‘I have always been interested in what a picture has inside’ – In conversation with Zsolt Péter Barta
23 • 09 • 06Péter Baki
Balogh Rudolf Prize-winning photographer Zsolt Péter Barta works on the borderline between photography and visual art, and has published his work in two albums (CodeX, 2007 and Csarnok, 2009). Among other things, we spoke with the artist about the problems and accomplishments of contemporary Hungarian photography, as well as the role of institutions in this country and abroad.
Alongside your career as a photographer, you regularly publish articles on the history of photography in the recent decades, administer the Kerekes Gábor Archive and organize events of contemporary Hungarian photography. At your induction into the Hungarian Academy of Arts, László Borbély called you an ‘imago doctus.’ What do you think about the current state of contemporary Hungarian photography, the divisions that might be, the problems, as well as the achievements?
I don’t think there are many divisions in contemporary Hungarian photography because so many photographers have succumbed to the international trend that I call ‘global photography,’ in which so many image makers seem characterless and indistinguishable from each other. When I attend a group exhibition, I often get the feeling I am looking at the work of just a few artists, even though there are many names listed. So what I think we should talk about is no divisions, but the divisive relations in contemporary photography itself. It has become incestuous, and they seem to be each other’s epigones. The speed with which digital images can be produced results in a vast number of pictures, which makes even those who stray into the field of art superficial. What will we do with such a massive amount of images? Furthermore, what has been noticeable for some years is that many people working in photography are driven by a compulsion to conform, and they often create their works to meet the needs or whims of the curators. In the worst case scenario, there is mere activism without art. Where is the creative artistic message and intent? But then, I do not envy those who deal with contemporary photography, because it seems to me there is too much of everything in the field, and it has all become shallow, which is a worldwide phenomenon. In addition to the excess of images, there are also too many exhibitions of no real consequence, with no follow-up. They sink into oblivion, or perhaps in the indifference. Others try to find success at one or another of the great many international competitions—purportedly contests—with entry fees and money prizes, with photos that meet the standard expectations of a Western audience, while giving up on the inner motivation that is at the heart of photography—or any art. Yet I am pleased to see that quite a few middle-aged artists have turned against all this and, as a response to digital mass production, are creating unique works to which they give a lot of thought, employing craft techniques, often noble processes. We’ll see how much of this will persist.
What kind of photographic future do you envisage emerging from the situation you have described? Do you think the institutions are trying to alter the current situation? And since you know a thing or two about Hungarian and international institutions in the past forty years, what is your take on their role?
My thinking about the future is exclusively wishful because I’d like to see the values of photography that have arisen over what is almost 200 years to remain. They were what made me fall in love with this form of art. However, it fills me with concern when I see that mastering the language of photography, let alone cultivating it, is no longer a prerequisite for people to present themselves as artists. For me, even the activism (political or otherwise) mentioned above is not enough for someone to regard themselves as an artist and agitate as such in the space of artistic representation. Inherent in the second part of the question is the new attitude that causes institutions to try and establish artistic trends and not leave it up to the artists to form their own approach. Institutions are needed because they can support spontaneously emerging artistic trends and may even initiate some, but it is unfortunate when they take over the role of artists and, through their curators, prescribe what a contemporary photographer should do. I myself have always aspired towards institutional systems. What I mean is that the Studio of Young Photographers (FFS) was the right platform for a young beginner to move around in the photography scene, and as a substitute for tertiary training, which did not exist at the time, it also offered a sanctuary, a hub of sorts, a centre for study and swapping ideas, and in the long term too—which continues to be the case today.
It’s important that you should mention FFS in the 1980s as a substitute for higher education, and it’s safe to say that almost all of the key artists of that generation were associated with the FFS, at least to some degree. At the same time, it is striking that the generation that was successful at that time has now been relegated to the background, when they should be in a leading position in contemporary Hungarian photography. How do you see that?
