A portrait of even God perhaps
I have known Demeter Balla for 32 years. I’m hoping to add another 18 years to that, if for nothing else, simply to enjoy nice round numbers. In 2013 for instance, we will have known each other for 50 years and he will be a 100 years old and I will be rather mature also, let’s not go into any more unnecessary details here.... The point I wished to make with this Mathematical prelude is that Demeter is now 82 years old and may God keep him for many more years! He is such an extraordinary character as well as an exceptional artist
I imagine that had he lived in the middle-ages, he would have been a knight taking on armor to protect his faith, or even the inquisition - sending people off to their fiery death. Not even in his old age would he have avoided the bonfire. He burns others or he is being burned - either way, he feeds a relentless fire with his very existence. Nowadays he burns with gentler flames, this bright artist with a life arching over two centuries, in the circle of his family, friends, cats and dogs. He observes, remembers and tells the stories of his life of which he has many.
Demeter spent his childhood on a farm around Szentes in south-eastern Hungary where one can still se the chestnut trees his mother planted around the tiny building which also still stands. Not far from there lived the painter Jozsef Koszta but his farm was demolished long ago.
First he attended the Central Reformed School of Szentes then continued his studies in the State School of Kunszentmárton from 1942 to 1946. That was in the middle of the second world war. In October 1944, the city was under siege, different troops of soldiers marched through the city, the young girls rubbed grime on their faces, hoping not to be recognized. Not an appropriate backdrop for either childhood nor adolescence. He survived but what he witnessed has left its mark. These early formative experiences jumbled up the words in his mouth; he developed a speech impediment. Yet the meaning of what he had to say remained crystal clear. He just needed to find a more appropriate form of expression: photography.
His images never stutter. In the eye of the beholder they tell fluid stories of complex conditions .Through the universal language of writing with light they illuminate human faith, hope, wrath, disappointment, gripping fear and unbound joy. Never in my life has it been a problem that I talk like this. I can’t tell a lie. I am unable to spin some fancy story to lead people astray. And if you don’t say much, the less you rely on lies. Ancsel Éva really loved me. Tell me Eva, when can I take your picture? I asked her while I was thinking how I might photograph such an unfortunate looking woman.
She was like a little mole out of her hole but I adored the way she wrote. I read all of her work. She had this radiance about her, an inner beauty. The other day I listened to the the radio and they announced that she died. She never told me she was that ill. That is what Demeter told me not too long ago. And this is what Ancsel Éva wrote, I suppose about him, in her book “194 Paragraphs About Man” (Kossuth, 1988). “They say men are speaking animals; stuttering animals I think. At least every time he says something it comes to a halt and stutters. Stuttering is wondrous. The ones who regarded stutterers as unique creatures possessed by demons were quite right. Whoever speaks volumes does not say much, he just behaves in a verbal way. Yet with the stutterer, as he painstakingly searches for every sound, we stand witness to the birth of thought.
Demeter Balla is now old. You can see his age when you look at him. He lived through 82 years out of which he spent over 60 taking photographs. He came from far away, has seen a lot, and will show us anything we have the eye to see. Perhaps even more than that, since in his pictures not everything is displayed but rather alluded to. He lives in Palya, street number 77 with five cats, a dog, goldfish in his garden, birds, trees surround him and naturally many, many photographs. Let’s suppose that he has only used one roll of film per day in his active years. That would mean 252 per week, 1008 per month, 12,098 per year, which would give us an estimated total of 725,760 over 60 years. Well over half a million frames of the past preserved; events, people, and landscapes remembering our past.
See it for yourself if you can. I am not exaggerating. He really has that many pictures! I had the rare privilege to hold most of his photographs in my own hands and arrange them in groups, invite them to exhibitions, edit them into books and catalogues. Out of his countless images, a couple hundred have burned themselves in my memory so deeply that I am able to recall precisely what is in the bottom left or right corner of the photograph. Then, if we believe the theory of Roland Barthes to be true and why wouldn’t we, out of this endless flow of images there are a couple of hundred that pin down our attention, make us stop and pay attention thanks to Demeter Balla. And this is a true oeuvre from him for us to keep.
The images presented in this book are a selection of some of his best known, even famous, works and there will be photographs that will be discovered for the first time on these pages. This shows how much there is still to look forward to even though Demeter Ball has not taken a single image for the past 8-10 years due to a heart surgery and the fact that he is slowly losing his vision (but gaining more and more insight). True works of arts are never or only very loosely tied to the present. They all aim for eternity.
