Curator: Klára Szarka
A MARRIAGE OF CHEMISTRY
In the era of analogue photography, we would talk about chemistry in photos. Now, as I try to evaluate Éva Keleti’s experiments in harmonising body and soul, something she has also successfully achieved in her digital photography, I would call it alchemy. Ten years ago, Éva had a retrospective exhibition in the Budapest Gallery. The curators Klara Szárka and György Gáti included a quote from her autobiography: “… a life lived under the spell of photography, that is my story.” For Éva Keleti’s latest album and the accompanying art exhibition, she has once again trawled through the images stored at MTI and her unrivalled memory to locate some more hidden treasures in addition to her now iconic photos. The world has changed much in the last ten years – and not always for the better. These changes have meant both the photographer and the curator must be a little wiser. There are ever more ‘essential photos’, while Éva’s self as a humanist photographer has become increasingly powerful.
Self is the eternal subject of the investigative artist. While reading a recently published volume of biographical interviews with Éva, I received an insight into something that happened in her childhood. An experience repressed as nightmare and a tragedy that was impossible for the world to process or accept. When I first met Éva 35 years ago, she was working as a freelance editor in an office at the New York Palace. The humanism in her personality shone through, yet the historical roots of that humanism had not yet been revealed. Now, she has shared stories from a 75-year history, and for me they provided the key to unlocking the secret of her genius for human portraits. As a child, in 1944 Éva was evacuated to a new location by her parents. On her first day there, however, she felt a strong sense of foreboding and fled back home. The next day, the Arrow Cross broke into the house and killed every single one of the children present. After, Éva asked herself: Why am I still alive? Who am I? While I said above that this event was impossible to process, for Éva photography has been a wonderful mode of expression that time and again has offered an answer to these questions. A medium capable of offering profound, human and humanist responses, even if the viewers of the photos do not necessarily attempt that same level of self-examination.
By photographing and empathising with the ‘exterior’ world, Éva internalises her ‘inner image’. This process not only forms the source of her own spiritual harmony, but also helps to overcome the indifference of the observer with images that break through the locked gates to their own inner path. The proponents of the ‘faithful’ image are thus able to defeat the ‘false’. That leap of faith is also the secret of theatre, which is perhaps what makes theatrical photography her preferred field. Through body language and mimicry, the secret codes of the stage and the world itself can, with Éva’s photos, be deciphered and made public. With a remarkable ability for empathy, talent and an inventiveness of composition. I shall now return to a change that has occurred in the decade since her 80th birthday: the advancement of digital photography is now complete. How can the act of taking photos remain an artistic mode of self-expression when this new technique has completely transformed the anthropology and ergonomics of photography? In the analogue era, the photographer almost disappeared behind the camera and into the darkroom, the creation of their work was a truly intimate affair. It was chemistry. Man and machine were made one, just like the horse and its rider in the Age of Exploration. With a digital camera, the photographer looks at the subject of their photography from a more distant place. Yet Éva has made herself at home with digital photography – proof of her eternal youthfulness. The storage of photos has also changed – a camera film was once a physical object to be preserved, and developing the image was a hands-on operation. Now we download photos onto a hard drive or store them in the cloud. That relationship of being ‘so near and yet so far’ – the title of one of Éva’s retrospective books – must be expressed in a new dimension, and she has succeeded in doing so. Using a camera to create an intimate relationship between the photographer and their subject is the real achievement, and that has not changed. Éva is confident and truly familiar with this, the most important aspect of photography. She is capable of creating a personal, empathetic relationship, grasping the moment with lightning-quick reflexes and then perfecting the results in her work as an editor.