easy to discover a genuine marvel in Hungarian tourist photos of the time. The diversity and abundance at newsstands and at the produce section, the colorful women’s magazines and tabloids, pineapples, mangos, and the yet unheard-of avocados, each wrapped one-by-one in rustling paper… A Chinese restaurant with a yellow lantern, a light blue balloon, and Scandinavian cognac. Masses of people on bicycles in Copenhagen, as early as the 1960s.
If we accept the definition that tourism is a social practice of experiencing the “exotic” and the “distant,” it is no surprise that for us, Hungarians even a properly dressed shopwindow had a factor of exoticness, let alone a street performance or a hippie commune—all virtually nonexistent back home. These views of course were to be captured on slides or on photo paper. “Conveyor-belt tourism” was criticized by the Hungarian press from time to time. “Nowadays even all the Hungarian tourists sit on the pedestal of the Thinker and ask their families or fellow travelers to take a photo with him/her: in the same pose. Like everybody, everybody, the Americans, the Japanese, the Germans, the black and the white, the tourist and the tourist,” someone lamented. But according to Susan Sontag, it would have been flat out unnatural to travel without a camera. “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter,” she wrote, but it is probably natural that an “East European globetrotter” escaping the confinement would like to take a few sniffs of fresh air at least on some photo negatives.
“Thousands of Hungarians visited Rome, just as Vienna, Paris, Zurich, and other Western cities saw a growing number of Hungarian tourists. They reached in large numbers such countries where earlier only a few lucky ones could go as part of a mission,” wrote the daily Népszabadság in 1963. The number of Hungarian tourists travelling abroad reached one million for first time the next year, and it saw another even larger increase in the 1970s. If one had a relative living in the West, there was a chance to visit each year if an invitation letter was provided. Without such a letter, one could go only every three years. The foreign currency allowance equivalent to USD 70 was tracked on a sheet that belonged to the passport. However, the right to travel was officially declared and recognized as a legal right only as late as 1978.
Caricaturists found a nice subject in Hungarian tourists who preferred to eat Hungarian salami at the foot of the Eiffel tower after buying a few pairs of nylons instead of paying an entry fee, but the Hungarian press stressed that this was a thing of the past. “It is getting more and more obvious that we can return from a trip abroad with a luggage containing far more value than commodities. It is safe to say that this year the aim of our travels was to obtain experiences and broaden our perspective and knowledge.”
The year 1967 was declared the year of international tourism, and the socialist countries joined this movement with the motto “Tourism is a way to peace!” However, the ministry of propaganda regarded this way to be seriously risky and tried to inculcate the correct point of view in the tourists they deemed less ideologically educated in order to prevent them from getting too much under the influence of the things they would see abroad. “Let’s be honest: a traveler gets to see a lot of things in the Western countries that he would like to bring home. But a tourist not only watches but sees. He or she sees perfectly well that the people of these Western countries hardly get to enjoy all the beauty, the good, and the abundance that they themselves created with hard work and sweat. Socialism has created such novelties that are worth a thousand times more than the beauty, glamour, and mostly unnecessary luxury that only a thin slice of society gets to enjoy,” wrote the Party’s newspaper.
In other cases, they warned readers about Hungarian-speaking agents approaching and luring Hungarian tourists into emigrating. The Hungarian Young Communists’ League (KISZ) published a book titled “Truths Exposed through Chitchat” in the series “Little Library of KISZ leaders” in 1972, about the corect way of political education for young people, “for all those tens of thousands of people who have been able to get a glimpse into capitalist life through tourist trips or other exchanges of experience.” The message in a nutshell: They may have a Persian rug there, but it is likely that it is under seizure by a debt collector.
“Behind the colorful cavalcade of neon signs, about a few hundred or thousand meters beyond the sea of uptown shopwindows, the wind is blowing the stench of a hellhole,” wrote the daily Fejér Megyei Hirlap in November 1969.
However, the photos and songs capturing the colors abroad were telling people about something else: the sunshine in Saint Tropez, in the case of the band Fonográf, or, in the case of Tamás Cseh, about a green blanket a certain Anna slept in when in London with her blue passport. That, and nothing more, was the state of the world.
Text: Ádám Kolozsi | Photo editor: István Virágvölgyi | Translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]The Weekly Fortepan blog is a professional collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at: https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/nyugaton-a-szinek-is-masokIf you have a family photo to share with Fortepan, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.