If you happen to be familiar with Vienna’s art and literary circles of the 1970s, you will probably recognize a lot of the people in Cora Pongracz’s photographs, quickly identifying these distinguished looking older figures and spirited young men and women (sometimes with children cavorting around them) as significant presences of the Austrian avant-garde. But don’t get the idea that these are formal portraits in the manner of Robert Mapplethorpe or Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. In Pongracz’s black-and-white photos, young and old alike are captured in casual poses, clowning around, standing awkwardly, laughing at the camera, even trying to hide from it. And yet, these are not faux candid shots. Rather, they look like rejects from a photo session, as if the photographer had discarded all the “good” pictures and presented what was left. This impression of Pongracz’s work as a series of outtakes is strengthened by both the title and layout of Verwechslungen, the catalogue of two 1978 shows at galleries in Vienna and Graz. In German, verwechslungen means mistakes, confusions or mix-ups, and the images are laid out in a series of irregular grids so that no two pages look the same.
Of Hungarian background, Pongracz was born in Buenos Aires in 1943. By the mid 1960s she was working as a commercial photographer in the U.K. and Germany, specializing in travel guides. She began photographing Viennese artists and writers in the late 1960s and had several shows during the 1970s. At first, according to a February 1999 Artforum review by Christian Kravagna, Pongracz “shot her art-world protagonists, in public and private moments, much in the style used by the glossies in covering the wild lives of pop stars, paying special attention to poses and masquerades.” For her 1974 “Extended Portraits” series, she photographed eight women friends and asked each of them to suggest other images that were then added as “extensions” of themselves.
Although none of the subjects are identified in the Verwechslungen catalogue, the name “Jandl” on a director’s chair that one man is sitting on (he is seen in various rooms of his home, always taking pictures with a camera) reveals him to be experimental Austrian poet Ernst Jandl (1925-2000). Pongracz’s connection to Austrian literature was strengthened by her marriage to the influential but short-lived poet Reinhard Priessnitz (1945-1985). On another page we see five frames (shot on a sunny day) of a dark-suited man sprawled on the ground in a variety of poses that suggest fatigue, drunkenness or sublime boredom. One can’t be sure, but he looks awfully like sculptor Franz West.
A long illness restricted Pongracz’s public activities after the 1970s. In 2001, the Galerie Fotohof in Salzburg and the Galerie im Taxispalais in Innsbruck co-published a monograph on her work. She died in 2003, at the age of 60. Her photographs are an irreplaceable chronicle of a particular time and place in postwar European culture, but they are also expressions of a unique visual sensibility. As a photographer, Pongracz clearly valued improvisation and accident, sometimes within precise conceptual frameworks. Even more importantly, you never have the feeling of her imposing on her subjects; they retain all their autonomy and privacy in front of her beautifully discreet, nonintrusive yet insistent shutter and lens.