Star with the gray glow


A few years ago Jozef Koudelka, the living legend, visited Budapest and after he, one of the greatest of photographers alive, finished his lecture and the ring of fans loosened around him he pulled out a piece of paper from his coat pocket and announced that he too, would like to meet someone and talk to this person. Whom would that be, asked the crowd curiously? “Imre Benko”, he said. So they met and had a good conversation, calmly like those who understand the most important things without words. (Végh Alpár Sándor: Benk! city is our city. Magyar Nemzet, 2004. Jan. 27.)

This short extract makes me wonder who is the true star of our national cultural and art scene? A celebrity? I am afraid that two thirds of the public would list TV actors, news presenters and celebrities and perhaps one or two out of the true stars. But perhaps I am too optimistic with this one or two. And I would bet large sums that Imre Benko, who holds the Balazs Bela award, the Pulitzer award, the Eugene Smith scholarship and is deserving of the Kossuth award is not a star in their eyes. Even though he possesses all of the necessary characteristics. First of all and above all, he is talented. He also works constantly and consistently to his own very high standards. He has books and albums out.
From China to India, from America to Esztergom, he has featured in group exhibitions. But even those exhibitions where his name was the highlight and attracted picture hungry crowds number well over 50. Twice he has won the gold medal in the World Press Photo competition. Several state collections and private galleries hold his prints. Numerous Hungarian photographers hold him as their master which is no surprise since he has been a professor at the University of Applied Arts in Budapest for 12 years until the year 2000. He has style. People try to imitate him. What else does one need to be a real star? Silly question I know, please don’t attempt to answer.
And in the meantime he is still very curious at the respectable age of 70. You will meet him at most private views or book launches - for books and works of others of course. He knows a lot and perhaps that is why he wants to and is able to learn even more. And he has been like this all of his life. I am reading his memoir and this thirst for knowledge is a definite motive. He is self-taught. He tries until he gets it right. He had a go at this, learned a bit of that, purely out of wanting to know. A quest worthy of notice, I would definitely bring him up as a good example, just like Adam Urban does in his current exhibition.
But he avoids the limelight. If he could he would turn invisible, his hat would be made of fog, because one thing is missing entirely from this star of a photographer: exhibitionism. He has no desire to show himself, to claim his fame, to advertise his talents and achievements. He just is, he is working, aware of his own value, we are also aware. He is never on the cover of the glossy magazines, he is not in the colorful crowd of young TV and radio presenters. He is a gray star. It happened to him - to whom else would it - that in the glorious haste of the last decade where papers were founded and then vanished, he as one of the best known photojournalist, lavishly decorated with awards and acknowledgements, he became unemployed all of the sudden and he would have stayed that way if it wasn't for the solidarity of his peers. This story would be worthwhile to tell but let someone else tell it.
Perhaps even himself: In 1990 Kepes Het came to and end. In 91 Wostok Press in Paris approached me about signing with them as their photo reporter in Hungary. During that the change of the regime, I have taken a lot of pictures capturing that era; about Soviet troops leaving, the problem of homelessness and all these are in the French archives now. I could brag that the first Pope visit in Hungary or the metallurgy of Ozd was quite well captured by me, and received good press but it was mainly worth it for the good work-relationship, they handled my international commissions. Here I was unemployed for a year and a half, then came Europe for nine moths and then nothing again. I have received benefits for almost a year. I had to recognize that I was all on my own, and that my knowledge and achievements didn't mean anything. When I had to cue up for benefits it was very hard on me. (in Bacskai Sándor: Documenting people interest me. In conversation with Benk! Imre. Fotóm#vészet, 1999. 3-4.)
Benko is a photojournalist in the classical sense who born in different circumstances could be a Magnum or a Rappho, a celebrated photographer for a global magazine. He would travel to other countries and give lectures and at the end pull out a piece of paper from his pocket just like Koudelka did. He would have all the money in the world, and surely he would become a generous patron of the Mai Mano House. But the reality is that he gets the train to travel almost three hours in the morning and goes to Ozd, the city of steel, that he has been documenting for over a decade when he received the Eugene Smith scholarship which is quite something if I may say so.
In those plentiful images he captures more than the gradual but total demise of socialist heavy industry in Hungary. Perhaps he manages to document the universal bitter dependency and defenselessness of the working classes by their immediate but also their global environment. Perhaps it is something else. Benko never looks for the breaking news, he is more like the chronicle used on the kings orders. “When the work was published as a book I had 200 rolls of film. But this very dense material, even if I worked the whole day long, I didn't use more than 5-6 rolls of film. Usually I go down for two or three days, there is a small hostel called “Sausage” where I stay, and there is a local paper called “Steal of Ozd” with a small and smokey editorial office where the journalists were always helpful. I could make phone calls there to get any permissions needed.
When I received the Kassák Lajos scholarship in 89, the panel of experts requested that I receive a permanent entry card from the director of the factory which was granted. Usually I would set up everything over the phone beforehand and I always took an assistant with me to help out. Back then I didn't give it much thought why I might have enjoyed going there so much but looking back I suppose the impressions of my childhood made it so appealing for me to return to the industrial site again and again. I also enjoy the workers company very much. Somehow it is much more honest and apparent the way they handle things. When I edited the images for the book, that was the end of the story and the beating heart of the factory was stopped. They closed down all the smelters and the smelting furnaces. Nowadays the factory is in a vegetative state but still I go down there once every year.” (Bacskai in Fotóm#vészet)
