The book you hold in your hands presents a selection of Boris, Németh’s photographs from 2007. Shortly before that he, began to cooperate with .týždeň magazine, which is considered, a model illustrated journal by many. In 2008, Németh, graduated from the Department of Photography and New, Media of the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava;, the first shots in this book are from this period. As a photojournalist, but also on other different occasions, he spends lots of time on the roads throughout Slovakia and Europe. Editors frequently send him to places where something’s happening. Boris Németh is a typical street photographer, i.e., a photographer of the streets who strives to recast his professional work into documentary evidence. “Street photography” as a certain style or orientation has existed for decades and gradually changes. Németh’s photos can be classified as a newer stream which developed in the 1990s and particularly in the early 2000s. In Slovakia, it appeared for the first time in the work of Martin Kollár, today an internationally acknowledged photographer. However historical street photography, as such, is older. It represented a strong component of American photography of the 1950s and 1960s and several documentary projects of this kind appeared even earlier. “Street photography now” continues the work of its predecessor, but is completely different in some respects. Its present form corresponds in its own way with the fragmentality and variety of the contemporary world, the disunity of visual impressions which bear down on us. When working in China, German photographer Wolfgang Zurborn wrote, “Life in the streets of Beijing and Shanghai appears like a dense collage of signs, people and structures, a kind of semiotic overkill, which – at first sight – I am unable to decipher.”1 Overpopulated Chinese cities are most certainly an apt image of contemporary civilization, but a similar impression can also be created by locations distant from its epicenters, such as Slovak rural areas in the last two decades, especially as recorded by Boris Németh. The color clashes, exacerbated accents and contrasts in contemporary documentary photography also support the feeling of the accumulation of conflicting signs and signals. They are known, besides others, from the shots of Martin Parr, but we can also find them in Németh’s work. He has a sense for difficult combinations of color areas and clusters and applying single color accents in monochromatic and sparsely colored backgrounds. The escape from stated contrasts in meaning and the frequently compositional marginalizing and diffusion of centers of meaning are also characteristic features of contemporary street photography. In this connection, American photographer Richard Kalvar refers to the general category of “unposed pictures” and a special subcategory with “nothing particularly important going on.” The half reportage, half documentary photography of the present frequently records crucial moments, but as we know from the past, they also include shots in which at first glance, nothing particularly important is going on. Martin Kollár described this method of work as interest in “ordinary people during their nothing-special moments.”
Kollár was present at the birth of this style – a style in which crucial moments occur in apparently completely unimportant situations. He wanted to take photos of “merry and bizarre situations which form a part of everyday life.” This “merry bizarreness” or the “occasional absurdities, which inhabit the lives of ordinary people“(David Gibson) most certainly inspired many of Németh’s photographs. But there is something more. American photographer Melanie Einzig put her finger on it when she wrote: “At the time when staged narratives and rendered images2 are popular, I am excited by the fact that life itself offers situations more strange and beautiful than anything I could set up.” An unusual type of documentary photography which has originated in recent years is saturated by staged stories and rendered images. The types of documents that correspond to the virtual world of computer games and animation. Surely it was no accident that the photographer and graphic designer chose a shot from an event to promote the 2012 festival of anime, manga, Japanese culture, sci-fi & fantasy in Bratislava for the cover of this book. The photo depicts the real world of Bratislava with its inherited town structure of socialism, post-Communism and general Slavic mess and sloppiness in which bizarre figures from Japanese animated films move along the cracked and uneven pavement. An electronic inscription IntError – an internal error of a communication system, can be seen on a display in the background. Errors and unwitting misunderstanding in communication have become Németh’s key theme, similar to the image of global civilization, but with acknowledged and clearly defined local structures.
Nemeth’s work obligations frequently include the coverage of gatherings, ceremonies and rituals where a larger number of people can be found. He records typical journalistic subjects such as political demonstrations, anti-corruption protests, “marches for the nation”, elections, corporate events, folk festivals, religious holidays and rituals, but also various pleasant and relaxing events such as music festivals, nightclubs, air shows and staged “coronation ceremonies.” However a distancing moment, a “strange situation” frequently appears in his shots and even people in realistic scenes are sometimes reminiscent of figures from the artificial world of computer games. The photographer creates the feeling of “occasional absurdity” through an established journalistic method – by capturing unrelated actions that take place simultaneously. The participants of the March for the Nation with billowing flags pass in a tight space around a bus stop shelter bearing the elegant company design of J. P. Decaux and disinterested non-participants. In another shot, the marchers are gathered in front of the Presidential Palace and brandish the usual signs and emblems – the double cross of the pro-Nazi Hlinka Guard and portraits of not very compatible figures of Slovak history (Ľudovít Štúr, Andrej Hlinka, Jozef Tiso). In the middle of it all, a strange man holds a large plastic bag from the Billa supermarket with the inscription Billa today. He is trying to say something to the people around him and they are slightly entertained. The whole situation is framed by media equipment – a boom microphone and camera, which creates an inappropriate impression, de-fused, merry, thanks to the presence of mutually contradictory sign systems.
