Lenke Szilágyi and André Kertész

Beszélő, March 2002

As Lenke Szilágyi is no relation, we only share our surname, I can honestly say without bias that Hungarian photography has been blessed with an especially gifted photographer. She has something that only a few have: she has made herself a style that is individual, that cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. And the strange thing about this is that she does it with the least hocus-pocus: seemingly, she photographs as a bird sings. The last person who made the world believe this was André Kertész – who in the end bequeathed one of the most mysterious oeuvres.

Kertész is among the great figures of the history of photography who cannot be listed under a movement. He didn’t start anything, didn’t stand for anything and he is not the epitome of anything. The photography he did was very personal and lyrical. He took photographs because he saw images or rather prints around him through which he could share with others what he thought and felt. Each picture was a self-confession.

Let’s take, for example, Lost Cloud, in which a little white cloud strays at about the waist height of a New York skyscraper or Melancholic Tulip, which dejectedly hangs its head towards the table, leaning out of a glass of water, the water of life. Both were made shortly after Kertész moved to America: at the time he expressed his anxieties, his sense of being without a home, through these kind of images. But think of his earlier series made in his happy years in Paris Distortions, which with a special mirror transformed the (presumably) splendid bodies of naked women into Dalí-like figures. Isn’t this self-confession?

Kertész made two very far-reaching decisions in the course of his career, both of them in Hungary before he emigrated to Paris in 1925. One was that although he wanted to be a photographer to the bone, he didn’t want to be a commercial studio photographer. The other was that he didn’t surrender to pictorialism, the style mimicking painting, fashionable at the time in Hungary but passé elsewhere in the world. These two decisions made him into one of the great figures of the universal history of photography.

Moving to Paris in 1925 and then New York in 1936 only influenced his biography, his career and naturally his subjects, but not the most important thing: his photographic way of seeing. Kertész became the person who he really was in Hungary; happy in Paris, and unhappy in New York. But his images were always of one nature: confessional, or at least lyrical.

Moreover, as can now be said with the hindsight of the history of photography, they were of things around him that no other photographer would have even photographed, let alone enlarge and display in public. In other words, while his contemporaries endeavoured to develop an artistic metalanguage for photography, Kertész raised the everyday language of photography into the world of art. And this is just what gives Lenke Szilágyi a direct line of descent from Kertész. This relationship runs much deeper than one that would show in stylistic characteristics or choice of subjects.


Lenke Szilágyi’s most characteristic photographs conjure up for us complete situations from life out of pure banality – with absolutely no extras, so stripped down to their essence that they almost become visual concepts (not allegories!). A few examples from her albums.

A shaven-headed boy on a plain is staring after a flock of birds on the wing – I don’t think that wanderlust and loneliness could be more succinctly expressed. A cigarette holder hangs from the mouth of a girl cropped like a boy; behind her the inner court of a block of flats, the half-lit walkway with a wrought iron ornament, and TV aerials on the roof: “Night in the Outskirts” from 1995. Wind blows the hair of a young girl, behind her the silhouette of a tree – but it seems as if she were at the bottom of the sea. The girl’s head looks like a medusa, the leaves of the tree are reminiscent of starfish, and there’s something odd about the whole thing – surreal, out-of-this-world, nightmarish floating. A boy in a winter coat who we can only see from the waist down is jumping into something – what though? Clearly a frozen riverbed or lake, or rather the great Nothing.

One of my favourites is two sisters dressed in the same way: same shoes, same clothes, same round glasses. The smaller is staring into the camera, into our eyes, and for me the look of how much she hates always being the smaller is palpable. On the opposite page of the album there is the print of a teenage boy naked from the waist up, flexing his biceps, with ever so many lush white roses in the foreground: a living statue of eagerly awaited puberty.

