GL: I always look for pictures that talk to me. Often I don’t really know how or why, but they talk. There are many pictures in Tamas Dezso’s Romanian series that spoke to me more than the photo of the boy in the bearskin. When he suggested that we talk about this image I wanted to know why. No matter what we do, there’s nothing more intriguing or exciting than choice and the act of choosing.
TD: At the beginning of the 2000s I visited Romania as a photo journalist. During my journeys at the time I experienced a very interesting world, populated by puzzlingly frank people with their reserved, yet deeply mystical stories. About three years ago I decided to start a series in Romania parallel to the Hungarian series that I started in 2009. The concept is identical: both examine the transitional period of these countries recovering after a communist dictatorship. The story has two threads: documenting the disintegrating remains of enforced industrialisation and disappearing traditions in villages gradually losing their inhabitants due to migration to the cities.
The image of the bear-dancing boy is part of the latter theme. Photographing was preceded by serious preparation. First of all we learnt that there was a unique, nearly 1000-year-old tradition in Eastern Romania, and even there only in a few places, whereby on Boxing Day and at New Year people wear bearskins prepared by themselves. They gather in the streets, finally on the main square, and perform a ritual dance to drive away evil spirits. This tradition has been passed on from generation to generation and may slowly die out because of young people leaving these villages. We found several families in Comanesti and Salatruc who still took part in the ritual ceremony every year. The seven-year-old boy in the photograph is the youngest member of one of the oldest families still keeping the tradition. He received his first costume at the age of two and the family has 12 bearskins, some of which they hire out to less well-off village residents who would not have their own “outfit” during the festivities.
GL: How do you pick your topics? What are you most ‘sensitized’ to: light? Motion? Emotions? Stories?
TD: My co-author, writer Eszter Szablyár and me research the themes and locations, travel and think about the book together. We then visit the locations that we have researched in advance, finding them in various sources such as books on ethnography and social sciences, novels, on the internet, or from stories that spread from mouth to mouth. However, it also happens that while we are on location we find a site that no written source has mentioned. During our journeys we talk a lot to people, which is greatly eased by their unaffected nature, informality and real hospitality. When taking pictures it is always the story that grips me first, light and technical conditions only follow later. I am planning to publish the Romanian series, Notes for an Epilogue as a book by the end of next year.
GL: As a photographer (a craftsperson, not as an artist) how do you get ready for the ‘moment’?
TD: Making the series does involve a state of continuous “hunting mood”, although the use of this expression may really seem a bit too strong and perhaps it doesn’t fit in with this type of contemplative and inquisitive photography. It rather involves a continuous intellectual readiness, which demands lots of preparation at home. Once we cross the border to Romania, the readiness sharpens, focusing simultaneously both on what’s been thoroughly planned and on themes that appear suddenly, incidentally.
I took the photographs for the series with a medium format Phase One camera. I began taking pictures at the turn of the century and as a photo-journalist I had still experienced how, with the deadline in mind, we arrived running to the editorial office to develop the pictures. Those were exciting times. Later on, I have continued doing my own series on black-and-white film.
I changed for the digital medium format camera when I started the series documenting the transitional period in Hungary and Romania. That had several reasons. On the one hand, I had decided that I would turn towards photographic art and I wanted to achieve the best possible technical quality which also works in large size on white walls. On the other hand, I wanted to reduce the technical factors and conditions to a minimum, as these can distract my attention from the content. Incidentally, turning to digital for me does not involve accumulating an unlimited number of shots. I have maintained the discipline of film photography. There aren’t many discarded pictures – what I take mostly gets into the series.
GL: What’s your relationship to daylight and artificial light?
TD: I don’t use any lighting and lamps, I want to preserve the original atmosphere of the locations. It sometimes happens that as a result I spend more time at a certain place or return several times, waiting for the best light.
GL: Your series are all color images. Do you ever go for black-and-white series?
TD: The present series works in colour. This is what renders what I saw and the feelings I experienced there the best. The photographs recently exhibited in the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco have black, relatively thin frames and anti-reflective glass, which really makes you feel that you are standing at the location. The use of colour is part of this effect. I have no objection in principle to black-and-white pictures. It may easily happen that in the future I myself will use this language.
GL: You have mentioned to me that you do not like your earlier work from Romania that much. Why?
TD: Perhaps it was an exaggeration on my part when I said I did not like those photographs. After all, my bond to Romania was imprinted in me when I took them, and it drew me back later. I rather meant that I had moved away from that format, its compositional technique and its photo-journalistic way of seeing. Those years of learning gave me technical routine and with its help I can by now entirely focus on essential matters.
GL: How did this move – which to a large degree is also a career move – change you?
TD: Nearly everything has changed when I left photo-journalism behind. My way of seeing things has become different. I’ve reduced the pace, which is essential for contemplation. The trajectory of the images has also changed. These photo essays will gain their final form no longer in magazines but as books supplemented with a text or on exhibition walls.
The format, the large size, presents both an opportunity and a challenge. The technical possibilities and the richness of detail help viewers become involved inside observers rather than external ones, they are placed in the atmosphere of the image. But it requires deep attention for the image to be compact in all its elements, so that no tiny detail would disturb the balance of the picture. Urgent deadlines were replaced by contemplation in line with my own inner sense of time and as a result the series could be free of compromises.
GL: Your change of equipment also reflected your need for a new approach. How did this technical choice influence your way of seeing?
TD: The reason for my choice was to be able to probe the limits of quality and richness of detail in a technical sense for large pictures. In the case of images enlarged to a huge size compared to the dimensions of magazines, separate, little worlds open up within a photograph thanks to the details and this makes their reception even more exciting.
GL: It might be just my impression, but I have the feeling that you are very much attracted to white. Is that so?
TD: Yes, a specific color world, white and rusty, really defines this series. Two kinds of pasts are decaying simultaneously. The heritage of communism with its buildings and sites, and the tradition passed on from one generation to the next are fading away at the same time.
GL: When you moved to medium format photography, why did you choose digital? Why not film?
TD: When I began thinking differently about photography and decided to start making larger-scale, independent photographic essays instead of doing short-term photo-journalistic jobs I would have preferred to shoot on a large format camera. But I had to realize that this complicated procedure lacked the appropriate technical conditions in Hungary. There are no up-to-date labs and the professional background is absent. Digital technology simply presents greater freedom.
GL: You are obviously a person to whom the way your pictures are exhibited matters a great deal. What do you think about the way we all view images today? Most of it is on the internet, compressed and small jpegs on small computer monitors and displays. How do you feel about people moving away from large prints and large displays? Especially when you’re photography is medium format?
TD: The democratisation of photography, which is often experienced as a dumping of images, is interesting rather than oppressive for me. Continuous image-making has become an independent language. It has almost replaced of the role of written texts in people’s personal, daily communication, which reflects the extreme acceleration of information delivery. Looking at an image on a monitor to me represents fast access, the spread of visual information at the speed of lightning, which may help an art photographer’s work. This means that the opportunities available for appreciating quality photographs are increasing.
(To see more of Tamas Dezso’s pictures visit his website at www.tamas-dezso.com. All images © Tamas Dezso and are reproduced with the permission of the author. This interview was first published on l1ghtb1tes.com on November 4, 2013.)