Ivan Benda Photography as a Humanistic Practice
How important is it for us, as viewers, to be familiar with the biographical background of an artist, any artist? How important is it to be able to place an artist in a continuum of time, place, circumstances of creation, and so on? The current exhibition of photographs by Iván Benda, a Hungarian photographer whose work is little known in Israel, offers an interesting test case for exploring these questions. To a certain extent, and certainly due to the nature of his photographs, one can relate to his work without knowing exactly where he was born, where he studied, when he took the photograph, who his teachers were, where he exhibited, etc. - ordinarily essential details when encountering an unfamiliar artist. The nature of his photographic work, about which I shall forthwith elaborate, renders the identifying data redundant, transforming the photograph into human scrutiny not necessarily related to a specific time and place. Since 20th century art is forever context-dependent, or at least not fully graspable out of context, we shall leave the test case as a proposal for observation, a viewing option that is certainly intriguing to explore, but does not necessarily have to be realized. Not that the few biographical details to be provided here purport to present the foreign photographer’s world; on the contrary, it is quite clear that an exhibition such as Iván Benda’s is designed to remain somewhat foreign, a guest. The affinity formed is based on elements related not to familiarity with details, but rather to identification of the common element.
Benda was born in Budapeston September 24, 1949. He studied photography, but dedicated himself to music. Only in the late 1970s, after many years of travel throughout Hungaryas a musician, did he decide to devote himself to photographic practice - commercial photography as well as “artistic” photography. The inverted commas are at once necessary and unnecessary here, and they have already become a part of the context - the very same cultural context crucial to the understanding of processes in art: The 1970s were the years when the status of photography as an artistic medium was established. These were the years in which many artists began employing photography in their work, and the years in which the gradual transformation of photography from art’s illegitimate child to its superstar took place. Diving into Benda’s oeuvre from the 1970s, one can reconstruct the state of photography in those years. In the distant background, very distant but nonetheless valid, there was the large-scale exhibition The Family of Man (1955) curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This exhibition had a double impact: it furnished photography with recognition as a worthy and respectable museal medium, and at the same time functioned as a note of reconciliation with post-World War II humanity. Despite the war and the profound moral rupture - the show maintained - we are all one big family. I mention The Family of Man in this context because, in many respects, it fixed the role of photography as a medium with humanistic messages for many years to come. A father says farewell to his son, a flutist plays in the mountains of Peru, lovers sit on a bench in the avenue. Next to each photograph (in the exhibition and in the catalogue) was a caption indicating the location - Peru, New York, Paris. At the same time, however, the photographs could also be experienced as human testimonies beyond a given time and place: throughout the world there are people who love, work, dream, play music. There are sad people and happy people. Despite the divergence and differences, human beings belong to one big family. The above remarks also hold true for Benda’s early photographs that endure without a necessary link to identifying captions.
The fact that they depict the streets of Budapestis not fundamental to the basic human experience conveyed by these black and white photographs that capture the human moment wherever it occurs. Thus, these photographs belong, on the one hand, to the tradition of humanist photography, while on the other, it is tempting to consider them against the backdrop of a photographic tradition originating in Hungary. Several prominent 20th century photographers have hailed from Hungary: Dora Maar, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, and, of course - Kertesz. It is hard to resist the temptation of comparing Benda’s early works with those of the best-known Hungarian photographer, André Kertesz. Kertesz took his photographs in Budapest, Parisand New York(where he lived from the 1930s until his passing in 1985). He is considered one of the pioneers of the genre of street photography, perpetuating mundane scenes. Kertesz’s work was recently exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New Yorkas part of a show entitled New York:Capital of Photography. The exhibition featured various photographers who depicted New Yorkthroughout the 20th century, among them Eliot Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz. One of the arguments introduced in the show is that many of the practitioners who made New Yorkthe capital of photography were Jewish. Max Kozloff, the curator, maintains that Jewish photographers “invented” street photography. Obviously, there are quite a few non-Jewish street photographers (Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, etc.), but the most dramatic opposition is between classical landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams or Edward Weston, and urban photographers, largely Jewish, whose photography is typified by neuroticism, unique sensitivity, or a certain type of lyricism. Kertesz’s urban photographs display a reveling in the beauty of the world, beauty that is revealed even in the prosaic, non-exotic urban setting. Benda’s street photographs thus exist within an extensive tradition of photography that observes the city from a humane, poetic, somewhat melancholic - and, one may even add under the inspiration of the aforementioned New York show: Jewish - point of view. On the one hand, the photographs seek the random moment and the fleeting occurrence; on the other, they linger on details, on the beauty and lyricism inherent in the street or the park. As I commented on some of the photographs in The Family of Man, these photographs embed the same dual quality too, a blend of specific locality and universality.
