Gabor Szilasi: Signs of the Times

© Gabor Szilasi ‘Gabor Szilasi, Montreal’ [detail] 1964

I am not interested in the past or the future: I am interested in the present.

Gabor Szilasi, 1977


Gabor Szilasi was twenty-eight when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to suppress the Hungarian Uprising. An aspiring photographer, he documented the actions of ordinary people in their attempt to frustrate the advancing army. Seven years earlier, he had been imprisoned and subsequently blacklisted following an attempt to flee the country as it fell into the grip of the communist regime. This time, as the nascent revolution was brutally crushed, he successfully escaped to Austria. A little later, his father smuggled those negatives of the uprising out of Hungary in a baby’s diaper. One year on, Gabor Szilasi migrated to Canada, in due course settling in Montreal.

It was in this city that he built his life and his reputation. In the sixties he worked for the Office du Film du Québec covering a range of subjects including rural and small-town Quebec, and Expo 67. During this time, he studied the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, and Walker Evans, reinforcing his interest in social documentary.

In the seventies he recorded the streets and interiors of communities in the Charlevoix, Ile aux Coudres, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and Beauce regions north of Quebec City, and the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region on the Quebec–Ontario border. Closer to home, he began an extensive documentation of the storefronts and signage of central Montreal that spanned a quarter century. Alongside these architectural series, he made many portraits of family, friends, fellow artists, and strangers he found interesting. Throughout, his eye was drawn to the everyday lives of ordinary people. His compassionate curiosity evolving into a chronicle of the life and times of a city and a province. A purview that expanded in the eighties and nineties as he travelled overseas, photographing in Italy, Poland, France and, returning three times, his native Hungary.

A skilled and sensitive artist, Gabor Szilasi’s oeuvre is remarkable not only for its grace and visual eloquence, but for its cumulative social and historical insights. It is a legacy born of immediacy. As he observed back in 1977, “Everything is constantly changing around us: what my camera captures at this moment is already of the past. That is why it is important to me to record the world as I see it today through photography. I am not interested in the past or the future: I am interested in the present. Through the photographic image, I can directly record the signs of the past and the future as they appear in this moment.”

Now in his ninety-sixth year, Gabor Szilasi looks back in this interview over a lifetime of photographic moments.

Alasdair Foster

© Gabor Szilasi ‘Motorcyclists at Lake Balaton, Hungary’ 1954


How did you begin as a photographer?

After high school I enrolled in medical school at the University of Budapest. In 1949, following a year of medical studies, I made an unsuccessful attempt to leave the country. I was sentenced to five months in prison. After my release, I bought a Russian Zorkij camera at a store in Budapest. It was the only camera one could buy at the time, and it was cheap. I started photographing my friends, the city, and our excursions. I also started to go to the Alliance Française where, in the library, I looked at books by photographers such as Henry Cartier Bresson and André Kertész. What I saw in those books confirmed my decision to pursue photography in a more serious way.

[Left] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Pointe Saint-Charles, Montreal’ 1967
[Right] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Nun at the Dorval Airport, Montreal’ 1959

Has your approach to photography changed over the years?

My photography didn’t change significantly. It was always about people and architecture. But I’m not photographing anymore. I use my iPhone to photograph my family and friends and occasionally people I meet on the street. I do still get phone calls from my students from the CEGEP du Vieux Montréal and Concordia University seeking help or asking me to look at their photos.

What subjects did you photograph when you first began as a young man in Hungary?

My main interest was people and their environments. People and people’s lives, the way that people build their environments, their architecture. That is what has always interested me.

[Left] © Gabor Szilasi – Crowd burning communist publications, Erzsébet körút, 7th District, Budapest, Hungary, 15–25 November 1956
[Upper Right] © Gabor Szilasi – Street full of loose paving stones during the Hungarian Revolution, Budapest, Hungary, October–November 1956
[Lower Right] © Gabor Szilasi – Young man in front of toppled streetcars during the Hungarian Revolution, Budapest, Hungary, October–November 1956

What is your memory of the Hungarian Uprising?

