Ferenc Suto lives in New York City and participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program in December 2001.
Ferenc Suto goes to great lengths to disturb the clarity originally rendered by his camera. In the darkroom he breaks the rules, disregards limitations, and makes visible internal pain and a cacophony of dark emotions. By covering his negatives with caustic bleach that seems not so much applied as thrown, he creates aggressive, abstract patterns of bruises and stains that infuse his portraits with layers of anger and raw emotion. Unable to arrest the bleaching process once it has started, the artist has just enough time to make one unique print before the image is lost. Like the intuitive process of painting or drawing, he feels free to take advantage of accidents that can happen in the darkroom and instinctively knows when to stop. Equating the process to cooking without a cookbook, he finds that for every successful piece there may be as many as ten that were pushed too far.
Ironically, this process of destruction in the darkroom creates something quite refined. The finished prints, elaborately matted and framed, have the presence and tactile quality of a small painting. He admires the work of Doug and Mike Starn and Joel Peter Witkin, artists who take their photographs through extensive manipulations, using them as a canvas or armature on which to build layers of meaning. Like the Starns and Witkin, Suto’s finished pieces are unique objects with a bold physical presence, a far cry from the objective photograph revered by photography’s modernist aesthetic.
Suto’s male figures maintain the physical beauty of classical sculpture gone terribly wrong. As a child, the artist was drawn to the beauty and sensuality of the male body in the work of Michelangelo. But in Suto’s work the beauty of the body is overcome with a dark cloud of suffering and distress. He asks the figure in Gagged and Tagged to carry messages about endurance and the temporal quality of life. Tagged like a corpse with dark and wincing eyes that convey both physical and psychic pain, the portrait hints at violence.
According to the artist, “These photographs are about exploring the dark side of ourselves and human relationships. They are also about celebrating love, sexuality, and creating superheroes. The people I photograph live with a middle finger attitude rather than exist in a land of eyes averted.”
Football and Space Case are both portraits of Suto’s mentally retarded brother, John. With his open and innocent face peering out and through a football helmet that neither protects nor conceals his vulnerable and guileless spirit, John is the ideal model for conflicting ideas about strength and weakness. The all-American sport of football is arguably the most aggressive of athletic competitions, requiring extreme physical size and strength. But John is more like a gentle giant. With his preposterous and ill-fitting helmet, his innocence is his protection.
Contradicting ideas about male identity once again surface in Mexican Wrestling Mask. The physicality, sexuality, and mystery of this image draw us in, while the affliction of stains and scratches is repelling. The vulnerable and intimate nape of the neck is exposed and fills this enigmatic photograph with a deep sense of longing. Suto calls his images of men, “allegorical portraiture.” His superheroes and jocks all live in an unmistakably portentous and strange deathscape where time is running out. He first exhibited his work at Light Work as part of the exhibition desire: Contemporary Photography from the Visual AIDS Archive Project. Like any artist who has experienced a serious illness, his work now resonates with the poignant truth that life is short and fragile. This knowledge only adds to the beauty and depth of his imagery.
Suto’s work is not without humor and his Untitled montage, makes nipples into eyes and superimposes a mouth over a crotch. The image draws parallels to the quirky photomontages of the Dadaist and Surrealists, who cast aside the obvious for the more intensely irrational and incongruous reality of dreams. Along with several other contemporary photographers, including Bill Jacobson and John O’Reilly, Suto provides us with a very different definition of masculinity, one that he rends from his photographs with passion.