And who will recall in a few years or decades what is happening here today? What kind of political adventurer does what with Hungary? But trust me his pictures will still have a meaning, even more of a meaning perhaps. If they will still have eyes. If they will still be able to look.
Demeter Balla does not like to be in debt to anyone. Just the other day when we presented him with the Kossuth-prize - which we give to him even though it is our politicians, who we also choose (just to be clear), who present it to him in a ceremony - this highest form of recognition for artistic work he repaid us generously with his images, books, exhibitions.
He changed also: from his early twenties he worked as a photojournalist. He was present at the kiss of Brezsnyev and Kádár, on the processions, on the street battles of ‘56, he observed the love affair of Vlagyimir Viszockij and Marina Vlady from up close. He worked as an industrial photographer of the Ikarus busses to photographing the political elite of the day and the ever-greats of Hungarian poetry. His archives present us with the second part of the XX century in faces and events. He could have retired a photojournalist but he didn't.
A few years shy of 70, in the shadow of a heart operation, burdened with troubles of the body and soul and more and more in tune with his inner voices he started photographing the pictures of the Titanic. Back then nobody, not even him, would have predicted that these images would be exhibited under that title. Balla dove deep, not into the salty water but deep into his own seventy-some years to bring to the surface and to show us the treasures that no-one knew about beforehand.
At this point he had no care for the fake and deceitful things of the world. He realized that the wholeness of the world can be discovered anywhere but mostly within us or around us. His attention therefor shifted to the people, animals and objects around him, who posses the unity of the world
It became clear to him that all is reflected in all and all is interconnected and that great stories can be told without big words. When he wants to show us love he presents it through two trees with a few interlocking branches, or a pair of sandals abandoned on the floor. Mortality can be conjured through a dry bunch of flowers, perhaps even God can be captured in some random object by his camera. And he will not settle for anything less: he thrives for wholeness, to trace all back to its great origin.
The title, “Pictures from Titanic”, as I mentioned above is merely symbolic, of course. It has two or more meanings just like Ballas photographs themselves, They signify themselves but also tell us about something that is not even in the picture, or they make us associate. And this is where the real essence of Balla’s photography lies. He evokes the invisible, the fickle, the intangible.
Naturally, for those of us who have no sensitivity to what lies beyond the visible world these images will simply present objects, dried flowers, overripe bananas and pears, naked people, slaughtered bulls and other things. Nothing wrong with that. They can still appreciate the aesthetics of well executed pictures in neat compositions with impeccable lighting.
But for those who use these images to call upon more and more inner imprints, for those whom a mark in the sand is more than what it is physically, it is more mysterious, those who find deeply erotic imagery in the anatomy of plants, those who witness the fleeing of a man never to return in a hat and jacket thrown on a chair, and think of the poems of Ady and the songs of Cseh when seeing these pictures will need no further explanation of the images.
Those who are willing to follow the thoughts and emotions of Balla embark on a unique journey with him. One photograph will pose a question while the other presents the answer. The light that illuminates the deep, dark abyss on the night water (Danube) is the most philosophical picture for me. An image of existence. With a little practice one can learn to go under in that image and I bet you anything that it won’t be fish or broken boats that you will discover but those dark yet shining matters of our very lives. Love (Couple) , aging (Adam and Eve, Mummy) and death (Departing, The desk of Kassak on it his glasses, hat and radio) appear in a similar fashion on the symbolic photography.
Looking at his pictures we bring up a person, an object, a setting, an interior and these, if we are lucky, will lead us to a flood of thoughts. It empowers us to look beyond the piece of paper which represents certain things in two dimensions but to dig deeper, to try to reach the core. This seems to be expressed in a book by Zoltán Trencsényi, “The wrinkled up time”.
“If one observes Ballas photographs with sensitive attention, one will see beyond the soggy fruit and see the wrinkles of time, one will recognize the purest form of eroticism in a gently curved pear, and observe the writers themselves in a few abandoned objects that belong to them.” This selection shows a few of Balla’s early works, also. His piece entitled, “The Gipsy Family” (October 1966, 10 edition, p. 103) was featured in the swiss Camera. One of his prominent contemporaries, whose name I know but will withhold, denounced him claiming that he he has purposely misrepresented socialism. “I had to work on the periphery when in my professionally most active years”, Balla told me once. His life was anything but peaceful but this unrest, this tension produced great many influential images for Hungarian photography.
