Photography is obsession, no?
The A12 runs north from the Thames, snaking round the Olympic Park to head out of London, meeting the North Sea at Lowestoft two and a half hours later. At Bow, in the east of the city, the road is already a snarling six lane current of metal, a ribbon of momentum that I cross on a footbridge to reach the studio of Hungarian photographer Marton Perlaki.
It’s quiet inside – there’s only the faint drone of the road and, one or twice, a helicopter passing overhead. Perlaki shares the space with Francesco Nazardo, another photographer, but he is on a shoot and over the course of a couple of hours we eat white chocolate and talk uninterrupted about the images Perlaki has chosen for Parcel: a patchwork that represents the photographer’s ongoing exploration of an instinctual visual language, introspective and oblique.
As we sit down, a sketchbook of found images – cuttings from newspapers and magazines, loose or arranged into compositions – is open on his desk.
What do you use these for?
They are for myself, really. I just like doing this – finding pictures, re-contextualising them…
What draws you to these images in particular?
It’s difficult to say. Somehow there’s something that I find interesting, something awkward or out of place. You develop an eye for what could work in a new context. For example, here is a picture that I cut out recently… I think these expressions, and these beasts, could work really well. I haven’t found the right place yet but… Here you see – this is amazing, this guy is flying, and he’s so happy he’s got the ball, and then there’s this guy who is very angry. It’s almost the same facial expression.
Is it these faces, these expressions that appeal to you?
I wouldn’t say that’s my main focus. It’s more about the juxtaposition of images. But that’s a good word for this: expression. Set in this context, the juxtapositions create a kind of a story; you read into each image based on what you put next to it. You can discover so many interesting things when you put photographs next to one another.
Does this feed back into your work?
Yeah, it helps me a lot… the way that you train your eye to see certain constellations of images or certain connections between things. I think for a photographer, at least for me, that is a very useful thing to do. I take a lot of pictures of objects – I’m interested in creating visual metaphors – and so this helps as it trains you to see things clashing or working together. And of course, if you’re doing a layout for a magazine, it’s good to know what works well…
You’re not just thinking of the images by themselves, as something printed out, on a wall, you’re thinking of them as how they will speak to other images. It’s not a photograph by itself, it’s a photograph in a world of images.
Yeah, though I don’t think you can see a photograph by itself, ever. I don’t think you can see anything by itself because there is always a context which creates some unintentional story in your mind. You don’t notice it but you immediately connect things together, right? This is how your brain functions, and it’s quite entertaining how we connect even unrelated things. Have you ever thought about tracking back how you think?
How you came to a particular thought?
I don’t think I’ve ever have.
I love playing this game. You realise that you think about something and then, all of a sudden, you’re thinking about something completely unrelated. It’s this unconscious chain of thought and connection.
And it’s unique to you. It’s something that only your history, your understanding of the world, your experiences have created.
And it’s very similar with pictures, too. Especially, in fact, with visual media.
This is something that I have been working on for a while now, have you seen this?
What’s the idea behind it?
It’s a series of shop windows, mostly in Budapest and Paris. I had been working on a project called Elemer, which had a lot of visual metaphor, a symbolic interpretation of things, and I wanted to do something that was purely formalistic. It has a different approach, it’s about reflection, colours, angles and shapes – completely abstract. I haven’t really finished it yet, because I’m still very interested in it, and also it would only work as a series if you’re not too precious with the pictures. Eight pictures wouldn’t make sense but a hundred would be really interesting, you know?
Because they’re all so different? This is very linear and sharp, when before you had something that looks like a Cy Twombly painting, and then there was another that was just light.
I think that’s the balance of what I was trying to find. It’s something that’s very abstracted and linear, it’s just one theme, something that I’m interested in visually, whereas this is more about expressing something else through juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images.
What’s the story behind this? He’s got an incredible face.
Yeah he’s pretty amazing. I found him on Facebook actually. The whole series started with these apparently unrelated objects, but which all have this kind of subtle violence – there’s a force between something very painterly and beautiful, and these violent gestures, which you can also see with the birds I photographed for the same series, the chewing gum with bite in it. There’s a recurring idea of fragility and violence, it’s very ephemeral.
I was looking for someone, just one person, who could fit into this world and I found him, accidentally, through Facebook. And what I really like about Elemer – and of course he took over the series in this sense – is that he has the same sort of quality… he feels very vulnerable for me but at the same time he has this striking presence, and this merged really well with the other still life images I had been photographing before.
There’s something uncanny about it, when you see the series as a whole.
You can kind of see the connection with the juxtaposition of images, the relation between seemingly unrelated images, which I’m very interested in. Uncanny is a good word.
What else have you here?
This is something new, but there is only one picture I can show you at the moment. I’m not there yet with this project – it’s quite personal and… I took loads of pictures but I’m not finding the right angle.
It is about my family – I think that’s the reason why it’s so difficult to work with it, because it is very close to home. I really don’t want to show something that is too explanatory or boring to anyone who is not close to me. So I’ve been using, again, these still lifes to help me tell the story, and I’m going to add just a few portraits, but it will mostly be still lifes. I’m really happy with this image though.
Did you shoot this with the intention of using it in this project?
Do you always work like this?
Rarely, I would say. If I find something interesting I will take a picture, but I find it difficult to use because one nice picture doesn’t really make much sense. The context is not there, it’s just a picture.
A picture on its own can’t say that much? It’s limited in how much it can communicate?