That’s right, a great many of those who are now important figures of Hungarian art photography spent some time in those years at the Studio of Young Photographers. Sadly, some of them have even passed away. As I mentioned before, the Studio really functioned as a kind of hub, offering opportunities for the exchange of ideas. It was also a place where we could have feedback, which we otherwise had little of, given the scarcity of publication opportunities. We could discuss things at least among ourselves, and if it came to blows, that was par for the course. As for the other half of the question, I do not consider it to be a problem that the generation of those times has faded into the background. Indeed, it is quite natural for new generations to emerge, who come to the fore with their vigour and their search for new forms. One of the main reasons why we haven’t seen many people from the previous generations assume leadership roles is the fact that the entire generation was actually afflicted by an unwillingness to take on official functions or posts, because under communism a functionary’s duties inevitably left a bad aftertaste. Discussing this with colleagues, we have repeatedly come to the conclusion that these things did indeed create shortages at times, which took its toll and these generations were effectively left out of leadership positions in the photography scene.
It may have been a missed opportunity, but it is very important for your generation to have more exposure for works from that period, as well as current ones, so as to increase their appreciation. Galleries do help in this regard, of course, but do you have faith in them in such a resource-poor society? Is it possible to achieve lasting international reputation from here?
As I actually wrote recently, our generation (those in their sixties) is a ‘lost’ one. We couldn’t fulfil our potentials at a young age, because the financial resources were very limited. As a result, enthusiastic as we were, far less works were created than should have been. There were no scholarships for photographers in the 1980s: the Pécsi József Scholarship, for instance, which helps young people, became available only in 1991, while visual artists had had the Derkovits Scholarship for a long time. These days, by contrast, there are quite a few scholarships to help young and mid-generation artists to develop their work (such as the Pécsi József Scholarship with a three-year term, the three-year scholarship offered by the Hungarian Academy of Arts, and the Capa Centre’s scholarship), and there is even support for those starting out while still in higher education (scholarship of the Association of Hungarian Photographers). They have become instrumental in helping people to work for the international scene. In their absence, our generation started at a significant disadvantage, and the effects can be seen, for example, in the field of publishing. Today’s young artists strive to publish their works in books and publications as soon as possible, while quite a few major artists of my generation (and those preceding us) do not even have a small monograph to their name, so complete oeuvres lie in obscurity. And galleries have indeed a lot to do in this regard, because they can reach back faster and rehabilitate those who should have a place in the history of Hungarian photography. And in my opinion, talent is not enough for a lasting international reputation, you often have to be there or have representation (gallery, private collector) in the international space where a Hungarian artist strive to gain positions. It is fair to say that in the 1980s, when no financial support was available, unofficial individual ‘partisan actions’ were often the way to go beyond the Iron Curtain, and it was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that the path opened. International competition and success for my works became important to me as well, and perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that I assumed a pioneering role in this regard, and through me Gábor Kerekes also entered the international arena. It is now somewhat easier for younger photographers like Tamás Dezső, Ádám Magyar and Péter Puklus to position themselves, because they can seek success for their works without facing borders and they also have access to info-communication networks. Further, they offer individual artistic achievements, and they are rightly parts of the international scene.
As is evident from the pictures at your exhibition, the human body has played a major role in your work to date. It is of course only a segment of your artistic output, but in what direction do you think this theme will unfold in your future work?
I work in an irregular way without locking myself into a single concept, relying instead on multiple inspirations—which is why I alternately photograph human bodies, plants, animals, objects and phenomena. I’m quite happy to use any photographic technique, because I have always been interested in what a picture has inside, while how it was made is immaterial to me, though I do pay a lot of attention to the final appearance of a work. Later I will arrange the selected works under the large CodeX unit, which I began in 1990, and which is the only thing I continue with these days. The body became the main motif of the current retrospective because that is what connects the early days (from 1980 onwards) with the present, being a constant throughout my career of about 40 years. Last year, twenty-five new works were included under the heading of phenomena, and I also rediscovered the chamber-like world of small Polaroids, some of which were shown at the latest exhibition. Using a musical analogy, I often say that if we were to call the large sheet-film pictures symphonies, then the small Polaroids, whose format is restricted, are the chamber pieces. Most recently, however, I shot plants on large-format film, in memory of Karl Blossfeldt, because as I took a fresh look at his work, which I had forgotten to some extent, I had to realize it had latently inspired me and that I’d put him in my inner imaginary museum. Moreover, I can see how his images of plants also exerted a strong influence on those who practice non-visual arts, such as the architect Imre Makovecz, whom I greatly respect. And last January I purchased a printer capable of giclée printing and started processing photos that have been lying dormant in digital form. Following a lengthy selection process, I now have fifty finished prints never seen before. I am constantly working on new works and dusting off old ones, even those from the early days, in order to organize my works, because what I will leave behind is increasingly on my mind.