“There is no such a thing as a museum photographer”
Csanád Szesztay, the photographer of Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts, shared his ideas on photographing objects, which goes beyond taking photos in a museum.
There is a lot to envy in Csanád Szesztay’s work: besides photographing the works of art in his museum, he regularly wanders around in the massive building documenting the renovation process depicting people, objects and space. In a way he is trying to catch the soul of the building. Recently he has been focusing on the National Gallery too, since the two institutions have merged lately.
You had already been working in the museum’s photo studio taking pictures of works of art when you started to crisscross this building? So, how did you become a professional wanderer here?
Well, I have always had other tasks than the ones in the studio, so I started to wander around very early. I was asked to document the installation of exhibitions, and I also took a lot of pictures of works of art in the exhibition halls. Besides this, I also followed the maintenance work in the museum. It was rewarding because I could quickly get acquainted with the collections as well as all the departments and the people there. This job means meeting a lot of people, who, after some time, got used to my presence and the work I do. The “private” pictures, which later served as the basis for my blog, came automatically: I found myself in many interesting situations and, like a tourist, I took pictures for myself. I have to admit here that photographing objects is not my passion, I mean I really appreciate the chance to try myself in it, I have learnt a lot of useful things, and it is indeed an honour to work with all these magnificent works of art, but I rather see myself as a reporter, so these photos just started to pour out, I just took it for granted that they were coming along.
Was it easy to get endorsement from the Communication Department for you project?
Apart from a couple of sensitive questions, I did not have to get their endorsement, I think everybody has appreciated what I have been doing. Of course, there are unwritten rules, there are situations and photos I cannot publish, mostly for security reasons. And after some time, actually, the need arouse for these photos, and today it is my task to edit the photo blogs of both the Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery.
Did anyone inspire you when you started the work here? Maybe photographers who worked in the same field, or perhaps specific photos?
I do have inspirations, but not from museum photography. And anyway, I don’t really like these categories, I think there is no such a thing as a museum photographer, there are only photographers who happen to work in museums. And it also very much applies to the blogs. When I am not in the museum, I take similar photos. However, the objects in the museums have a peculiar atmosphere, which provides a framework for the pictures taken there, and that is why they seem specific, for example as a genre. Presently I enjoy Daido Moriyama a lot. Before I joined the museum, I had almost exclusively taken black and white photos and I’d like to return to this in the future.
The renovation of the museum seems to be running along the lines of transparency, but is it always easy to make the museum staff accept your presence everywhere?
My task is to document the renovation, and everybody accepts this, so it has never really been an issue. I have built rapport with my colleagues in the museum, in many cases these relations are friendships, and, in fact, they are quite happy if they find themselves in the photos. It’s a kind of reminder for them. I think I can be neutral, I mean I don’t attract much attention while working, so even people coming from outside tolerate me easily. They are doing their jobs and I’m doing mine. A couple of days ago I talked to the Head of Maintenance, I wanted to go into some places in the building, and I got a free hand. So, as much as it is up to me, the renovation is going to remain transparent.
Which are your favourite places in the museum?
I like the basement, the corridors where the Maintenance Department is now. It’s a totally organic, continuously changing world. I always find something new there, although I walk through it every day several times. I also like the installation work of the temporary exhibitions, when these large spaces get transformed and the conservators’ fluorescent lighting creates exciting lights. The halls in the building which are accessible for the public are also beautiful, it is easy to take spectacular pictures of them, but after some time you can’t escape repeating yourself.
In general, how does a photo opportunity come about?
It is fairly incidental. Most of the time I am carrying the camera around, so most of the pictures are rather spontaneous, but I also have pre-planned walks through the building. Many photos are linked to events here in the museum and these must be planned.
What camera and objectives do you use in these sometimes dim and narrow and sometimes vast spaces?
Recently someone asked me which my favourite camera was, and I could only come up with the answer: the one which happens to be in my hand. I don’t have favourite brands. I take photos with telephones, compact cameras, mirror reflex cameras and view cameras. The blogs feature all of these, and I am sure the experts see the differences, but this is not the point with these pictures. In the museum’s studio we use a view camera that costs approximately 30.000 euros, and it gives us amazing quality, but I know the whole process well enough to understand that even with a much better technology, I would not make much better photos. I can also say that I like to limit my options. I like to use one camera and one objective at a time. This way I get used to the machine and the angle quickly, and it does not distract me any more. I don’t like extreme lenses and I prefer the small, quiet cameras. With them I don’t get tired quickly if I have to work for hours and I don’t disturb the people with my presence so much.
What are your priorities in digital photo enhancement?
Before joining the museum I exclusively developed my photos on paper, but in the last few years I have rarely touched an analogue camera, nevertheless I do belong to the analogue world. The digital technology is very simple which sometimes makes people oversimplify things, but I try to limit myself and do decent photo enhancement work every time. It’s like the proper make-up: it’s there but not really noticeable.
What feedback have you got so far about your work?
I’m in contact with a lot of museums, photographers, more precisely museum photographers, here in Hungary and abroad, and I see that what I’m doing is quite unusual. It might be because primarily I am a reporter, a documentarist, while in the museums there are mostly people with strong interest in studio photography. The feedback I’ve got is mostly positive. The museum is happy that someone is building a subjective documentation, and outside the museum walls people are mostly surprised and curious about the things they see in and learn about the museum this way. And indeed, there are plenty of interesting things here.