Born in Cluj (Transylvania, now in Romania) on 4 August 1937, he lives in Budapest since 1949. He completed his elementary school studies in Cluj and Budapest. He received his diploma in 1955 from the Eötvös József High School, then began his studies at the Law Faculty at ELTE. After two years, he was expelled from the university for disciplinary reasons, because in 1956 he was a member of the revolutionary committee of the university.
Between 1957 and 1961 he worked as an assistant labourer, among others, at the Budapest Photographers’ Co-operative. In 1961 he took the photographers’ professional examination. He was then employed by Nők Lapja (Women’s Magazine), at first as a photojournalist, then as photo editor and finally artistic director – he worked for the magazine for thirty years. Since the early sixties, he has photographed folk dance groups, among others, the State Folk Ensemble (Állami Népi Együttes), and the Military Art Ensemble (Honvéd Művészegyüttes), with whom he works since 1965 up to the present day.
In 1967, influenced by choreographer Ferenc Novák, he began to photograph in Transylvania. Ever since, over the course of decades, he has continued to return, to record the traditional peasant lifestyle and culture, and the process of transformation.
His first solo exhibition was arranged in the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle Budapest in 1974, and in the same year, his first album, entitled Elindultam világ útján…- magyar népszokások (I set out to see the world… – Hungarian folk customs), was also published.
In 1977-78-79, he was a member of the jury of the Amsterdam World Press Photo, then from 1984 he was a member of the WPP international advisory board. For nearly twenty years, he also photographed the International Danstheater company in Amsterdam.
In 1978, he began to follow the life of guest-workers. In the course of his work, he became acquainted with András Skarbit, who travelled between Tiszaeszlár and Budapest, where he worked as a construction worker. Korniss followed his life for a decade, until Skarbit went into retirement. The photos Korniss made during this period were published in his album, entitled The Guest-Worker, in 1988, and following exhibition in the Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle Budapest, were also shown in a number of exhibitions abroad.
Between 1991-99, Korniss was photo editor of the periodical Színház (Theatre), and since 2007 he has taught at the Academy of Theatre and Film.
Péter Korniss is active in many professional organisations, as well: in 1966, he was made a member of the Hungarian Association of Photographers, and in 1982 he was elected to the international advisory body of the American Eugene W. Smith Foundation.
Korniss has had solo shows in sixteen countries (among others, in the cities of Helsinki, Paris, Prague, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Moscow, Quito, and New York). He has worked frequently for the international press (National Geographic, GEO, Forbes, Time, Fortune, etc.).
Among his important publications: Múlt idő (Past Tense, 1979), Vörös Felhő földjén (In the Land of Red Clouds, 1982), Ősi karavánutak földjén (In the Land of Ancient Caravan Paths, 1985), Leltár – Erdélyi képek 1967-1998 (Inventory – Images of Transylvania, 1998), Kötődés (Bonds, 2008).
He has been recognised with many important awards and honours: Balázs Béla Award (1975), Artist of Merit (1983), Award for Hungarian Art (1995), Pulitzer Memorial Prize (2004), Prima Primissima Prima Award (2004), My Country Award (2005), Hungarian Heritage Award (2010), Kölcsey Memorial Medallion (2013). In 1999, he became the first photographer to be awarded the Kossuth Prize.
He characterised himself thus, summarising in an interview: “I am interested in the individual, and in the culture in which s/he lives”. He is a documentary photographer, but it is never the event that is of primary importance to him, but rather the individual within it.
His works are found in many Hungarian and international public and private collections: Hungarian Museum of Photography, Musée Nicephore Niépce (France), National Museum of Photography, Film and TV (England), Historical Archive of the Hungarian National Museum, Szalóky Collection, Körmendi-Csák Collection of 20th Century Hungarian Photography.