The 1956 uprising in Hungary… I felt that it was a very significant event and I wanted to photograph it. But I avoided the shootings; I didn’t photograph that. I photographed what people did during the uprising to make it inconvenient for Russian tanks to enter the city. Removing cobblestones, which made it difficult for the tanks to aim. I wasn’t scared because I made sure that I didn’t get involved in scenes of shooting. I kept myself well informed about what areas to avoid by listening to Radio Free Europe, which came in from the democratic countries of the west.

[Right] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Classy, Phillips Square, Montreal’ April 1977
[Upper Left] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Molly McGuire Brewery, Sainte-Catherine Street, Montreal’ 1977
[Lower Left] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Club Supersexe and Cinéma Palace, Montreal, 696–698 Sainte-Catherine Street West, Montreal’ 1979

You subsequently moved to Canada and, in the latter half of the 1970s, you made an extensive documentation of the architecture of Sainte-Catherine Street in Montreal. What was it that attracted you to this location?

Sainte-Catherine was a main commercial street, and I found the storefronts interesting. It wasn’t that I was trying to photograph every building on the street; I made personal choices. I set up my view camera so that I could photograph the buildings from the other side of the road. I included everything that was happening in the street; the automobiles, people walking around. A couple of times a big truck parked and blocked the view so that I had to wait for it to move on or leave and come back another day.

In 1989 and again in 1999 you returned to record the same locations. What were the most striking changes that you discovered in comparing photographs from different decades?

I found it interesting that while the buildings were the same, the businesses were different. The way the life of the city changes, how everything is in eternal flux…

© Gabor Szilasi ‘Corner of Saint-Laurence Boulevard and Van Horne Avenue, Montreal’ Summer 1981

In 1980–81 you made a series of panoramic street photographs using a banquet camera. What was it about the city that you wanted to capture in this ultra-wide format?

I had been impressed with the way the avenues in New York City intersect with a diagonal street like Broadway. I tried to find similar intersections in Montreal. In 1980, I borrowed a panoramic camera from a New Yorker friend and was lucky enough to find two boxes of TRI-X eight-by-twenty film in a camera store on Rideau Street in Ottawa. For the prints I used sheets of sixteen-by-twenty-inch paper, cut in half. I remember the camera was quite heavy, which meant that I had to use two tripods, one for the front and one for the back. I managed to make about twenty photographs.

[Left] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Frites Dorées, Montreal’ 1983
[Right] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Orange Julep, Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal’ 1985

In your series called ‘Lux’ you moved to colour photography to record illuminated street signage.

I did these photographs at dusk which meant that there was still enough light to photograph the buildings while the signage was already illuminated. When I showed my photographs to the business owners I was pleasantly surprised that many of them had designed the signs themselves.

[Left] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Budapest’ 1995
[Centre] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Istvan Parkai, Budapest’ 2001
[Right] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Engraving Shop, Budapest’ 1995

You made a number of photographic trips to Europe in the last two decades of the century, three were to Hungary. How did it feel returning to your homeland?

Mainly, I took photographs of the city and its architecture, essentially the same thing I had been doing here in Canada. But I was also very surprised by the way my friends looked. They had got older, as I had. So, I photographed them…

One of them, Adél, was a book collector. The next year I went to Hungary and discovered that she had been smoking in bed and everything had started to catch fire. Undaunted, she kept going back to her library to save her books. The last time she went in she couldn’t get back out and died. That was a tragic moment for me.

[Left] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Mme Alexis (Marie) Tremblay in her bedroom. Isle-aux-Coudres, Charlevoix, September–October 1970’
[Centre] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Irina Krausz, Montreal, 1993’
[Right] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Opening of the Susan and Christopher Caine exhibition at the Mansfield Book Mart, Montreal, January 1969’

Throughout your career you have made portraits. What is it you seek to capture in a portrait?

Well, first of all, I photograph people that I find interesting. I just begin to photograph the person without any expectations. Often, I surprise myself when I develop the photos, noticing that I have captured things that I didn’t expect. Sometimes a group portrait can be more interesting. A portrait of ten people says more than ten individual portraits would. Depending on the type of group – whether it’s a family or a group of workers, for example – there is a notion of shared history.

But I was never interested in photographing well-known people, because when one looks at a picture of a celebrity, it’s hard not to be influenced by their reputation. I mean, how do you take a natural photograph of, say, Céline Dion?

