Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)
Last Friday, December 14, I met with photographer Tamas Dezso at Mai Mano’s coffee house. Mai Mano is an old Art Nouveau building that now exhibits photography and houses a turn-of-the-century, open air photography studio. Contemporary photography is not a major facet of the art scene in Hungary, despite such illustrious predecessors as Maholo-Nagy and Brassai and others. So Dezso’s gorgeous images stand out all the more. With a background in magazine photography/ photojournalism, he thinks of himself as a documentary photographer before an artist. Yet his works have been shown in galleries and museums worldwide since he began to exhibit his own projects a few years ago. In a series of works featuring Hungary and Romania, one can see traces of the vanishing and unmarked history of the Socialist past of the region and lives on the margins of society.
In a research-oriented process, Dezso hopes to document how the present deals with the past by focusing on unique details. He is working on a book, in which his images will complement interviews with some of the people he has photographed. It is easy to get lost in the large white spaces and rich textures, and to assume some vague idea, from the crumbling buildings and scavenging traces of life, that this is a land in transition. But it also makes it easy to turn something very particular into a symbol, and yet these are particular people and places. The interviews will anchor the images, so easily symbolic, in a precise and definite reality.
Hearing the stories behind individual images makes the works so much richer, and so much more critical. In the above image, the piglet is a special Hungarian breed of pig called mangalitsa, a delicacy exported all over the world. The man pictured takes care of the piglets at an enormous pig farm that supplies most of the world’s mangalitsa pork. So for example, if a person at a fancy restaurant in New York order this gourmet meat, he will be eating a pig that was probably cared for by this man in northeastern Hungary, an especially poor region in which his village considers him lucky to have such a job.
Romania is his most recent series, and he is currently focused on the lives of monks and nuns in the country. He loves shooting in Romania, where he has been working since 2004. He works with a translator and a writer, researching places and local histories before doing visits that are often unpredictable, with one acquaintance leading to another, and one closed road leading to something else. He always photographs in winter because he feels it is representative of the Romanian mindset, where it is always winter.
Dezso’s work is mainly collected abroad. This is symptomatic of an extremely hard home economy in which collectors have dried up but also of a lack of knowledge or interest in contemporary photography, especially that which is about Hungary from a critical stance. Dezso once thought his images might inspire changes, even if small or isolated ones, but he now feels that Hungarians are not interested. But he considers documentation in itself important work. And as a detached observer, with international success to support him, he is optimistic about his future and his current work.