The Photo and The Other
János Vető’s “retrospective” exhibition is strange satifaction. Satisfaction, but for whom? First of all (probably) for him, then
for his friends, then for Hungarian photography and Hungarian (fine) arts. But not just for the fine arts, also for music, and
alternative culture. At first attempt, one can only compose these kind of sentences, or similarly awkward ones, in connection with
János Vető. And yet, it also needs to be said here that “satisfaction” is not a good word. Instead, the facts are a kind of
reconstruction of broken continuity, if anything at all.
János Vető left the Hungarian scene in 1990, married the Swedish painter, Maria Lavman, and moved to Copenhagen. Since then
he has become the father of two sons: Mila Timur Daniel(11) and Geo Dan Elias(7). He left here an extraordinarily significant
alternative-avantgarde-experimental photographic half life’s work, which had already begun to veer into alternative-
transavantgarde-finearts, into film, into music and into literature. Was this a trans-avantgarde period? Did something else begin in
his art then, or did he continue on? In any case, Hungary was struck by a certain absence after he left.
Like everyone, he’s got an answer, indeed a story, about how he started taking photographs: In 1966, at the age of 13, soviet
camera, exchanged for a Zorkij, themes: the Kex band, electrical wires, beans, mustard…etc. “Ninety-nine percent of my negatives
were destroyed, when I soaked them in boiling water.” By this time, we already notice Vető, the characteristically “self-made”
photographer with his fundamentally “home-made” themes, and this basic attitude can still be found in him today. It not that he’s
not a “professional”, but he isn’t a perfectionist. To this day, he still doesn’t own a camera, one of his favorite “mediums” is taking
pictures in his head (much like his “unphotographable occurances”). Indeed, he gladly distances himself from photography (allowing
other art mediums to seduce him).
His first photographs naturally documented the narrow and wide surroundings of a young man of budapest at the time:
kitchen, bathroom, girlfriends, kids in the building. He eventually moved to peculiar figures of a specific big city underground, with
special attention to rock musicians. The alternative stars attracted to Vető were those who appreciated his approach and, for his
services as in-house photographer, they became his true friends. Among these, he calls János Baksa-Soós, Tamás Szentjóby and
especially Tibor Hajas his masters. He made this subcultural role his life extraordinarily quickly and with unbelievable ease, and
practically absolved all the newness of it. The timeliness of this approach wasn’t even obvious in international photography then.
He only worked in black and white, not editing the original compositions (or at least, he uses the obligatory black frame). In
portraiture, he avoided the theatrical-the slightly lower or higher angle-but not with naturally extravagant models/friends (à
la Diane Arbus). He loved pairs of pictures and soon sequences of three, four, sometimes more than ten parts (and the stories told
with them by Duane Michals), the “seemingly” inane, empty walls, motion exposures, the ironic pseudo-social photo, moving
shadows, cut-off heads (by common viewpoint, the head stands originating from the last.).
This is how an entire generation of young photographers worked (Gusztáv Hámos, Lenke Szilágyi, Gábor Kerekes, Antal Jokesz,
János Szerencsés). His self-portrait in an oval mirror says everything important about this zeitgeist: the long hair, the lean-back-
on-a-doorjamb posture, shooting from the hip. Photos that suggested a high degree of originality and, meanwhile an ironic non-
chalance, like Corners on the Terrace, where the subject is an empty corner of a room, which has two versions, one framed and
hanging on twine like underwear drying on a line. The loose-handed irony points to the general dryness and “seriousness” of
conceptualism, while the artist’s participation in conceptual art suggests that, looking back, these photos, transported outside of
subculture, are already considered an organic part of Hungarian art history.
The period which stretches from about 1975-1980, which Vető calls with some self-irony “the crazed exhibitionism / small
quivers and great quakes of the spirit”, can be described also as: the period he set upon the mirror and made “extended” self-
portraits; or, the period he was discovering and developing his own tool kit of expression; or, the period of collaboration with Tibor
Hajas. The three activities are not the same.
He met Hajas at the end of 1975. He took such an active part in this life’s work (until Hajas’s death in the summer of 1980),
that practically every Hajas work that went through his camera became definitive. That is, the two artists’ contributions to any of
the works were simply inseperable. In self-portraiture, psychologizing was less and less interesting, while the formation of
possibilities with his new visual language took focus. His positive-negative pairs (combined even with body paint), triplets,
quadruplets, double exposures (with two cigarettes in his mouth, for a confusing twist), hair and sunglass combinations, and, for
the lack of a better term, “spatial sequence” composition mode which became his specialty. Not just in self-portraits, but also in
group portraits, there was the vertical dismemberment of composed figures, the “lengthening” of figures, the exchanging and
repositioning of individual body parts (for such strange pictures), pictures covering or screening each other.
