Megalomaniacal Vibes – interview with photographer Balázs Deim
26 • 02 • 20Katalin Kopin
From pics made at a military missile base to photos of a fictitious space program, to a beer can camera obscura, to Polaroid transfer – we are going through various photo series by Balázs Deim, conversing about burnout, a master who became friend, and also about the possibilities of photographing the naught.
Has it ever happened to you that you wanted to quit photography?
After graduating from university, I got tired of everything. Back then I thought I wasn’t going to be an artist; I just wanted to do applied photography and make money with it. I didn’t want to be wasting any more energy and money on it. A lot of people felt this way after graduation – we just got fed up a little bit. This state lasted for about a year, and then art trickled back into my life because you can't just run away from what is already a part of you.
Nowadays you do a lot of things at the same time: artwork photography, event photos, and portraits, and you are also carrying on your own art projects. Is it challenging to keep all these together and find balance between the tasks?
I isolate my tasks from each other. I manage applied photography and my art projects separately. My art series keep evolving in my head, as I think of them much during my daily work.
Which was the first photo series that you consider an art project?
A series about the town of Szentendre in 2008 was my first earnest assignment; I entitled it Ghost Town. It won the grand prize of the Emerging Photographers Awards of Szentendre in 2009. I was photographing the parts of the city that I had discovered for myself in my adolescence, places where we could hide to smoke with the buddies; I was looking for the face of the city beyond the shop-windows – the run-down suburbs. I photographed the out-of-sight edges of the town on film, and then photographed the negative with a digital camera and a macro lens, this way I got a strange, mystical world in black and white. It was at this time that I started thinking along concepts, thanks to the Novus School, where, while receiving technical knowledge, we also developed an artistic vision. After Novus, I went to the Kaposvár University to continue my studies in photography; I remember two exciting projects from this time, both led by Zoltán Molnár. The first task was to make an extensive photo report of a topic we each obtained by randomly drawing from a pack of thematic cards; I got Housing Estate. I decided to picture the Kaposvár Strip – I found it very exciting, and I worked on the series for almost half a year. It was also a little scary that I had to intrude into the living space of strangers as I was photographing not only the building but also its residents, taking several portraits and group photos. But another assignment was even more important to me. This was when I had to create a photo essay during a whole semester, and we could choose our topic for ourselves. Due to a previous photo shoot, I came into contact with the homeless shelter in Szentendre, And I decided to take pictures of this environment with documentary black and white analog techniques. The first occasion was quite scary, I halted at the gate and thought: "What the hell am I doing here, why do I want to take photos of these people, what will they say, how will they react? After all, I'm entering their life as a complete stranger!"
How did this series go then?
I tried to get to know them, I brought them cigarettes, and we were chatting a lot. At first they gave me weird looks, but I was visiting them every week, and some started to greet me as a friend. Later I went back to show them the pictures I made. This situation also gave me personal growth, but later I did not carry on with this stuff. I think those images are more powerful that instead of capturing a particular moment somehow manage to abstract reality and create a sight that cannot be perceived with the naked eye but can only be shown with the help of a camera.
What has shaped your artistic vision the most? How did the art of your grandfather Pál Deim affect you?
He was a great grandfather, he was the best. There were many things we could discuss over together. We had four family exhibitions, but he couldn't come to the last one anymore. I showed him the Minimal series when it was done, he really liked those pictures and also that he saw I was able to think in a constructive way. The colour scheme and the composition rules of the series also evoke my grandfather's oeuvre, but this was rather instinctive. The blue and the grey – my grandfather’s colours – and the intersections as one image seems to transition into the other also refer to him. He immediately noticed the similarities; this felt good. It was just later on that these connections became apparent to me when I put the photos side by side on the wall, creating a panoramic view, even though the individual images were made far apart in time and space; sometimes even a year or two has passed between the pictures.
How is your relationship with your father, who is also a photographer? Can you turn to him for professional advice?
Of course, I even got my first camera from him, which was his first camera he'd got from his father…That's another nice layer. I used to do the applied photography together with him – we photographed artworks, and I learned a lot from him during that time. I don't usually involve anyone in my art projects; these only take place on my own plane of thought.
How accurate is your shot? How many redundant images are generated while you create a series?
There are always scraps, but not too much. I can pretty much see the picture and what can be achieved through it before my eyes in advance. It's all about planning.
In the Minimal series, despite the sterile imagery, every image shows up a random element that brings in some life. Was this intentional?
Yes. That's how the constructed spaces I create in my pictures preserve their connection to reality. It's important to leave these details in there to keep it human. The pictures are sterile at the same time, but they also contain the imprints of life. For me, that's what is really exciting: to represent humanity in a way that only provide hints to people through details of the built environment or artefacts. It's about the permanent mark we leave or scatter around the world.
