‘For a long time I did not think of myself as a photographer’ – In conversation with Enikő Gábor
23 • 09 • 06Vera A. Fehér
Opened on 4 November at Hegyvidék Gallery in Budapest, as part of the Photo Month 2022 event series, Catches of Light is Enikő Gábor’s retrospective that takes a look at a career of thirty years. We asked the artist, who works at the interface between painting and photography, about the works on view and her plans for the future.
What power is there in thirty years of work? What prompted you to present a summary now?
Well, in actual fact, every exhibition is a summary. On these occasions, rather than seeing your work in the usual creative environment, you can view it on the walls of a gallery, from a somewhat alien perspective. There are several reasons as to why I decided to do a major retrospective now: firstly, I’m having anniversaries, and secondly, Hegyvidék Gallery is a very good venue for this type of exhibition. The characteristics of the gallery allowed me to neatly separate the different periods, while the continuity remains easy to follow. Gallery director Judit Kallós, who curated the exhibition, was a great help in this regard.
What can be included in a retrospective?
The pictures that have ended up in various private and public collections over the past thirty years have all played a very important part in my life, and I wanted to see them together, as well as to view, in their light, the more recent works from a greater distance. The pictures of the Camera Reluxa series are held by the Hungarian Museum of Photography; At the Wall, whose base is leather, came from Zsolt Péter Barta’s collection; my self-portrait is from Péter Herendi’s collection; and the piece entitled Cat’s Cradle is here courtesy of Bolt Gallery.
The technique I used in its final, simple form in the Introversions series was already employed in Cat’s Cradle and in many other early pictures. It’s interesting to see this, even I was surprised by it, because along the way you often fail to realize what is consistent in your career.
How did you work in the beginning?
My pictures have been fairly large from the beginning. For the first works, I turned the enlarger towards the wall, projected the image on it, and used a brush to develop it. Back then, it was still possible to get photographic paper in rolls at a reasonable price from the Forte factory, which would soon close down. I studied painting at the Secondary School for Fine and Applied Arts [nicknamed the Small Academy], and at that time the boundaries between the genres were considered rather strict, so when I introduced light as a creative element to painting, it was frowned upon.
András Baranyay, my drawing teacher, was the only one to support me in this. He was fully aware that there was passage between the genres.
For a long time, I did not think of myself as a photographer. I tried a lot of techniques at the Small Academy: fresco, secco, mosaic, fired enamel, and what I was most curious to see in photography as well was how everything changed a lot when it was presented differently, with a different technique, on a different surface.
Was your attraction to photography accepted?
The Small Academy had the Domanovszky Contest for finalists, and I entered a photo-based picture—which won the contest, and many were outraged over the possibility of entering a photograph in a painting competition and winning with it. Like I said, at the time the boundaries between the genres were far more rigid, and people found it difficult to accept someone combining multiple genres. But this changed over time, and when I started the Academy, the intermedia programme had just been launched. And the digital shift also contributed to a change in perceptions, and today it is almost mandatory for someone to move between the different genres and media.
After the Small Academy, did you have any training in photography?
I went to the painting programme at the university, where I turned from easel painting to photography again. My first exhibition was at TamTam Gallery in 1993, for which I created an extended series using that twisted enlarger technique. One of the pictures from that series is now on view at Hegyvidék Gallery: The Metamorphosis of Etelka Braun, which I made by exposing two negatives on top of each other.
The gallery was run at the time by Iván Angelus, who showed me works by Károly Minyó Szert, and I realized someone else was doing things like I was. Then I received a phone call from Zsolt Péter Barta, who invited me to Bratislava, where I already exhibited with Gábor Kerekes and Károly Minyó Szert.
So you found your spot at last?
That’s right, after that I regularly participated in the exhibitions at Bolt Photo Gallery, which was very inspiring, because Jenő Detvay, the gallery’s director, based the exhibitions on constantly changing themes. It also meant a lot at the time that a photo gallery should bring together creators working on the borderline between fine art and photography, and that there should be a catalogue for every exhibition, which was a rare and advantageous thing. All this gave me a real boost.
What concept do you follow in photography’s visual language?
Formerly, photography was a distinct part of my working method: when I was really interested in a particular technical solution, like making a surface light-sensitive, I would look for the appropriate negative. Nowadays, the processes run parallel: the problem that concerns me and the applied technique are closely linked. In the Introversions series, for instance, the theme of turning in on oneself and the folding back of the photographic paper form an inseparable unity. The method of realization becomes an integral part of the theme.
My more recent projects are driven by the same things as were the old ones, only the form is simpler. I put a lot of effort into the works, raising many, many questions about a particular problem, but never convey them aggressively. I always leave it to the viewer to decipher them. The thinking never stops: I usually let an idea mature for an awfully long time, while I only take photos in my head. What sticks with me and keeps bugging me—that’s what I start working with.
Why do you value the analytic gesture with which you examine, say, the analogue and the digital process?
This topic is of ongoing interest to me, because I experience first-hand the fundamental changes brought about by the digital revolution, not only in photography, but also in other areas of life. For example, the purpose of my series Authentic Copy is to juxtapose traditional and digital photograms. I placed the same objects first on some archaic surface I had made photosensitive manually, and then on the scanner. This analogy raises important questions, but also highlights how the correspondence itself is actually a contrived one. Each technique has its justification, neither is better than the other. The difference is that each serves something else, is about something else. And it is, of course, no coincidence that these analogue techniques have become very popular again among young people.
What experience do you have in teaching?
I teach photography to students of graphic art and visual representation at METU’s Department of Visual Communication, which is great because this is exactly the field that interests me. I’m not a photographer in the classical sense, and instead look at photography from the perspective of autonomous creative work or visual art. Alongside the basics of photographic technique, there is always considerable emphasis on various creative solutions—which is the direction I seek for the classes at METU. It energizes me to see how my students apply and carry forward the things we discuss. I show them several directions within a technique and they are very enthusiastic about it.
Can the objects in your Spheres series be understood as precedents to Introversions?
Spatiality has always been a part of my work. I started to wonder what it was that had an unbroken surface. I rolled the balls that my sons had matured in the garden along the glass of the scanner, and then Bálint Pfliegel helped me to render the images the way the globe is projected, segmented into lobes, which allowed me to create spatial spheres. What makes this interesting is that it’s really no more than an illusion, because only a small part was actually scanned, yet it looks like it’s complete. Not unlike how you feel your own segment of reality is complete. It also matters how I install these spheres. Sometimes they just float in space, as they are doing now at this exhibition.
Have you added a new chapter to Introversions since your previous exhibition?
No, at present I’m working on something that is related but different; it has a specifically psychological aspect. This year I was awarded the scholarship of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, and for three years I will take photos whose subjects are the various psychological tests. Again, what will be of primary interest are the analogue processes. Recently, I ‘tested’ members of various artist colonies, and made a series that examines the peculiar dimension of memory. Of course, for this to work, I had to involve other artists, and this collaboration was exactly what was so exciting about it. I’m only at the start of this thing. It’s a new area for me, and perhaps this retrospective was necessary for this new beginning to come about.