Marton Perlaki, Elemér

JTF (just the facts): Published by Loose Joints in 2016 (here). Hardcover, 102 pages, with 52 color plates. Includes text by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Marton Perlaki came to photography almost by accident. He had planned to study drawing and painting, but the year he got admitted to high school, the Catholic church took over the art department and he was forced to take up religious studies. A friend encouraged him to try photography and he did, ultimately majoring in photojournalism and later getting his master’s degree in cinematography. In 2004, he co-founded The Room, a biannual publication with a focus on high fashion. Alongside his successful career as a fashion and portrait photographer, he recently started working on a personal project called Bird, Bald, Book, Bubble, Brick, Potato, which was soon after widely noticed – he was recently selected as Ones To Watch by The British Journal of Photography, was shortlisted for the Paul Huf Award, and is a Foam Talent for 2015.

Perlaki has recently published his first photobook entitled Elemér, drawing imagery from the Bird, Bald, Book, Bubble, Brick, Potato series. The idea of the photographic project was born when Perlaki discovered vintage cigarette cards from the 1950s: they have an image on one side, and useful household tips and wacky bar pick-up tricks on the other. Perlaki was enamored by the surprise effect of the cards: “you don’t really know what exactly is happening in the picture until you flip the card over – you can read exactly what these object connections are, or what are these people are performing, on the other side”. Cartoonish illustrations from the cards appear throughout the book – a red balloon, a bucket, a potato, a coiled garden hose – interwoven with the photographic imagery, and the Bird, Bald, Book, Bubble, Brick, Potato working title for the series playfully references these ideas of associations and unexpected connections.

Perlaki’s work is enigmatic and surreal – it reveals curiosity, precision, and a sense of humor. The book’s flow moves between striking portraits and bizarre still lifes, which, at first glance, seem to be random. It opens with a rather abstract shot: a blurry fragment of a face, probably a bald man, as it fades into the background. This is how we are introduced to the mysterious Elemér. The following pages include a simple image of a red balloon from a cigarette card, a stuffed pelican tied with a string, a glass jar with a white substance interrupted by an air bubble, and soap bubbles on a piece of glass leaning against a wooden structure. The still life images intentionally jumble various objects, themes, and potential connections, including a somewhat messy and juicy slice of a watermelon on blue fabric with seeds and meat around it, stuffed birds wrapped in thread, sets of laboratory flasks, white bubblegum on a white background and other oddities, visual ideas echoing and replaying in different forms. These still life shots are very precise and exactingly composed, revealing Perlaki’s meticulous aesthetic and sensitivity.

A few pages into the book, we encounter the first full body portrait of Elemér. It is a sunny day and he is on the street – his body leans slightly forward, with his legs apart and his arms bent back, his pose somewhat uncomfortable, as if he is about to lose his balance. The next photo of Elemér is a horizontal profile shot, one hand is on his neck and the other is on his bald head as if measuring it; his gaze is calm and focused. A graphic of a water bucket from a cigarette card breaks up the rhythm, to be followed by yet another portrait. This time Elemér is standing with his legs apart and he is holding a plastic bucket of water as his body leans towards it. At this point we are already familiar with Elemér: he is a tall man with milk white skin and no hair. He looks incredibly patient as his body easily takes this series of peculiar sculptural forms in front of Perlaki’s camera. Elemér is enigmatic and fragile, comic and beautiful. In addition to the many portraits, he also appears in several other variations of still lifes (like his hand inside a glass jar with water). Although his presence continually inhabits the images, it hardly make us more familiar with his personality. His appearance, obscure and unexpected, adds a human element to this otherwise loose narrative, his peculiarity accented by Perlaki’s fertile imagination.

Elemér is an elegantly modest photobook; its unassuming design elements create a subtle contrast to the book’s daring content. The pages are hosted between two boards (with a silkscreen image on the cover which is its own riddle). The cigarette card images are printed on a different paper adding a contrasting feel to the tactile experience. And smart image sequences, page layouts, and visual rhythms serve as a guiding reference in the book’s nonlinear narrative. Multiple connections come through colors, forms and shapes. One spread shows a photograph of a grey carpet, with table legs, part of a white desk, and a shadow of person’s legs. This image is then paired with one of a bird standing on a wooden surface with blurry nature in the background. As you look at the two images, all the elements connect together – legs, lines, light blue color. The next page is a striking blue sculpture of Elemér’s head, the eyes are closed and his facial expression is filled with tranquility and peace. As you carefully flip through the book, the images keep linking, like one long daisy chain.

One of the last photographs in the book depicts Elemér standing in the room with natural light, wearing black trousers that contrast with his pale upper body, looking straight back at us. Creatively playing with staged photography and bringing an enigmatic touch to the ordinary, Perlaki construct a surreal narrative, inviting us to take an active part in defining it. “A picture has the ability to mislead the mind, opening a door to alternative narratives that exist within the viewer’s subconscious”, says Perlaki. The way we connect with Perlaki’s rather poetic open-ended narrative is undeniably influenced by our own imagination, allowing us enough room for numerous interpretations and narratives. In the end, Perlaki gives us no hints, letting us explore the middle ground between the hidden and the unseen.

Collector’s POV: Marton Perlaki is represented by Webber Represents in New York and London (here). His work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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