The woman who lifts the lapel of her son’s coat, for example. Snow-covered ground is all around. You can feel the chill in the air. You may even place the photograph in Europe, and pinpoint the period by means of the hairstyle and bag. But the posture itself - the closeness between the mother and the son, her smile and his head movement, her gloved hand next to his face, and his gloved hand on her coat - is a posture, or scene, that recounts an entire story, a story that can take place anywhere in the world, at any period or time. Anywhere in the world at any given moment, a mother and son interact in some way or another. The photograph captures a fraction of that instant, and we are left to complete the story in our minds, to the best of our imagination or familiarity with similar situations.
Adjacent to Benda’s home, BudapestMunicipalParkis a major scene of action in his photographs: trees with thick, gnarled trunks, benches, fallen autumn leaves, people coming and going, winter, fall, spring. Virtually all the photographs indicate that these patches of forest are territories of nature within the city, domesticated patches of nature, usually accommodating human beings, often containing some presence of urban markers.
A young girl sits on a bench, the ground around her strewn with fallen leaves; an old woman looks out the window while the leaves of the tree cast shadows on the wall; a couple strolls in a small forest, hand in hand - the park becomes a microcosm where full life transpires, life that obeys the changing seasons. In other words - the park witnesses the life passing through it.
Benda is concerned with the photographer’s formative gaze: by means of the camera, he makes up stories, fashions an atmosphere, well aware of the camera’s power to create a world. One of the photographs, for instance, shows a young man reclining on a bench, his head concealed between his hands - Is he dozing? Crying? Another photograph features the same young man on the bench in a wider frame, surrounded by people who come and go, a bus standing in a stop, and one woman who observes him with curiosity. What momentarily appeared to be a scene in a vast deserted park, all of a sudden turns out to be a part of the city. This is photography’s remarkable ability to tell a story, invent it, and alter it.
Even when he goes out of town, Benda never really goes out into the open landscape, but rather - to small villages. The surrounding landscapes are tilled and domesticated, and always contain signs of human activity. In the 1980s Benda experimented with different types of photography, commercial and advertising among others. Since the 1990s he has specialized in theater and dance photography, and has become the photographer of leading cultural institutions in Budapest. In terms of the nature of these photographs, the scene of action has been shifted from the street, where everything is subject to change and the unforeseen, to the stage, where the occurrence is directed, foretold, predictable. While in his street photographs he tried to arrest the occurrence and freeze the moment, in his theater and dance photographs he endeavors to convey the drama taking place on stage: climactic movement, ultimate expressivity. Whereas the street photographs contain people against the backdrop of houses or a park, people are always part of a specific background with specific, narrative characteristics, the dancers or actors are usually depicted against a neutral backdrop, a fact that highlights their fictitious being. Theater and dance are perceived as cut off from life, as a reality in and of itself, highly dramatic, too dramatic, larger than life. The camera seeks the dancer in mid air, the dress in its flight, movement reaching its climax. Benda comes closer to the actors and dancers, transforming the stage into his arena. He does not reconstruct the gaze of the viewer in the audience — namely, a field of vision that spans the entire stage, the screen, the outskirts of the stage, and the hall. Instead he photographs from up close, from the point of view of someone who is on the edge of the stage, practically disregarding the existence of signs attesting that this is a theater. Benda’s photographs fashion the theatrical illusion as such - an illusion, fiction, super-reality that is beyond reality.
In contrast to the photographs of the anonymous people on the streets - the streets of Budapest, Parisor Jerusalem- the identifiable images of musicians stand out: Chick Corea, B.B. King, Isaac Stern. These are familiar faces, portraits with names, but the camera’s closeness expropriates their appearance from a specific place and a specific audience. They appear before an audience that is like any other, anywhere in the world.
Benda’s later ceuvre consists of photographs taken in Jerusalem. Through his lens, Jerusalemis transformed into a European Jewish shtetl. The streets of Me’a She’arim assume an early 20th century air, while at the same time, Jerusalemis presented as the city of all three religions.
Amidst these three bodies of work - the early street photographs, theater and dance photographs, and the later photographs of Jerusalem- lies Iván Benda’s photographic truth. It seems that the camera is, for him, primarily a vehicle to tell a story, a human story - at times minimal and reserved, at others, dramatic and larger than life.
Ruti Direktor, October 2002