You are one of the founders of the Forgács Group. Were you an active photographer right from the beginnings?
I was just an occasional photographer in 2003. We formed the Kassák Circle first, one time when we were chilling on the hill at the Tobakos' Cross in Szentendre. We would go there to smoke, and that time we figured out that we would be artists. In fact, Forgács first was just an art journal. But everyone told others, so there formed a group. However now everyone is on their own path, and as a company we don’t really exist anymore.
When Forgács Group came to an end, almost everyone became a member of Vajda Lajos Studio, is it your transit organization?
Only 4-5 Forgács members joined Vajda. Vajda membership signifies a high standard, as does the Association of Hungarian Photographers, they are also important to me because of their exhibition and competition opportunities. Forgács was an underground organization, we created it to jazz it up, organize performances, and respond to the events around us.
Your Windows series exhibited in the Deep Currents show at Modem was also created as part of a Forgács Group initiative. What was that exactly?
We decided to organize an illegal summer party and art camp on one of the peaks of Pilis, at a place called The Table of Lords, which was a former missile base. We stayed in the dilapidated hangars for a couple of days. In the Windows series, I photographed the empty rooms of a building up there from the same angle: the window is in the middle, the debris inside, and the wild nature outside. There is also a picture in which I photographed these rooms on each other using multiple exposures with a folding accordion camera, creating an odd abstract sight. My friends and I turned one of the rooms into a huge camera obscura as well – a reflective image of the unspoiled nature outside, cast on the wall of an empty, abandoned, crumbling hangar. Then we transformed one of the hangars, too, this was a megalomaniacal vibe, we did it for the feel.
Your Surveillance System series, which also was your thesis, became a great success. In the year of graduation, it right away was included in a museum exhibition (Timeline, Szentendre Art Gallery) and after that became a part of the collection of Ferenczy Museum. What is the story behind these pictures?
When I was a sophomore at Kaposvár University, we were told to select an earlier thesis and give an "antithesis" to it. I chose Marcell Kriván's work Urban Surrealism, which he made with a slit-scan camera. I was experimenting with solargraphy at the time, which was right the opposite of what Marcell did. In his pictures, he seized the moving objects and the background was washed away, while what I could capture on the substrate was only the fixed stuff due to my long exposure times. My first attempts were in Kaposvár, Szentendre, and Budapest, where I put out beer cans converted into pinhole cameras. These resulted in very nice scenic pictures, but their technical execution showed opportunities for development. This technique consisted in that that I made pinhole cameras out of beer cans, put 13x18 cm photo paper inside them, sealed them with tin foil, and pierced a pinpoint-size hole on them, which is where the light would come in, projecting an inverted sight on the substrate. When finished, I took the papers out and scanned them, so the images could be treated as digital files. I placed the first cameras out in public spaces for a month, and this was the method I later chose to perfect for my thesis. Finally, I only installed pinhole cameras at the busiest points of Budapest: Nyugati Square, Blaha Lujza Square, Árpád Bridge, etc.
We deployed our forces in Budapest equipped with a large folding aluminium ladder, visibility vests, safety helmets and put the beer cans on poles. We placed them in June, and I gathered them in early September. It was important that they should be out at the time of the strongest solar radiation. Inside the cameras posted against the sun the light left a streak on the paper every day. A very exciting rainbow-like image was created, where you could even see if the sky was cloudy someday. This photographic procedure is used in meteorology as well to observe the sky. The camera is left outside for up to a year. If the camera wasn't facing the sun, then the buildings became more visible, as the sunlight reflected from their surface. I risked that if someone had taken the cameras away, I wouldn't have had my thesis done. I put out 35 cameras and picked seven pictures for my final project. In the framework of the European Month of Photography, I had the chance to present this series in Vienna in 2016 and in Luxembourg in 2017. When I sorted out the pictures for the Rhy Art Salon Basel 2018, where I participated under the auspices of the Ferenczy Museum Center, I added two more photographs from the originals to the compilation.
In 2019, you won two awards for this series, didn't you?
Yes, I did. Those were the Budapest International Photo Awards, Gold Prize qualification and the first prize of the ND Awards in the Long Exposure category.
Are you an active competitor?
Yes, and at the beginning of the year, I have extra time to ponder over what to submit to which call. I competed with the Space series in 2018, and won first prize at the Different Worlds 2018 6th International Photography Competition in Ljubljana, as well as received the Luka Koper Photography Award. Consequently, I was granted two solo exhibition opportunities; one at the Italian Institute in Rovinj, the other at the Balassi Institute in Ljubljana. Now, among other contests, I applied to a panel building-themed Eastern European photo competition with one of my previous series.
