The first photographic studio in Hódmezővásárhely was founded in 1869 by Illés Plohn, who took photographs of the developing Vásárhely, capturing people’s everyday life. The studio was taken over by his son József Plohn in 1887, who, during his study trips, mastered the latest achievements of photography and cinematography, the opal and platinum methods of making pictures. During its 75 years of existence, the Plohn studio has created a valuable heritage.
The studio was founded in 1869 by Illés Plohn, a photographer from Mako. In 1887, his son József Plohn took over the management of the studio and ran it until his deportation in 1944. Illés Plohn’s photographs won him recognition at numerous national exhibitions, and at the 1874 London exhibition he won first prize for his pictures of farms in the town of Fairfax. His photographs of the 1879 Szeged floods stand out among a series of similar subjects. He regularly took photographs of the developing Vásárhely, capturing the everyday life of the people living there. More than a hundred of his pictures are preserved in public collections.
The best-known photographer of Vásárhely, József Ábrahám Plohn, was born on 7 July 1869 in Makó. His father was Illés Plohn, the first photographer of the town, his mother was Amália Kugler, and his three brothers were Eleonora, Gyula Henrik and Béla. The family moved to Hódmezővásárhely in 1870.
József Plohn was a student at the Reformed High School from the 1879/80 school year until the end of the 1882/83 school year. After completing his studies at the grammar school, he learned the basics of photography in his father’s studio and then studied for two years in the studio of the imperial and royal court photographer Károly Koller in the capital. In 1887 he took over the management of the studio from his ailing father. On 28 June 1892 he married Fann Hirn, with whom he lived until her death in July 1937. He studied in Munich, Florence, Rome and Paris. He returned home in March 1894 from his study trip to Paris, where he learned “the most modern techniques of photography and cinematography, … the opal and platinum picture-making techniques”.
At the National Millennium Exhibition of 1896, Illés and József Plohn won first prize and the Millennium Grand Medal for their photographs “depicting the folk life and farming of the lowlands”. At the exhibition, Franz Joseph congratulated József Plohn personally.
János Tornyai, the painter Béla Iványi-Grünwlad, the sculptor Ede Kallós, the painter Fülöp László in the summer of 1892, and from the early 1900s the sculptor János Pásztor, the painters Gyula Rudnay, Béla Endre and Gyula Várady, the later ethnographer Lajos Kiss, and later the painters József Koszta and Emil Vén visited the Plohn studio.
In the early autumn of 1902, at the request of the National Museum of Historical Records in Cluj, he photographed the still living soldiers of the 48th Army of Veszprém, and wrote the names of the soldiers on the edges of 89 glass negatives.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, he took nearly three thousand photographs of farms, farm buildings, residential buildings and their furnishings, the entire process of pottery production, and various crafts such as weaving, beekeeping, fishing, and gingerbread making in and around Hódmezővásárhely. He has recorded the work of herdsmen and farmers, the embroidery of subas and textiles, wedding ceremonies, children’s games and even cemetery headstones. Some of the photographs he took were shown at the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition in August 1904. Here he also exhibited a series of 41 photographs of “typical figures of men and women from the pure Hungarian race”. In addition to the anthropological shots, “we see all the most notable parts of the town, its buildings, streets, atmospheric landscape details from the meandering banks of the Tisza, farms from all parts of the border with almost all the field work going on, vineyards, pedestrian areas, etc.” of the frontier, with its walks, walks, etc. The ethnographic objects on display at the exhibition were also photographed at the request of János Tornyai.
At the request of Sámuel Szeremlei, he took a number of photographs for Volume 4 of the monograph The History of Hódmezővásárhely. The Tanyai Újság, published in August 1913 under the editorship of Dr. Sándor Kenéz, published 8 photos of the harvesting process, a farmyard and a studio photo of the old farmers of Vásárhely.
In 1911, after the death of his father, he obtained a trade licence and officially took over the running of the studio.
After the First World War, he found himself in a difficult situation, firstly because he had subscribed more war loans than he could afford, and secondly because of a fall in solvent demand and increased competition. In order to improve his financial situation, in 1922 he intended to publish the material he had collected in a six-part photo album entitled “Pictures of the Great Hungarian Lowland Folk Life”. According to Plohn, the album was to consist of the following sections:
1. series: Old Hungarian decorations and museum objects.
2. Series: Potting (tilling) craft.
Includes: Crafts, primitive tools, old and modern utensils and art vessels.
