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Rediscovered After 50 Years, Magnum Photos Go on Show in Vienna

Visitors look at a photograph by Erich Lessing.

VIENNA Dozens of black and white photographs from such well-known names as Robert Capa and Erich Lessing have gone on display after spending 50 years in an Austrian basement.

The 83 prints, on show at Vienna's Westlicht Gallery until May 18, were part of one of the first touring exhibits by the Magnum photo co-operative in 1955, entitled "Face of an era," and give a unique insight into the art of photography in post-war Europe.

The pictures, including some by famed French photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud, remained buried in a basement of the French institute in the Austrian town of Innsbrueck for over half a century until they were recently re-discovered during moving. Perfectly preserved, they are "a formidable treasure from the golden age of photography," Christoph Schaden, a German art historian who examined the photographs after they re-emerged, told AFP. "One of the two boxes actually contained precise information about how to preserve these pictures," he said.

The black-and-white A4-sized prints, which appeared in five Austrian towns and at the famous Photokina fair in Cologne in 1956 before disappearing for over 50 years, have a "historic value for the art of photography," said Schaden.

Their topicality is what gives them so much appeal: "(They) dared to cast a liberal eye on the world in post-war Austria."

The initiators of the exhibit, who remain unknown despite intensive research, intentionally discarded all war shots.

"They focussed on utopic moments, with a feature on non-violence as advocated by Gandhi in India for instance, courtesy of Henri Cartier-Bresson," said Schaden.

He described a photo series by Jean Marquis, taken in Hungary before the anti-Soviet uprising in 1956, as an "audacious photographic foray o n the other side of the Iron Curtain."

Meanwhile, snapshots by Austrian photographer Erich Lessing show children in Vienna in the 1950s, playing in a wealthy district, at the fair or at the municipal swimming pool.

"If you asked me today to select ten prints for this exhibit, I would choose other ones, taken from a different angle," said the 85-year-old Lessing, who is known for his snapshots of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and of legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan.

"But of course today, I also see the world differently."

"What is amusing in all this is neither the quality (of the prints) nor the fact that these photos were found in a basement, but how these eight photographers saw their era 50 years ago," added Lessing.

An exhibit like this is a gift from heaven in the digital age, he said. "Today, this would be impossible, because we're entering a period of great dearth in terms of documentary work, for which digital is to blame," he said.

"If someone today does a big feature on Europe or on a war, at the end he will only have what he needs today: 15 or 20 photos. All others, he will delete directly from the camera's memory because he needs space and in 50 years' time, if you want to publish a book or make a documentary on the world today, you won't have anything."