You have also experimented with Polaroid transfer, it is clear that you display a great technical diversity.
It was indeed an experiment. I was very much engrossed with polaroid transfer for some time. The procedure goes this way: when the Polaroid image is taken, after exposure, the two substrates can be pulled apart, one of which bears a gelatinous emulsion. If you roll this emulsion onto a piece of paper, certain parts of the image become visible. I first saw this technique applied in a work by Imre Drégely, and later I delved pretty much into the subject. I worked with a material that left only big shapes printed on the paper. These experiments also revolved around the theme of outer space, I created 8x10 cm images. This was a direct antecedent to my Space series. These little space-mementos were created from photos of ordinary objects. After that, this story lingered with me for a long time.
You mentioned Imre Drégely several times as your master and a photographer from whom you learned how to look at things as well as technical knowledge. This year you two exhibited together in Berlin, what was leading to this joint show?
Imre is my teacher, my master and my friend at the same time. I have been working on the Space series for three years now. Before starting it, I studied thoroughly the photos of Imre Drégely and Gábor Kerekes, because I wanted to understand their works and absorb their style and approach. When I had an exhibition in B32, I asked Imre to give an opening speech, at which point it turned out that, by coincidence, he was working on the topic of Moon landing for the fiftieth anniversary of the event, in parallel with me dealing with space. Mihály Surányi came up with the idea of integrating the two projects into a joint show in the Collegium Hungaricum in Berlin, and then Surányi himself curated the exhibition. So the theme of space has brought us together. It turned out as a very exciting and beautiful exhibition, the two series worked perfectly together.
Portraits and human representation are basically missing from your portfolio. What was the idea behind your photo booth series which is an exception?
There was a university assignment telling us to do whatever we wanted, which we were very happy about. Our professor wanted to know what we were interested in, so he just let us choose our topics. I found out to send passers-by in a photo booth at Batthyány Square. I was wondering what would happen if I started to play with the size of the ID photo. How would the impression of the faces and the meaning of the pictures change? I managed to talk six people into my project; I paid them the price of the photo. I picked them from all age groups, directed them into the booth where they took pictures of themselves. All I asked them to do it as if they were taking a real ID photo, without smiling or grimacing. So I got one 10x15 cm ID photo per person, which I then enlarged to 70x100 cm. While they were sitting in the cabin taking the photo, I was photographing them from the outside.
Did it work as you expected?
My point, after all, was the gaze, the face, and whether a photo could look back the way it would be not you looking at the picture but the picture looking at you. The series was on display at Folt Kávézó, in a dark room where only the faces were lit. I was there once and two girls went in that room to chat, I heard them whispering to each other as they were going in, "Wow, it’s solid, girl, it’s like they’re watching us!" I thought, that's it, I succeeded. After all, this is what I wanted.
I remember another series you told me about earlier, when you photographed your friends, have you finished it?
At that time, I was thinking about what makes me what I am, so it was a self-portrait experiment, actually. Would I be the same if these people weren’t around? So I asked my friends to dress like they usually do and pose in front of my camera during a two-day house party. I used a completely clear white background so the focus was only on that one person in the image. While everyone was drinking, I was flashing with my camera. My plan was to make life-size prints of them, so I measured everyone top-to-toe on the spot. The message would have been that we should get on well and live in harmony with the people who surround us and with whom we are at the same place and time on earth. I made the photos, but I haven’t exhibited them yet, but the more time passes, the more exciting it all gets, since people are disappearing from this group, and new ones are arriving who may become just as important. It’s a changing circle of friends, so I should photograph them again as four or five years have passed since then. For me, depiction of people is exciting only if it means something beyond the given moment.
Have you ever applied for the Hungarian Press Photo Contest?
Yes, and I got past several rounds with my project on the strip building I mentioned, but it didn’t get an award in the end.
Do you have future plans?
I started working on a series, but I don’t own it yet. It would be about pixels and about photographing the naught. The sensor plate of the digital camera is in my focus. I'm trying to get one, but I am yet to obtain it. So far, I have taken photos by removing the lens and putting a cover cap on the camera, so I could photograph the pure darkness inside the machine. Afterwards, I increased the highlight value of the images to maximum, causing the pixels of the visual sensor to appear: red, blue, green dots in the black field. I plan to make giant prints out of it and create abstract images. And there would be a related video project, too.
This is akin to painting, isn't it?
That's right, but what I'm even more interested in right now is getting my big old wooden camera and taking pictures with multiple exposures on paper. The technique won't allow me to use Photoshop; therefore it'll get an oneiric feel, excitingly semi-planned. Now I'm somehow more attracted to this quieter photography than to the revved-up digital technology, and I have more energy for this right now. I hope it will result in something exciting.