A few pages back, the ne plus ultra of Eastern Europeanness: a Trabant, the East-German car-for-the-masses in a courtyard. In front of the car a young prick (sorry, but this is the correct technical term for this figure) is sitting on a low stool, leaning on another with an open bottle of spirit on it. Next to him there is a dumpy young woman in an unbuttoned shirt and jacket, her belt pouch covering her pudendum with inexpressible shamelessness; in front of her legs there’s a suitcase and – beneath the whole scene in the courtyard (!) – lies a carpet. This is now their flat, their living room. The young man looks at us expressionlessly – the woman up at the sky…

Most of Lenke Szilágyi’s images – as Kertész’s at the time – any self-respecting photographer would have overlooked: they wouldn’t have noticed there’s an image. This is particularly true of those which contain serious technical faults: the whole image is out of focus, the face isn’t visible, the shot has been taken in counterlight opposite a window, to mention but a few. It takes astonishing audacity for Lenke Szilágyi – who by the way, but by no means incidentally, has exceptionally high standards for her enlargements, and is almost a perfectionist – to publish these prints, which very often actually seem to be built on these “errors”. You could say she raises the shabby to metaphysical heights.

There is, for instance, Debrecen, 1989, in which a woman and two men are standing next to each other in a room. We can’t see anything of the scene as something, perhaps broken glass, blocks out the figures from the neck upwards and the knees downwards. Only their hands recount an obscure story: the man on the far right’s hand is on his waist, the man next to him has a hand in his pocket while the woman’s loosely clenched fist is by her skirt. I haven’t got a clue what’s behind the scene, 1 but I’ve rarely felt male aggression so strongly, that’s for sure.

The secret

So if we take pictures out of focus about banal topics that only show half the subject, maybe use a silhouette effect or blurred images, we’ll become an artist comparable to Lenke Szilágyi? Clearly this doesn’t reveal the secret. So what does? With Kertész biographical details give us some clue – with Lenke Szilágyi, however, there is nothing to clasp at: I know few more taciturn people than her.

Her artistic motivation may tell us something, but not a lot. Lenke Szilágyi finished her schooling in an art secondary school. She paints as well, but only for herself; even today she has an easel in her room. You won’t be much wiser from that, but at least it confirms what’s quite obvious: Lenke Szilágyi does not think in photographs in the usual sense of the word, but in images fortuitously made by photographic means.

From this aspect she takes Edward Weston’s and Minor White’s abstract photographic way of seeing further, while in those images which use the visual distortions of water surface, translucent canvas or Perspex she again advances in Kertész’s footsteps. And Josef Koudelka’s desolate world has also made an impact on her. I’m thinking of her images of dogs and her penchant for photographing people’s shadows.

We know next to nothing about Lenke Szilágyi as a child or her teenage years, but the key to her photographs is somewhere there. 2 It is not by chance that she likes to photograph children so much – not sweet innocents, but tight-lipped little girls with their chin pressed down on their chest and eyes oozing obstinacy, and boys, or rather rascals and little devils. The sisters who have already been mentioned are an example: the tension (at least as I see it) stems from the gaze of the two girls in different directions in spite of the perfection of their uniformity. It’s as if Lenke Szilágyi could see their diverging fates already now: the two big girls they will grow up to be, and then the two women whom life strikes in different ways.

Another example is a girl who is sitting on the ground in front of a man with a blurred face (her father, perhaps), fiddling with a doll and looking back towards us – but she is looking by us to heaven knows where. On her face is the usual child-like curiosity, but what truly expresses her character is her thin, hard mouth turning down at the corners. Probably that’s the sort of mother she’ll be.

Is vision, the shadow of the future, the characteristic trait of these images? Could well be. Unlike others who, adapting to the essential nature of photography, photograph fates but backwards, showing the past in the present, Lenke Szilágyi sees and makes us see the future in the present.

Well, does this reveal the secret? Possibly. I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s not possible to reveal.

[The original Hungarian version was published in Beszélő, March 2002]


1 After this article was written, the artist gave a new title to her print which solves the mystery: The TV Exploded.

2 After this article was written, Klára Szarka’s biographical interview was published: Nekem a csúnya a szép [For me the ugly is the beautiful] (Fotográfia nőnemben, [Photography in the Female Gender] Balassi Kiadó – Magyar Fotóművészek Szövetsége, Budapest, 2002.)