3. Series: Agriculture.
Includes: all kinds of agricultural work, including old, outmoded work (hand sowing, printing by horse, spreading, etc.) ploughing, sowing, harvesting, farms, farmyards, farmyard, horses, hombards, horses, cows, sheep, etc.
4. series: Hungarian figures.
Includes: folk costume, customs, cottage industry, weaving, fishing, marriage.
5. Series: Hungarian buildings.
Includes: houses, courtyards, rooms, ovens, gates, windows, fences.
6. Series: Cemetery.
Includes: old Hungarian headstones, bells.”
He sought financial support for the publication of the album, so from September 1922 he tried to win influential sponsors for its publication by writing petitions himself and through well-known personalities from the town of Veszprém – Dr. József Imre, Tihamér Szathmáry, Pál Csokán -. In spite of the appreciative offers, he failed to raise the necessary funds. Seeing the lack of support, he put together the first series of 125 photographs at his own expense. On January 26, 1923, at the intervention of General Győző Hainiss, Governor Miklós Horthy received Plohn and viewed the pictures, and although the Governor was very pleased with them, he did not support the venture financially. On hearing the news of the governor’s reception, the Érdekes Újság published 10 pictures in its issue of 22 February 1923. The ageing Plohn then did not seek publication until 1927, but from then until 1933 he repeatedly asked for recommendations from well-known public figures, Dr. János Banner, Dr. József Imre, Ferenc Szeder, Ferenc Móra and Dr. Károly Kogutowitz, who assured him of their support and esteem, but even through their intercession no financial support was obtained. Finally, in November 1933, Plohn wrote an unsuccessful petition for publication to Bálint Hóman, Minister of Religion and Public Education. After that, only a recommendation written by Dr. Ervin Baktay is known from June 1940.
The complete album of 6 series could not be published, but the museum in Szeged bought a copy of the first series in 1927, and subsequently the city of Hódmezővásárhely bought about 300 photographs from the old master for its ethnographic museum in 1929. Among the purchased photos were 141 portraits of the Hungarian army, mostly taken in 1902, 42 portraits presented at the 1904 exhibition, 10 photos of the destruction of the Romanian soldiers in the gymnasium in 1919, and more than 100 photos from the photo album “Pictures of the Great Hungarian Lowland Folk Life”.
He was a founding member of the Tornyai Society, founded in 1934.
After the death of his first wife, he remarried and married Maria Nagy.
In the summer of 1944 the elderly photographer was deported and died in a cattle car on his way to the concentration camp.
József Plohn’s estate of 1,635 glass negatives was purchased from his widow by the János Tornyai Museum in 1952.
Today the Plohn collection consists of nearly three thousand glass negatives and photographs. The Plohn bequest, and within it the 48th Army trophies, is one of the museum’s best-known collections, having been exhibited in nearly 60 national exhibitions since the early 1980s. The material has also been exhibited abroad on several occasions, in Rome in 1988, in Paris in 2000 and in Darmstadt in 2009.
The military portraits inspired the work of many artists, including József Rátonyi, József Fodor, Előd Nagy, Gyula Balogh and Attila Székelyhidi. In 1994, Tibor Szenti, with the collaboration of Péter István Varsányi, made a two-part documentary film entitled The Great-Grandchildren, in which the great-grandchildren of the participants in the War of Independence tell stories about their ancestors, what the legacy of 1848 means to them, and what stories have been passed down from generation to generation in their families.
Thanks to the cooperation between the János Tornyai Museum and the László Németh Municipal Library, the entire Plohn legacy was digitised in 2007. The digitised photographs were added to the Electronic Library of Hódmezővásárhely and the Picture Library of the National Széchenyi Library. Part of the collection is also available on the website of the János Tornyai Museum.
During the 75 years of the Plohn Studio’s existence, Illés and József Plohn have created a valuable heritage that is definitely worth preserving. In addition to taking hundreds of portraits and wedding photographs of the people of Veszprém, the two photographers regularly travelled around Hódmezővásárhely and its surroundings, capturing the events of everyday life and documenting them for their contemporaries and posterity. Especially valuable for today’s people are the pictures related to cereal cultivation, animal husbandry, and small crafts – especially pottery – which are nowadays changing. The glass negatives have preserved the atmosphere of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in the town of Fairtrade, and these are the only remnants of many of the buildings that remain today. The collection is constantly expanding, and the János Tornyai Museum has made it a priority to collect photographs by both Illés Plohn and József Plohn.