Hajas and Vető made narrative video etudes with Udo Kier, one of the lead actors in Gábor Bódy’s Narcisz and Psyché staying in
Budapest. At this time, a photo series of the actor was created which could easily be seen as one of the later, most subtle versions
of Andy Warhol-style portrait art (The Jewels of Night, The Guest, both 1978 XXXX). Furthermore, there were the rows of pictures in
the shape of a cross, mirror opposites (especially spectacular in the case of the Headstand series), baffling combinations and later,
mandalas and “corner pictures” of thirty-six elements. A composition displayed mosaically on the wall slowly became
One typical example: Vető re-photographed the walls and rooms of the exhibition held in the Bercsényi dormitory, and through
a “pictures of pictures” situation, the horizontal and vertical rows generalized into rhythmical lines (Excavation, 1978). Also of
mention in this period is the gradual individuation of light as an image subject: sometimes, as light falling in an empty room, or as
a light apparition, or fire-brand drawings or gestures. The double exposures produced such stunningly strong linear effects and
shadowplay, and here again are the wires, twine, flower stalks, lines of tape, pipes, cracks - in the search for the spirited
reductionism, that is the raw poetry of 1980s still-lives.
Two tendencies emerged in the eighties. Vető became one of the home-grown post-modernist movement’s main actors for one
long moment. Joining up with painter Lóránt Méhes, he begins painting bright-colored, joyous pictures. At first, in a deliberately
“primitive” child-like manner, then with a decorative painterlyness (Postmodern social-impressionism: You Two On the Ticket, The
Garden of the King). They also created small sculptures in a similar style, in which the influence of János Baksa-Soós is discernable.
Besides this, around 1984, Vető began putting together a small art book of his own drawings (and verses). The poems are merely
infantile, until we realise that they are actually song lyrics. (Pull yourself together / and out the line / Don’t hang your mug / ‘cause
someone’ll get miffed.) Vető founded and sat in with music bands at this time, like many of his trans-avantgarde, painter-musician
colleagues. Eventually, not even the performance medium was left out - mainly, when he starts working with Szirtes János in
Another tendency emerged, but in the area of photography. As photos ended up glued into his painted-written journals and
booklets, likewise something happened on the photography side: he began to accent certain visual subjects with trivial hand-
coloring. We might also speak about the organic inner development in the photographic world of Vető, when we notice a few tragic,
powerful self-portraits he made, influenced by the car accident he went through with Hajas (which Vető lived through). Through
this, his next self-portrait series became surrealistic and phantom-like. His objects, however, became more expressive and full of
informal power (i.e. Crosstalk, in which a self-portrait is held in one hand and a fish, intensified with lines, is its pair; or Dream, in
which we see stripes of light and what looks like dry branches.) The special graphic elements, the wires, and the pencil or felt-tip
pen lines suggest yet another kind of reduction: Vető began producing more “flat photos”, (where a still-life is set up under the
enlarger - flat compositions – still life referring to sheets of paper, shards of glass, children’s toys, plastic parts). Even with other
photographs; he draws on them or scratches the negative, thus moving toward “unphotographic” informality or decorative geometry.
At the same time, he creates abstract light drawings of such fantastic clarity, like Dazzle.
With these works stretching the limits of photography, Vető became one of the key figures in the Dokumentum group, its’
exhibition series and publication.
This cavalcade-like, frantic picture process still showed no sign of tiring. Precisely the opposite, in the 90s, he begins to
approach everything with color. The vibrancy multiplies, and in the literally-titled and themed pictures, Kaleidoscope, while the
geometric light-abstraction remains, packing wrap pixelated with bubbles appears, painted and, with a kind of Vasarely
composition, they are then photographed (Colored Old Air). Colorful toys are photographed flat. We are left continually asking: Is
this photography? Or is it already something else?
In 1993, during the bubble-wrap period, Vető photographs a graphite pencil with the title, 2B or not 2b?, and a Moebius shaped
closed-circular piece of strap called The Other Side of the Lake. We should know that this three-dimensional object existed as a
topological form also, that Vető and his wife wrapped a lake 360 meters in circumference with it. When vandals defaced this
gigantic Moebius ring, he wrote a poem about it; “that is, I reconstructed the damage in a photograph and wrote a verse about it,
which I later put to music…”.
In the midst of all this vibration and digression, he never forgot about multiple exposures, and everyday he “exposed that frame
again”. The result was a mysterious or mystical white circle (1 Year Multiple Exposure).
“In the 80s, my enlarger was my camera, nowadays the scanner is my best friend”, says János Vető, from which statement, we
can read that he is capable of abandoning any medium, even photography and perhaps music also, but not the (motion and static)
picture nor his resounding ambience. I’d like to point out the fact that, this photographic exhibition is “blasphemously” composed,
not of photographs, but digitally reproduced A4 size color prints. Considering this, the titles are not more than storage names for
practical use on a computer, the way one usually names files: redframebike.jpg, mothonwall3.jpg, inoutcolor.jpg, deathofaswan.jpg,
etc. But, we can also read them, as the poetic manifestation of the new computer culture.
Endnote: Attempting to conduct a long-distance interview with János Vető, he wrote me the following poem:
from my previously written answers:
Yes? No? Please don’t ask that,
It’s not a question.
Cage-ian? Then music,
But, Zen is?
The tiny quiverings of the spirit,
And great quakings,
The deaf musician,
The blind photographer,
This is all NahTe,
Completely open, endless
Hungarian House of Photography in Mai Manó House
H-1065 Budapest-Terézváros, Nagymező utca 20.