“And the people hope, and the mothers give birth”, closes the narrator Mihail Romm’s film Everiday Fasism. The final image is a pregnant woman, her gaze expectant but also anxious, her fragile hand as if glued to her ripe body. This image was taken by Demeter Balla, the Hungarian photojournalist. How did it make it on the silver screen? “This image has a unique story”, Balla told me. Mihail Romm did not know that the photographer of the image was Hungarian and he was very surprised when he said, “Let me introduce myself. I guess you already know my photograph”. “Beautiful”, said the Russian director who has apparently found it in a Danish book in a Moscow library.
I am due to thank one of my very talented artist friends for the image though. The woman captured in the portrait is the wife of Laszlo Gyemant, the painter. Originally, I was to photograph the painter. The woman came home, she was tired, she set down quietly at the end of the bed. Joy and anxiety shone in her eyes and I thought I found one of those eternal thoughts. This image that was used as the last frame of the movie, which I titled “Expacting”, was exhibited in almost every capital city. Mihail Romm asked me to thank the young woman in his name for she had embodied the basic notion of the whole film; the continuation of life. The photo-report of the painter was never featured but the image of his wife was printed by the Stern on 17 January, 1965, and that was no ordinary matter behind the iron curtain.
Demeter Ball with his life’s work show us what it means to follow the highest of human callings. We live so that we can make our mark, so that we can contribute to what we were given when we were young to honor the generations before us and speak to the generations that are to follow.
I am sure it is not nice to be old but if it has to be I am sure that having that wisdom, those bright thoughts, those kind feelings compressed into such images makes it acceptable. But before I could be accused of being bias, I will admit that Demeter Balla is a difficult man. He is not alone with that of course, but unlike those who are just difficult and therefore unbearable - he excels in several things. He is a great chef for instance. His dinner parties were legendary in certain circles.
And even though he has a speech impediment, he is a very communicative man. What he thinks he will say out loud directly to the person whom it’s regarding, not later and not behind his back. I always liked him for this quality but many were angry with him because of this frankness. And last but not least he is a great photographer. As Erno Bajor Nagy put it, “There was a whole month in my life where fought the urge to strangle Demeter Balla every single day. We were together in Siberia on a work trip. When I was interviewing someone he was sure to drag them away to where the light was just perfect for a picture. When we were running late for somewhere he always had to spot something that needed to be photographed and had to be handled as a priority over our appointment. When I was looking at the majesty of a mountain from afar, he was there on the rocky peak taking pictures. When I told him I was exhausted he made me assist him with a seemingly endless shoot. “
One day toward the end of our trip, when he was looking for the right angle at a dizzying height, I shouted at him: “Are you mad? You could fall!” he answered coldly: “So what? We need the picture, don’t we?” The euphoria of his work, his striving for an ever better solution, his utter dedication to the smallest task made me understand the old saying of sailors: Sailing is important, living is not so. This level of possession can describe a true photographer too. (...) Demeter Balla demands success for himself, he thirsts for it rather, but in a way where in return for this success he is prepared to offer his every waking moment, all his life-force, all the cunning of his spirit. What is true of journalism stands for photography, too. You can’t make it on luck. (Bajor Nagy Ern! The restlessness of the Photographer. Demeter Balla images in Miskolc. in Film Színház Muzsika, 1979. Jan. 27. XXIII. year. 4. p 10-11.
Berta Bulcsú said at his private view in Székesfehérvár. “Demeter Balla is guarded by intrusions, guarding repressed passions, seeker of beauty, coming from a group of artists wishing to expose, going towards the ever bluer horizon. (...) His subjects, objects and landscapes do not look into cold lenses of a machine but open up to his thoughtful and gentle eyes. (On the road. Cathalog, Székesfehérvár, 1978.) And even though he no longer takes pictures, Hungarian photography is as important to him as ever. In 18 March 1999, he was the first to found an annual prize that rewards those who selflessly contribute to Hungarian photography, judged by a panel of five experts. The first Balla prize was awarded on his 70th birthday in 2001 and the writer of these lines was most honored to receive it. In the second year it was awarded to Gyula Zalard who lives in France and the third to László Haris.
I can not and will not write anything further about Demeter Balla on these pages.
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