I think so, at least for me, and it’s funny that I’m saying this because I’m very interested in visual metaphor, in creating something that has double, triple meaning, and then I’m the one saying that this is not the case, unless it has a certain context. Only if you have a little bit of guidance. Otherwise it’s just an image floating by itself.
If you are a photojournalist it’s a very different story because the context is already there. You know who the person is, or where it has been taken. There is a context embedded in that image. But you need a bit more of an explanation as to why there’s a plastic egg on a rock, surrounded by this grey board.
But then my interest lies in something completely different, something which is less of a realistic approach to photography. I like creating the situation, rather than trying to grab the moment…
You actively look to not be precise or descriptive, to be ambiguous…
Yeah, I think that’s a very important aspect when it comes to thinking about my work, that element of double meaning. But at the same time it is not easy… sometimes I feel it’s either explaining too much or not explaining enough. I think the balance needs to be there, to trigger your mind to start thinking. If that’s not there, then it’s not a valuable picture.
So my interest is not in photography per se – it’s more about images, and how to deal with images and their meaning than it is about actively taking pictures. So to answer your question, I do take pictures of things I find interesting on the street – I use my iPhone a lot to note things – but then I rephotograph them or somehow incorporate them into a broader series.
I’m really into this, visually it’s just so amazing, no? It’s the inside of a tent, but it’s abstracted – I love it! I keep going back to this kind of abstraction, with the window series and work like this.
I really like this image, again the abstraction… It was for an art erotic magazine called L’Imperfaite, a French magazine a friend of mine ran for a couple of issues. I rarely photograph nudes so it was a fun challenge, and I don’t think it’s very erotic. You can see I got more interested in shapes and forms, in the abstraction of the female torso…
Then this again is something very similar, just finding one topic and sticking with it. I never really finished this series, but I like the repetition…
Did these people know they were being photographed?
No, no. I was creeping up on people on the street in New York.
How did you come to photography in the first place?
I wanted to study drawing at school but the course was cancelled so I did photography. I found it quite boring and I was horrible technically: I didn’t know how to use the camera and a light meter and all that. I almost gave up but then there was a session in the darkroom where we were developing prints from what we had shot. I realised that there was something magical happening, that you take some pictures, that it’s yours and it somehow appears on the paper, and it had that quality that I enjoyed when I was drawing. There’s was something there that I created. I was hooked.
Now I’m going back to drawing in a way and creating something that… it’s a stupid way of saying it, but that I can actually touch: a sketchbook of found imagery, a large scale drawing, darkroom printing. I need that physicality. I don’t like sitting in front of the computer, you rarely actually see the images.
It’s like writing by hand, which always feels more like you are actually creating, making a shape on the page, than when you are typing on a computer – there’s less sense of it being a creative process. Just as a photograph reflects the photographer – their choice of subject, how they chose to take the photograph – your handwriting reflects your personality, your way of thinking.
It’s a point of view, it’s your version of something. So here, I took that picture and I kind of see myself in that picture. If I’m happy with an image I took, the reason that I’m happy is because I see myself in there.
In terms of the framing, the lighting…?
In terms of the decisions I’ve made. These window images are so abstract, but it is about a personal point of view on something. That’s the amazing thing about photography: I’m the only one who can take that picture.
I mean, yeah… creating things is making decisions. There is an overarching philosophy and idea and abstract thought behind it but there are also these practical decisions that you make. It’s similar in a way to what we were speaking about before, about tracing how you come to a particular thought.
You are making these decisions because you have these experiences as a photographer, and because of everything that you have looked at, but it’s also more an abstract development of your ideas that are coming to be realised in that.
It becomes an unconscious decision, what I am drawn towards – a certain quality of light, a likeness of certain colours. I make decisions, and we could potentially say that it’s like a visual style, but it’s not something that I consciously develop. When I take the picture, I try a couple of ideas and [claps hands].
I think this is what I find most exciting about photography – that it is so straightforward in many ways, so instinctive, and one person’s approach to exactly the same subject will be completely different to someone else’s. Your work seems to be an exploration of that unconscious process.
It’s even the same in speech, the way you put together a sentence, the way that you express sentiment or an idea, the pauses that you take, the words that you use. You’re not thinking about how you want to sound, you just speak. It’s an unconscious process.
When you come across someone’s work that catches your eye… there’s a curiosity about that person and the way they think, the way they see the world.
I think it’s the same for me, I think the reason why you take a picture is because it’s always very interesting how that transforms, how it changes when you photograph it. If you’re a photographer, you have to have a healthy amount of curiosity.
Although for me curiosity also means questioning what something could mean. I love playing this game, looking at something and trying to look at it for the first time, like you’ve never seen that object before in your life, trying to imagine what it is and how would you use it. We’re so used to seeing things, you don’t think about a mug anymore, you know that it’s a mug.
Yes but it’s so hard. It’s like without reading each individual letter, you recognise the form of the word, or trying to look at a word without reading it.
I’ve tried that and what fascinates me you can’t help read something, and you cannot help yourself doing that… whereas, you see a word, not in the right order, or a foreign language – complete abstraction.
Yeah, it’s true.
I mean, everyone I respect and that I talk to about creating something, in this case photography, says the same thing: we are all in this because we, in a way, entertain ourselves by creating, because we cannot help ourselves doing that. If it’s a conscious career choice, if someone only takes pictures if there is a commission, then I’m suspicious. The passion is not there.
Photography is obsession, no? You’re obsessed with something, you’re trying to capture it, you have the urge to capture it. Otherwise, why would you do it? Why would you take pictures of plastic eggs sitting on rocks, it’s stupid, you know. [Laughs] It doesn’t make sense.