Imre Benkő: China, 1984–2019
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“The Tao never does anything, yet through it all things are done.”
(Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching)
An iconic figure of documentary photography, Imre Benkő took his first photos in the early 1960s. His outlook took shape during his years at the Hungarian News Agency (MTI, 1968–1986), though by his own account he never wanted to photograph in an MTI style. He created his first photograph with a documentarian’s eye in 1977, and has since worked with the same mindset and worldview, inspired by Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Josef Koudelka. For nine years from 1987, he documented the decay of metallurgy in Ózd, and in 1992 this photo series won him the scholarship of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund (New York). This gallery selects from the photos Imre Benkő took in China, which he visited nine times over the past 35 years.
“I was lucky as a young photographer to be able to work in various Asian countries. I was taken by the distinctive lifestyles of nations living in different social systems, and I became more and more intrigued by what it was I could visualize with photography. In 1984 I spent a month taking photos in and around Beijing, wandering around with the help of the most popular Chinese vehicle, the bicycle, familiarizing myself with a metropolis that was vast but was composed mostly of one-storey buildings that were not to be taller than the former imperial palace. I could observe life in the narrow hutongs and on the imposing Tiananmen Square. Growing ever faster, this metropolis of 21 million now has ten ring roads around the ever taller skyscrapers, with cars flooding four or five lanes in every direction. In 2005, I was given a taste of life in the burgeoning cities around Shanghai. In the quiet of trains dashing at 300 kph, I had time to muse on how life and traditions change, on a globalized world and mortality.”
“In recent years, a few Chinese and Hungarian photographers were invited by painter-photographer Wei Xian to participate in a programme called ‘In the Mirror of the Silk Road,’ and we had a chance to study and photograph what are, for us, mysterious cultural traditions, as well as the kaleidoscope of everyday life, in various provinces of China: Sichuan, Jiangsu, Fujian, Gansu, Shaanxi, Jiangxi, and Liaoning. In 2017 we got to see Northern Tibet, and it was a wonderful experience to take photographs in the Buddhist monasteries at altitudes over 3000 metres, and to muse at sunset on the banks of the legendary Yellow River.”