Zoltán Berekméri was born a hundred years ago ago in 1923, who is one of the most important figures in the history of Hungarian photography, worked from the 1940s until the late 1980s. While many aspects of his tragic life are known and explored, his fate has little to do with his art: his pictures reveal a unique world in which pure composition, respect for photographic tradition and a strange “inner monologue” play the leading role. The exhibiton at Mai Manó House titled “A sensitive decadent – Zoltán Berekméri 100” is open until 12th March 2023.
Zoltán Berekméri was born a hundred years ago in 1923 in Kecskemét but went to high school in Békéscsaba and passed his school-leaving exams there. He became interested in photography at the age of fourteen and was the head of the photography club at his secondary school. He also took part in student competitions, and in 1942 he won the title of Hungary’s Student Photography Champion, but he was always self-taught in photography and did not continue his studies after graduation.
Immediately after graduating from high school, he worked as a clerk at the post office in Békéscsaba. It was there that he met Géza Gellért, with whom he applied for several competitions. In a letter written to Gellért in 1945, when he was a young man, he expressed his relationship to creativity in the following way: “…until we have the final, but also the most certain, knowledge of “Death”, we want to act, to create something lasting.”
His photographs soon made him known in professional circles and he was invited to become a founding member of the Association of Hungarian Photographers, which was founded in 1956, when he was 33 years old. Influential photographers of the time helped his career, such as Kata Kálmán, a leading figure in Hungarian socio-photography between the two world wars, who became a political factor after the war. It was with her help that Berekméri was able to move to Budapest, becoming the photographer of the Petőfi Literary Museum in 1958.
The museum had been founded four years before, and he headed the photo laboratory of the newly founded institution. He also lived there, as he had no contacts in the capital, and it was only years later that he found a flat to rent. It was during this period that he first lost his footing, as he had left his wife and young son in Békéscsaba, from whom he later became estranged, and their relationship broke down.
He worked as a museum photographer for 20 years, making photographs and reproductions of works of art, while at the same time consciously building his own creative world. In Berekméri’s case, however, this consciousness was accompanied by his illness: he suffered from alcoholism and had a succession of psychologically disturbed episodes. In his last years, he lived in an existentially vulnerable way in social accommodation in Pomáz, where he lived among mentally ill and alcoholic patients in relatively peaceful conditions. From there, he was able to leave on a weekly basis and was given the opportunity to make exhibition enlargements of negatives of his old and new pictures in his former workplace, the photo laboratory of the Literary Museum.
However, even his pictures from this period do not show the difficulties he experienced at this stage of his life: his oeuvre remained unified and even in his approach he expressed his view of the world in almost identical terms and with almost identical imagery. Even before his death, the Ernst Museum gave him the opportunity to show his oeuvre, and the exhibition, which opened in 1985, received considerable press coverage. At the same time, however, his person and his images were no longer appreciated in professional circles and his art had to be almost rediscovered by his own contemporaries as well. Mihály Gera, one of the influential photography journalists of the time, made this felt in the exhibition catalogue: “I myself am now realising that I actually know little more about the sixty-one-year-old Zoltán Berekméri than the visitor who comes to see his photographs in this collective exhibition…”.
Zoltán Berekméri died on 21 May 1988 in Pomáz under tragic circumstances. His photographic oeuvre was transferred from two cabinets of the Petőfi Literary Museum to the Photographic History Collection of the Association of Hungarian Photographers, from where it was later transferred to the Hungarian Museum of Photography.