In Németh’s photos the background comprised of “uninvolved” texts and emblems creates another, frequently ironic level of meaning. This is not a novelty in live street photography; Robert Frank’s shots featured unintentional text interventions. However, like David Gibson, Boris Németh frequently worked with texts discreetly but effectively. Armored members of special units supervising the Rainbow Pride parade stand in front of a Slovak Restaurant. A FOR RENT sign shines on a nearby building above “fallen soldiers” in the staged reconstruction of the World War II liberation of Bratislava. Women dressed in folk costumes for the Celebration of St. Cyril and Methodius in Nitra pass under a distinctive BANKOMAT (ATM) sign, while elsewhere, a folk ensemble sings in front of the TURANCAR travel agency. In Németh’s photographs people try to hold fast to traditional folk customs and Christian rituals as if they have found themselves in a world that is not their own, which has shed the “legacy of tradition,” and it seems that all this happened without them being aware of it or noticing it. Boris Németh combined texts and documentary photographs in the project with which he completed his studies of photography at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. In his set Slovníkový document (Dictionary Document) (2007) he matched photographs with dictionary definitions of human professions from an English encyclopedia, which quite often paradoxically developed or extended the original content of these definitions. Many of his later documentary photographs have a similar result – the inscription Kultúra nášho mesta sa rodí v tvojom srdci (The culture of our town is born in your heart) is found in a shot from Košice. It was posted by a Christian organization in the most inappropriate and provisional environment – the dirty scaffolding of a messy construction site. The common computer message: Shutting Down, Please Wait is projected on a low-quality, Modernist multi-panel relief of the Adoration of Christ in the interior of a church in Liptovská Teplička. When looking at this semantically vacant work of art, the question arises: What is in fact shutting down, what kind of connection is being cancelled? At times, the theme of two simultaneous but internally unrelated connections or “technologies” of communication appears in Németh’s photographs even without any direct human presence. In a shot not far from the town of Stropkov in eastern Slovakia, a roadside cross situated on a slope is upstaged by a large billboard advertisement for TESLA Stropkov, a company that produces communication equipment. In a landscape shot near the town of Ružomberok we can see the slopes of a steep hill, similar to those which frequently appear in the late paintings of Ľudovít Fulla, the master of Slovak Modernism; a cemetery with a large crucifix is in the foreground. However, massive high voltage towers that loom over the cemetery are the dominant elements of this composition. The tombstone bearing the name Klement Surový represents the punch line of the entire image. You will definitely remember Surovec (translator’s note: surovec means “brutal person” in Slovak), a legendary outlaw from Jánošík’s group, as well as another “brutal” Klement, Klement Gottwald, the first president of the “working class” who began his political career in the nearby town of Vrútky.
Boris Németh is attracted and inspired by the current state of Christian and Christian folk traditions. They comprise the topics of two of his extensive photographic collections – Veľká noc v Liptovskej Tepličke (Easter in the Village of Liptovská Teplička) and Slávnosť príchodu relikvie svätého Dona Bosca spolu s Posviackou sochy Dona Bosca v Žiline (Ceremony of the Arrival of a Relic of Don Bosco together with the Consecration of the Statue of Don Bosco in the city of Žilina (2012).
These photos are dispersed throughout the book in several places. The first set presents various stages of Easter rituals in a village in the Liptov Region, where the most impressive cycles of prominent Slovak photographer Martin Martinček originated – from the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday (with an impressive, almost Martinček-ian shot of the candlelight vigil at the Crucifix in front of the church) up to the traditional Easter Monday brutality of dousing girls with water and spanking them with willow branches. The cycle of rituals related to the figure of Don Bosco is more serious, but the theme of communication again takes center stage – this time as the penetration of new media in traditional customs and ceremonies. The fact that the wax figure of the saint transported in a glass coffin becomes the object of media attention, an opportunity to take photos for posterity, will not have escaped the photographer’s attention. Children are taking pictures with their mobile phones or are having their photos taken by their parents. This is a strange analogue to mechanical, mindless, tourist photographs with a “celebrity.” The question of the sense of it all particularly emerges in this context. The possibility of a mystic connection is secondary and slowly perishes amidst the media crush. It seems that Boris Németh uses the photographic display of period absurdities, unrequested connections and the magic of the unwanted to indirectly polemicize with the long-term project of his teacher, Ľubo Stacho, entitled Slovensko – tajomná a spirituálna Krajina (Slovakia – a Mysterious and Spiritual Country). But it is not completely like this; although he moves around and take photographs “on the roads” throughout most of Europe, as an artist he feels most at home in Slovakia. The title of his extensive and just recently completed cycle Slovakia I’m Lovin’ It, is proof of that. Although, like many of his photographs, the title should not be taken so seriously. But despite all of those “merry and bizarre” shots, perhaps the best are those which denied or overcame all of that in a single stroke, a lift of the camera, a sudden change of the perspective or angle of the shot and revealed something behind the scenes of an ordinarily perceived world, materializing for us a different kind of paradox, an openness of ideas other than that offered within the usualframework of human activities. They faithfully offer us a kind of immediate look into a different world which does or does not exist alongside our world, but which leave the question of its existence open. Boris Németh’s interpretations, in addition to insights into Europe, depict a present day Slovakia caught up in shortbreathed political passions and persistently attacked by modest consumer allures – yet it is still a country close to other worlds.
Photographs by Boris Németh, Text by Aurel Hrabušický, Edited and designed by Boris Meluš, English translation by Elena & Paul McCullough, Text edited by Jana Hoffstädter & Jana Németh, Published by Vydavateľstvo O. K. O., Bratislava v spolupráci s / in cooperation with Vydavateľstvo SLOVART, spol. s r. o., Distribúcia / Distribution www.slovart.sk, Texts and Photographs © by authors, First Edition © 2013 by Vydavateľstvo O. K. O.
ISBN 978-80-88805-13-7, EAN 9788088805137