Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Studio Visit, Bela Kasa

I discovered Bela Kasa (pronounced Kasha) when I was browsing through a Hungarian online photo auction. I didn't feel quite adventurous enough to bid online, but I did want to learn more about the artist. I asked around to my Hungarian photographer friends, and I was lucky to find that Balazs Turay knows him. Since I was going to Budapest to support a show that was the net result of a sale of Capa photos by ICP to the Hungarian government, I thought this would be a great chance to meet the artist in his home and to see more work.

It turns out that Bela does not live in Budapest. He told me in an email that he was about an hour out of town and easily reachable by train. When I told my friends in Budapest where I was going, they likened my trip to "going to New Jersey". Indeed the train trip was not the most scenic I've had in my life, passing many nondescript, rundown suburban villages and some industrial parks, but I was excited by the spirit of adventure. Plus, it was a treat to leave out of the aging, distinctly "eastern" train station where all signs were in Hungarian. I wondered how much I seemed out of place to the local population.

Bela was there to meet me when I arrived in Martonvasar train station. We got in his car to drive the 10 minutes to his much smaller village where he's had a house with his family for decades. The Kasa family has a small, tidy compound in a modest, rural sort of way. After entering through a steel gate, I could see a few small buildings on the right and the main house on the left. This all framed a few dozen acres of lawn, fields, and well-tended garden. We sat down on the patio overlooking the garden and fields and started to get to know one another.

Bela went to school for photography in Germany. He worked for years as an advertising photographer both in Germany and Hungary. He is a trim man with short cropped hair, and intense, deeply focused eyes. He's had an interest in Hungarian/Gypsy folk music for years, and he's a capable musician on a number of instruments. He began traveling to the Hungarian, Romanian, and Transylvanian countryside in the 70s looking for Gypsy musicians to meet, make music with, and to learn about. The resultant photographic essays he's produced document a very personal vision of a world few see, and a world which is quickly disappearing. He noted to me that many of the musicians in his photos are already dead, and that the communities are dispersed or dwindling. You can see some of his images in the book "Hungarian Folk Instruments" by Robert Mandel. Otherwise the printed versions of his work are simply not available.

His perspective is one that is particularly seen from the inside. he knows the the whole story of everyone he photographs; fathers, wives, uncles, cousins, nephews, etc., these are not anonymous portraits. He participates in wedding ceremonies, funerals, village festivals, and more. Some of these, he told me, last for days. For example, the photograph I bought from him shows a wedding band playing after more than a day of festivities. He told me he took the viola from a sleeping band member and joined the other musicians. After a time, he put down his instrument, and took this photo.

Though it's visual syntax doesn't break any new ground photographically, I think it's a remarkable picture. I don't believe there are many vintage copies of his images, but in the case of an artist like Mr. Kasa, I don't think that's the point. His view of this insular and misunderstood culture deserves to be seen and to achieve a wider distribution; probably in the form of some kind of publication. Take a look at his website to see a broad cross section of his work.
Bela Kasa website

After we had looked at a few folders of his work, Bela treated me to a delicious country lunch: chicken sautéed with Hungarian paprika, a loaf of hearty, fresh bread, and a salad composed of vegetables mostly from his garden. The Hungarian style peppers were just coming in. Yum. After lunch, Bela drove me back to Martonvasar to catch the train back to the city. It was a pleasure to have such an intimate introduction to an artist and a place that are so distinctly and beautifully Hungarian. It's what makes the soul of travel worthwhile for me.

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