Photographic Memory – The Two Girls: Normafa, Hungary 1900 (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #6)

It is an image that fascinates and haunts me in equal measure. Though it was taken seventy-one years before I was born, in a kingdom thousands of miles and an ocean away, during a period when an Emperor still reigned supreme, the photo still manages to touch something deep inside of me. Each time I look at the image it manages to transcend space and time, making me feel the presence of a specific part of the past. The photo to which I refer was taken in 1900, high in the hills above Buda in an area known as Normafa. The photo shows two young girls standing together while looking out at hills and mountains in the distance. They wear flatbill hats and have their hair done up in ponytails. One girl, in a dark day dress, points at something in the distance. While the other girl, looks out at whatever her attention is being directed towards. They stand beside a fence which surrounds a large tree.

I am fascinated with this photo because for me it captures the profound curiosity of youth, the innocence and joy of adolescence in early 20th century Hungary. Two young girls explore the world together while sharing a moment of discovery. Whatever these girls are looking at will forever remain a mystery. In that mystery lies much of the photo’s power. Are they playing make believe? They would not be the only ones. While looking at this photo, I also play make believe. Imagining their conversation, the joys they share, memories that hopefully lasted a lifetime. The girl pointing seems to be helping the other to understand what is in front of and beyond them. There is magic in these girl’s innocence and precociousness. And for children who could not have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, their whole lives were ahead of them, out there somewhere was a future that neither they nor anyone else could imagine.

Pointing the way forward – Two girls at Normafa in 1900 (Credit: Fortepan)

Fortepan – A Visual History Of 20th Century Hungary
A sense of astonishment gripped me the first time I saw the photo mentioned above. It would not be the last time. Such is the beauty and power to be found on Fortepan ( The website is what I consider to be the single greatest resource of Hungarian photography in the 20th century. It hedges the power of crowdsourcing to bring images of everyday life, architecture, and anything else captured by the photographic lens for most of the 20th century. Hungarians are free to upload images, most of which are part of personal collections, to the site. The photos are arranged in chronological order from 1900-1990. I do not remember exactly how I found my way to the Fortepan site many years ago, but what I do remember that photo of the two girls in Normafa was featured on the home page. It was an unforgettable find and this was just the start. At one point I went year by year, selecting my favorite image for each one. I knew many of the places in the pictures from visits to Hungary.

It was a different story with the people. They were strangers who soon became strangely familiar to me. For instance, that image with the two girls in the hills above Buda made me feel a personal connection. Whether the connection was to my childhood or travels, such images linked my past to the past in the photos. None of this image inspired time travel would have been possible if not for two old high school friends who in 2010 decided to start a free Online Photography Archive. They uploaded a personal collection of 5,000 black and white photos. Since that time, the archive has grown to over 146,000 photos. Anyone is free to download and use the images. The only requirement is that they give proper attribution.

Life goes on – Budapest scene in 1942 (Credit: Fortepan)

Capturing History – One Photograph At A Time
Those interested in the history of Hungary during the 20th century would do well to spend part of their time perusing these images. Fortepan contains a visual record of Hungary’s relatively recent past. The photos document the experiences and interests of Hungarians behind and in front of the camera. This was how history was made, one photograph at a time. The photos on Fortepan surprised me in ways that I did not expect. For instance, while Hungarian soldiers were fighting and dying on the eastern front during World War II, I discovered that the people back home were living comparatively normal lives. How could they not? Life goes on despite world historical events. Whether or not Hungarians were aware that the war was on the verge of upending their country is open to debate.

Yet when the photos were taken no one knew what the future would hold. They had no idea that the Red Army would have troops on Hungarian soil for forty-five years. Another surprise was to see the normalcy of life during communism, especially in the 1960’s forward. For good reason, the worst excesses of communism cover the pages of history. What about those who were not party members or politicians? The story could not have been more different. It was often said that Hungary was the happiest barracks on the Eastern Bloc. I am not so sure that statement is entirely true, after all Hungary had an astronomical suicide rate during this time. Nonetheless, the young still danced, families vacationed, the middle class wined and dined across the country. Thousands of images make this abundantly clear. 

Natural beauty – Two girls in meadow at Normafa in 1900 (Credit: Fortepan)

Magnificent Moments – Like Something Out Of A Dream
After looking at hundreds of images on Fortepan, I still find myself going back to those two girls at Normafa. Specifically, to another image I found of them that is just as striking as the one described earlier. In this photo, the two girls are sitting in a meadow. They must not be far away from where the first image was taken, there are hills and mountains in the distance. The two of them are looking out over a beautiful natural landscape. Somewhere below and beyond them is Budapest. The city was bursting at the seams with development. It was the fastest growing urban area in Europe during the final third of the 19th century. The future was filled with promise. Life was getting better for all Hungarians. It was the age of progress, everything seemed to be changing for the better.

Growing up during this time in a family of financial means, such as the two girls in the photos, must have been like something out of a dream, except for the fact that this was a reality in turn of the 20th century Hungary. Life was filled with adventure, curiosity, and discovery. I can only guess what those two girls were discussing. Perhaps their dreams of the future, that future would turn out different from anything they could have imagined at the time. They had no idea that those magnificent moments in Normafa could not last for them or their country. But that moment has lasted, captured in two images that have been transmitted from past to present through the power of Fortepan. The images have allowed me a window into another world, one that was about as good as it could get for those girls and for Hungary in 1900.

Click here for: Spiritual Echo Chambers – The Romanesque Church at Jak (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #7)