The Hungarian photographer discusses his eye for peculiarity and evoking the awkward charm of human connection through his lens.
Photographer Marton Perlaki journeyed through photojournalism and cinematography before finding his creative groove in the realms of fashion and art. Hailing from Budapest and now based in New York, he's made waves in the industry with his unique brand of visual eclecticism, and has shot for the likes of Helmut Lang and Dior. Milky-hued and subdued, Perlaki's photographs blend still lives of the seemingly banal with sculptural representations of the human form. In many of his photographs, people interact in small moments that oscillate somewhere between tenderness and awkwardness — a person gingerly leans their head on somebody else's shoulder, two models stretch into an embrace, and a pair of hands hold up the head of another. Choreography and gesture play a big part in his work, and he's driven by the desire to examine the potential strangeness of a situation or a physical exchange that can be rendered by an image. This year, he released his first photo book, Elemer, with the London-based publishing outfit Loose Joints. It houses a two-year project that pivots around a stranger Perlaki came across on Facebook. Fresh from turning his lens to his latest commission for Muse Magazine in collaboration with Hungarian sculptor Adam Kokesch, we caught up with Perlaki to talk about photography and vulnerability, the value of irony, and finding inspiration in fruit left in the midday sun.
Where did you grow up, and how has that environment had an impact upon your photography?
I grew up on the Buda side of Budapest; we were a musical family. Listening to my mother practicing the violin and hearing my father's passionate opera critiques was [part of] everyday life for me. I can't pinpoint exactly how, but that love of classical music paired with a childhood spent in a post-communist country has definitely influenced my work. My mother is also quite analytical when it comes to emotions, which is a trait I certainly inherited from her — it's shaped the way I perceive things.
Do you make particular distinctions between your fashion work and your personal work?
There is certainly a difference between the two but in every instance it's still me looking through the viewfinder and taking the picture. So for me the distinction is less about my personal view on things and more about the circumstances. I don't see my work as being too coherent but I do have a continued interest in the interactions between an object and a person, or a person and another person. I'm also subconsciously drawn towards exploring the topic of vulnerability and dependency through photography.
Words like "playful" and "childlike" have often been used to describe the imagery you create. What do you make of this?
If something can only be viewed from one angle then that's quite boring for me. Through fashion photography, I've learned the importance and value of humor in an image. In carefully measured doses, wit and irony are crucial to my work.
Is there an influence of any aspects of Hungarian art history upon your work? I ask because in some images — for example, the recurring blue and yellow geometric shapes in your recent Muse shoot — there appears to be some subtle, formalistic nods towards the constructivist tradition.
The story you're referring to was a collaboration between the Hungarian sculptor Adam Kokesch and myself. The particular photograph of the yellow and blue Plexiglas geometric shapes are part of his sculptures.
I've always been a fan of the work of Moholy-Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes, and the Bauhaus movement in general so it's inevitable that their work continues to have an influence on me. However, I have to say that inspiration hits me more occasionally and unexpectedly in Home Depot than flipping through a photo history book. The thrill of introducing myself to something entirely new is endlessly more appealing to me.
Tell us the story of Elemer, your most recent personal body of work.
I accidentally found a bunch of cigarette cards while browsing in the New York Public Library Archive. They displayed useful household tips and wacky bar pick-up tricks. On first glance, the images on these cards look silly and nonsensical but when you flip them over and read the corresponding text, the pictograms suddenly make perfect sense. It was a duality I found really inspiring and the discovery became the trigger to start this whole new series.
Who is Elemer?
Elemer is the man the series is named after. He came into the picture a little later in the process. I had begun working on still life photographs and I knew that I wanted to build the series around one protagonist. I was starting to feel nervous of not finding the right person for the series when I saw a post on Facebook of Elemer — this stranger — staring out from an elevator. I travelled to Budapest shortly afterwards and met him and luckily for me, he was into the project and we began working right away.
And what drew you to him?
His peculiar, sculptural appearance was the first thing that caught my attention. I felt something enigmatic in his presence, which I wanted to explore through photography. When I met him my curiosity grew even stronger. I felt a sort of tangible fragility in his appearance, which did not come through on the picture I saw of him at first. He also seemed quite sensitive in the way that he carried himself while simultaneously remaining confident and articulate. I was eager to photograph him.
Is there such a thing as a 'true' portrait? And can it be offered in a single image?
I don't know if a true portrait could ever be offered in a single image. Although I photograph people a lot, I'm never really assessing the truth of a portrait photograph — I've always been more interested in exploring my own impression of someone rather than attempting to show a person's true self.
Do you think storytelling should be linear or meandering?
I try to connect images just like your mind connects a chain of thoughts. There is always a link to jump from one image to the next but in the end what remains is more of an impression than a complete linear narrative.
When do the objects you photograph reveal themselves to you? When do they become something more than banal?
It's never a formula that I follow. How I find things and end up taking a picture is a very organic process. It's about how I experience something. Sometimes I think of an idea that I want to execute in a certain way and at other times it's a re-enactment of a situation I saw earlier. I'll give you an example: it was a hot summer day and I was sitting outside on my mother's terrace. She brought me a slice of watermelon and as I started eating it I realized how unfamiliar the fruit looked without its seeds and glowing in the intense summer light. I took my camera and I began taking pictures.
Where do you find beauty?
The sun setting over warehouses and ugly parking lots from the window of my Bed Stuy studio has always been very beautiful to me.
Text Joanna Cresswell