Although the Ozd series is the core of his work, we should not overlook his other important projects either. For over thirty years he has been trying to express something universal about Budapest in “Gray Lights” about which he said; “I don't care for bright lights. They cut up the face and prevent the face from reflecting the story of its surroundings. My series are based on the silent, almost extinct sound in a very unique shade of gray. I rarely dream but when I do, in my dream this very gray appears and covers everything, yet all remains clearly visible. If I am honest that’s the only light effect I really like, with all its hidden qualities.” (Pogány Ira: im.) In 2000-2001 he received the capitals photographic bursary which led to an exhibition and a book about the people of Budapest which was fittingly titled “Blues” (2003) since his pictures do evoke that sort of music. His photographs, alike blues music, possess the capacity to blend light melancholy, urban humor and the strong but silent humanity that overcomes hardship seamlessly.
As blues builds its melody from questions and answers, so has in Imre Benko’s photography a very specific number, order, size and shape. There is no blood to high-drama, no fake smiles of wannabe celebrities, no over photoshopped tourist imagery of the most frequented spots in the city on his pictures. He took only black and white panorama-pictures, and gray photographs with black frames of Budapest at the millennia. It does not matter where he stands in the city, be it at the Corvin or in the Duna Plaza or Mammut shopping centre or on the Hajogyari Island, he will recognize and capture what he thinks matters, that feeling, that atmosphere, which is familiar to so many of us as well. Just like blues sounds a specific way on the instruments of Muddy Waters or John Mayhall, Benko’s style is also very distinctive.
There are more than 5000 images to choose from for the exhibition. “He has been photographing the streets of Budapest and the urban lifestyle relating to it, just like the French photographer Atget did it with Paris in the last century. As a photojournalist still he does not seek the quick news, there is nothing momentary or shallow about his work because he cares about the story behind the event.” (Palotai) He has a good many albums, all of which are well worth looking at, the Faces. Sziget Festival, especially. He always had a deep fascination with twins, he always visits beauty pageants or any event that is dedicated to twins. I reckon that he has photographed all of them once at least, some of them again after a decade. This project was published in a book called Twins 1982-2008 with over 200 images, which mean at least 400 portraits but much more since there are triplets and quartets. It is an immensely interesting album which he was predestined to pull of.
As far as I know every image of his that is to be printed, reproduced or exhibited bares the same tagline: “This picture may not be cut, it may only be printed including the narrow black frame, which needs to remain visible when using a rag mat.” He explains about this seemingly particular but very integral matter; “I understood documentarist photography in the Young Photoartists Studio and since then I have been using this format intentionally, the original size and proportions of the negative. For me the edge of the image is an important part of the picture, I like the rigid barriers through which I contain a dynamic space in a single frame of the Leica. This playfulness gives me a lot of joy. It is a difficult challenge of overcome, I don't always manage but I enjoy trying. The intention is very much there and that what counts. But if the frame is cut off and I see the image “bold”, it does not feel like my picture anymore, I feel then that what holds it all together was discarded. All photographers have these self-made and self-imposed rules. I like to be very strict with myself when I create a construction but allow to cut spaces quite boldly where a professional eye would hesitate to do so. I very much agree with Cartier-Bresson, who encouraged strictness and could not validate a more laid back approach to construction. (Bacskai interview, Fotóm#vészet)
His aim with photography is to stand witness to times though the people and places and to give back a feel through these images. He is a photojournalist in the classical sense. During most of the 70’s he worked for the Hungarian News Agency documenting education and culture in many thousands of pictures that are well archived. This part of his work is characterized by reports that are made up of a series of black and white images. On the cover of most of his books, the genre is clearly defined with a photo-essay along with the precise date of the work. He tends to think in big volumes, to undertake longitudinal projects. He is one of the finest representatives of the the style of “street photography” that won ground in the USA after the second world war after the publication of Robert Franks, “The Americans”.
There is a saying according to which a street photographer is born when a person has a camera and happens to be on the street. This minimalist view does not begin to explain how a coherent body of work can be delivered from such an interaction. You will find that greatness will rarely strike if you just walk about and snap away. A true artist in the majority of the cases will have a clear idea in their mind or in their soul even before they set foot outside, and when they have the camera they know precisely what they are looking for. They are not searching for subjects but rather seek out those constellations that reflect their ideas in any given urban setting. And there lies a tremendous difference, I say quietly and almost in brackets. But lets see how Benko phrased this:
“When I care about a subject I can really dig deep in it. And then one can often reach that point where it feels like there is nothing more to be achieved but thats where discipline and drive has to take over, because there is always a better image to be taken. So I tend to not give up. I never wanted to reveal uncomfortable truths, expose private lives, or capture something compromising. I value human dignity above everything. But life is not lived in a sterile laboratory and therefor I even crossed that line sometimes and made mistakes.” (Bacskai interview, Fotóm#vészet)
He has been working, supported by different awards and scholarships since 1988 Kassák Lajos photography bursary, André Kertész and HUNGART-scholarship and travelled to over 30 countries. In Aphganistan he took pictures of the prison in Kabul in 1980 when the political prisoners were freed. Also in China, from where he returned with over 4000 photographs which he took in just three weeks in 1984 and then returned in 2005, in Cambodia (1983), in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, in Cuba (1978, 1985, 1989, 2006) during the World Festival of Youth and Students, in Vietnam when the two countries united (1976 and 1983) in the USSR (Siberia 1978, the Olympics in Moscow 1980, and then 1983, 1987, 1990, 2004) in India (1980 and 2010) in the USA and in France. Not on a critical note but I will mention that it does not really matter where he goes because he takes the pictures in his distinctive Imre Benko style, he looks at and captures the same things. A fine example to this would be his book Roads (Utak, 2004) He is the biggest globe-trotter I know, not that he would ever aim for this title, he just “shows up”, takes pictures. Why is he to blame for all people and places are so alike anywhere in the world?

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Benkő Imre