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Gabor Szilasi
From January 16th 2010 to February 20th 2010
Portraits au Polaroid

Curator : Marie-Josée Lafortune

In 1974, Gabor Szilasi began producing a series of portraits on Polaroid film, a project he pursued until 2002. Rarely shown and never printed in their entirety, these images assemble close, intimist shots, mainly of women, family members, and fellow artists and photographers. For this exhibition, OPTICA has commissioned the artist for fifteen limited edition (3/3) prints, several of them as yet unpublished.

The series can be divided into two periods, according to the film used: the first portraits were captured onto Polaroid 105 film (renamed 665 in 1977), employed by the artist until 1988; as of 1989, Szilasi opted for Polaroid 55. With the latter, one is immediately engaged by the frontal gaze. In contrast to those taken of rural Quebec in the 1970s, these photos are laden with more psychological import.

Indeed, the composition follows the linear paths of the natural light as it bathes and sculpts his subjects’ faces. Using a small depth of field, Szilasi isolates the subject within the environment. The use of a 4x5 view camera brings clarity to details; rather than extend the realism, however, the artist accentuates the blurred focus.

Thus, while some images are marked by high contrast, others have a more romantic flavour, like the portrait of Doreen Lindsay, Westmount (December 1989), conjuring photographic images of the Victorian era, especially those of Julia Margaret Cameron. Some prints from the first series—those of Rafael Bendahan, Montreal (1977), and of the artist’s father, Sándor Szilasi, Montreal (1977)—draw instead from the archetypal aesthetic of ID photos.

Contrary to the popular association of the Polaroid with the culture of instant snapshots, Szilasi produces his portraits in the studio tradition, where the 4x5 camera significantly slows down the process. And Polaroid’s independent “pack” film—comprising both the negative and the positive—allows him to hand a print over to the subject before proceeding with the final development of the image. The subject’s active involvement in the portrait is a crucial element in Szilasi’s process, recalling the practice of other portrait artists, such as David Octavius Hill (1802-1870), August Sander’s “assisted portraits” (1876-1964), or the “portrait documents” of Walker Evans (1903-1975).

We needn’t emphasize a direct relationship between these works and this series of Polaroid portraits, but one must nonetheless admit that a methodology is at work that, while characteristic of Szilasi’s individual practice, also enmeshes it within a history, constructing the subject in relation to this tradition.
- Marie-Josée Lafortune

Gabor Szilasi’s profoundly humanist work has undeniable significance in the history of contemporary Canadian photography. Born in Budapest in 1928, he has captured the social transformations in Quebec and Hungary from the 1950s to the present. He also influenced a whole generation of photographers through his teaching. Winner of the 2009 Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas, Szilasi is considered a pioneer of documentary social photography in Quebec. His work is included in innumerable collections in Canada and in Europe. He is represented by art45 gallery in Montreal.

The artist wishes to thank the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec for its support, as well as Michael Flomen.