Lilla Szasz uses her camera to explore the dark and shine a light on difficult subjects with kindness and grace. She does not shy away from the painful and the tragic, but neither does she romanticize or heroicize her subjects. Instead, she approaches them with compassion, and with a deft hand, their humanity unfolds. Szasz’s photographs are poems and odes, a means to understanding not only the world we live in but the nature of our souls.
Szasz gets close, very close, so that the boundaries collapse, and what remains is a meditation on self, which just happens to be the name of the latest exhibition showing her work. “Self”, a group show at Galeria H2O in Barcelona, will be showing Szasz’s latest work from a book titled Happy New Year, now through December 24. Szasz shares her story with The Click, reflecting on the way in which the camera has become an extension of herself.
Szasz recalls, “All my childhood I wanted to become a painter. I had pictures, visions in my head and I was trying to express those from the really time I was able to draw. Still, when it came to apply to the University of Fine Arts, I did not dare to send my application form as I felt that my drawing technique was not good enough. I went to the Faculty of Arts instead to learn Russian language and literature and aesthetics.
“At the age of 18-19, I had a dream: in my dream I had a camera and I took pictures with it. I woke up with a surprise as never before had I even touched a camera. Somehow it had always avoided me. I had considered only ’handmade things’ as art.
“I told about my dream to my father who had and has always been a key person in my life. As a reaction he bought me an old camera and put it on my desk. First I was watching it suspiciously, and then I decided to start learning photography.
“I went to a photo school and soon I became a trainee at one of the leading weekly Hungarian magazines, ’MagyarNarancs’. There I got the task to work on long term projects such as the Hungarian health care, homes for elderly people, etc. I learned how to deal with a long-term project, how to do sequencing, and, most importantly, how to prepare for and communicate with my models.
“In 1998 I received a grant to Saint Petersburg. This was the place where I made my first bigger project to be later exhibited, too, as ’Sunbathers’. Pictures of the ‘Sunbathers’ were taken in Saint Petersburg, where I spent six months discovering the city and its inhabitants. Sunbathers are poor people staying every day at the wall of Peter-Paul Fortress from February until late November. They find their everyday happiness by chatting and being outside by the water. After ‘Sunbathers’ there was no doubt that I would become a photographer.
“I have four different cameras: a Mamiya, a Rolleiflex, a Nikon—these are all analogical cameras, and I have a Canon 60D as a digital one. I always consider carefully what camera to use for each project. For projects where I have to get very close to the people I have found it best to use my Mamiya.
“Mamiya is like an overweight sluggish creature J, it is slow and very very heavy, but its disadvantage is really its advantage: by the time I set everything on it, my models become cool and relaxed. They feel and behave naturally and at ease in front of my camera. Also, as it looks very weird and old-fashioned these days, I can show them, teach them how to use the camera. And, as a result, they can become part of the creation process: they become photographers and models at the same time. And the same applies for me: I am a photographer, but at the same time a model of the common reality we create together.
“I bought my Rolleiflex for very similar reasons; though there is a huge difference between the two cameras: Rolleiflex is smaller, lighter and easier to use. Still, it takes time to set it, to measure the light, so the method is similar to the one I used for my earlier book, Mother Michael Goes to Heaven (Mamiya). Still, the less weight, simpler use enabled a slightly different attitude from my side, and it resulted in a less ‘heavy’, more ‘buoyant’ work atmosphere, which worked perfectly with ‘Comrades’, the project I made in New York as part of an artist residence.
“My Nikon is my child I can always rely on. With its perfect light measuring system it has never caused surprise to me. I have used it for my projects where I desired a rectangular format, where it was a bit less about the person itself and a bit more about the person with its surroundings. I have used the Nikon for ‘Golden Age’, ‘My Grandparents’ House’ and, most recently, for ‘Happy New Year’ as an example.
“And, last, but not least, as analogical photography has been becoming more and more expensive, I have been using my digital camera more often. The problem I had with is in fact the advantage why so many people love digital photography: its speed. The time it gave back was the precious time it took away that I could have spent with my models, while setting my sluggish cameras. To work with a digital camera requires a completely different attitude, a different approach. I had to learn it. Nowadays I have been making more and more videos, and for that digital technology is the best. So I have been using it more and more frequently.
“What can a camera do what nothing else can? It can compact, compress, and concentrate reality in a square, rectangular, circle (etc.) format/frame. It can make statements, underline and highlight things without uttering a voice. It can show, form, and articulate reality, it can show the photographer’s reality, the model’s reality, can create a common reality – in a nutshell: it can play with reality. That makes it magical to me.
“With a book I can unfold a story; I can unfold the different compressed realities to one coherent unit that is the book. The book compresses the whole story, it starts with a door (e.g.: Mother Michael Goes to Heaven); the viewer enters the door and steps out the door when the story is told. To me a good book is a way of storytelling where every single element (the text, photo, sequence, design) sucks me in, does not let me go. I can only leave it when I know the story.
“I usually start my projects by outlining a story: a story of a family, of veterans, young criminal girls, etc. I know what I would like to tell though I don’t necessarily know where I am leading. I am collecting images, texts, resources and videos until I feel that I am done to put it all together in a book. Then I start the sequencing of the images and parallel to it collecting the texts. At this point I usually have an imagination of the proper design. I either do it alone, or, for my last two books (Mother Michael Goes to Heaven and Happy New Year) I had a very good friend designer, Francesco Mazzarella, with whom we could work perfectly together. He understood my points and could enhance my books with the best necessary design.
Happy New Year began at the end. Szasz recalls, “In 2012 I split with my boyfriend with whom we had lived together for twelve years. My previous home was full of memories, objects from our common past, and, to escape all these I decided to move to a new home.
“In December 2012, I bought a flat that had belonged to late Mrs. Brown. Her son and daughter were trying to sell it for long, and, as a result, they left everything in the flat. I entered a complete world: with clothes, furniture, curtains, blankets, pillows, plates, cutlery, even spices… Even though she had been dead for two year at that time, I could feel her, touch her presence. To be perfectly honest I bought this flat because I already knew at that time that I want to make a project there.
“I started taking snapshots of the objects. Then I started to photograph myself in her clothes. I was her and I was myself at the same time. I was asking questions from her and answering my own questions. I got to know her; I got to know myself more. I wrote down my feelings.
“Later on I found her diaries of six years. That was the moment when the idea of a dialogue came to my mind. I, wearing her clothes, talking to her, talking with her, in a space that is hers and is mine at the same time.
“The project is our dialogue that could be best expressed in a form of a book that completely takes the form and a shape of a diary, of her diary in fact. An important part of our dialogue was when I wrote down my questions to her, put these questions in different parts of the flat and photographed them. These questions were questions I would have liked to ask from her, such as:
“’Who was the love of your life Mrs. Brown?’
“’Did he love you the way you loved him?’
“A symbolic message was written to her when I knew that the renovation would start this was:
“’Please forgive me Mrs. Brown. I like your life but I have to start mine.’
“And, in fact, with the beginning of the renovation I could sense that she is, her spirit is leaving the place, giving it for me to occupy it.
“Happy New Year is a story of two women. Mrs. Brown has already passed away. She has lived all her life in the flat where she raised two children, had and lost a husband, had a dog, lived, loved and died. She had known everything I was about to start or I wish to start rather.
“I bought a flat where everything was left: clothes, books, furniture, even diaries… It looked like somebody was still living there. My new life was interwoven with memories: mine, and Mrs. Brown’s. The project is our communication. Images of the objects and words of our diaries are how we got to know each other better. Mrs. Brown gave her permission to occupy her place. I could move in and start my new life.”