[Left] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Self-portrait’ [no date]
[Centre] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Self-portrait with Doreen’ 1985
[Right] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Self-portrait’ [no date]

You have also made self-portraits throughout your life. What was it you wanted to capture in these personal images?

To see how my face changed: how I’ve aged, what I wore. I was just curious about what I looked like at the time.

In 2003, you worked at the art therapy centre Les Impatients. How did that begin?

The Impatients is an art therapy program for people with mental health issues. They come to the organisation in the hope that it will help them with their individual problems. For me, the whole thing started when the founder of the organisation asked if I would be interested in photographing the participants. I said I would and went to the class to ask them if they would be interested in being photographed. If they said yes, we took photos in one of the studios. I asked them if they would like to take self-portraits. If they wanted to, I set up the camera on the tripod and adjusted the focus. I gave them a cable release and told them that whenever they felt it was the right moment, to take the photo. I also asked them if they wanted me to leave the room so they could be alone while taking the photo.

[Left] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Conrad’ 2003 from the series ‘Les Impatients’
[Centre] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Dominique’ 2003 from the series ‘Les Impatients’
[Right] © Gabor Szilasi ‘Suzanne’ 2003 from the series ‘Les Impatients’

In each case, I let the person themself guide how the photo was taken. Then, the following week I took small work prints in with me to show them. Initially, some of the participants had not wanted to be photographed. But, when they saw the prints that I had made of the others, they asked to be included. They saw that I gave each person the freedom to choose how to present themselves to the camera; that they had the chance to be photographed in a natural way.

You have had a remarkably long career and would have seen many technological changes in that time. What do you see as the future of photography in years to come?

For me technology is not important. The important thing is to be true to what it is you want to express. And that has nothing to do with technological changes. What is important is to listen to your heart and mind and soul. You can’t stop technology from advancing. It is up to the photographer or artist to use these changes in a positive way.

What has photography taught you?

I never had any problems when I was taking photos. I always tried to be true to myself and learned not to publish photographs that were embarrassing or negative towards the subject. My purpose wasn’t to document, I was just curious. I think that it is only over time that my photos have become documents.

And using a view camera taught me that I don’t mind seeing things upside down…

© Gabor Szilasi ‘Three women examining photograph albums, Festival de la Gourgane, Lac-Saint-Jean, July 1977’

My grateful thanks to Andrea Szilasi for her assistance with this interview.

Biographical Notes

Gabor Szilasi was born in Budapest, Hungry, in 1928. His medical studies were curtailed in 1949 when he was imprisoned and then blacklisted for attempting to leave the country. In 1956, following the Hungarian Uprising, he escaped to Austria, immigrating a year later to settle permanently in Canada. From 1959 to 1971 he worked for Office du Film du Québec and, from 1979 to 1995 he taught photography at Concordia University, Montreal. His photographs have been featured in forty-six solo and sixty group exhibitions in North America and Europe including (in Canada) the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario); the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa (now the National Gallery of Canada); the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal; the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal; and (overseas) the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; the Encontros da Imagem, Braga, Portugal; Fotografiska Museum, Stockholm, Sweden; Mai Mano, the Hungarian House of Photography, Budapest; Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, Poland; and the Rencontres d’Arles, France.

Gabor Szilasi’s photographs are held in many prestigious public and private collections including the Bibliothèque Nationale, Montreal; the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa; Fotografiska Muséet, Stockholm, Sweden; the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec; the National Gallery, Ottawa; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Musée de la photographie de Charleroi, Belgium; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA. His work has been widely published, including five monographs: ‘L’Eloquence du quotidien’ (Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, National Gallery of Canada and the Musée d’art de Joliette, 2009), ‘Gabor Szilasi The Art World in Montreal, 1960–1980’ (McCord Museum in collaboration with McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), ‘Gabor Szilasi: Photographs 1954-1996’ (McGill–Queens University Press 1997), ‘I Am: Photographer Gabor Szilasi’s Journey into a World Seldom Visited’ (Editions Les Impatients 2005), and ‘Charlevoix 1970’ (Les éditions de L’instant même 2012). In 2009, Gabor Szilasi was awarded the Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas, Quebec’s highest distinction for outstanding contributions to the visual arts. A year later he received the prestigious Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in Visual and Media Arts and, in 2018, he was awarded with the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of Hungary.

Photo [detail]: Andrea Szilasi