Although I highly recommend walking in Paris as much as you possibly can, I must admit that sometimes taking the metro has its advantages. For instance, I learned about more than one museum exhibit this summer through the huge posters on the walls of the metro. Case in point, the Jeu de Paume exhibit of photographs entitled Eva Besnyö, 1910-2003 : l’image sensible (leemazj sen-sea-bluh), which means “sensitive image.” (“Sensible” in English is raisonnable in French, not sensible.) The exhibit of over 120 photographs continues until September 23, 2012.
Besnyö was born in Hungary, but moved to Berlin after she’d honed her craft. Ultimately, she settled in Amsterdam, where she died in 2003. Part of the same group of photographers as Robert Capa, Besnyö is relatively unknown. Her photographs reminded me of Eugène Atget’s – little slices of life, especially featuring people who were on society’s fringes, like a coalman shoveling mounds of black lumps on a barge or a gypsy child, dwarfed by the instrument he played to earn a few coins.
As a Jew, Besnyö was sensitive to the political changes around her. She left Hungary to escape fascism, only to leave Berlin in 1932 with the rise of Hitler. It was in Amsterdam that an exhibit of her work propelled her to “overnight” success. She had to live in hiding during the German occupation, but her images of Rotterdam after the German bombing are riveting. After the war, she became very involved with various feminist causes.
Worth watching is the film of Besnyö trying to sort out which of her pictures should be included in an exhibit in Amsterdam to mark the inclusion of her work into the Dutch national photography archives. At times, she was ruthlessly self-critical; at other times, she was clearly attached to an image and found it hard to set aside. She was delightful and a pioneer in her field. I can’t think of any other woman photographer of her era. The time I saved by taking the metro occasionally was well spent studying Besnyö’s photographs instead.