”I went out on the viewing terrace, at Dorval airport, and I saw this beautiful shape. It’s only when I developed the negative that I discovered the graphics of the image. It is one of the first images I made.”

It was a wonderful feeling sitting across the table from Gabor Szilasi in his cozy kitchen again. When I first interviewed him for The Gazette, oh so many years ago, it was here that we talked. And talked. But we also ate, for Szilasi, one of Quebec’s best-known photographers, happens to be a terrific cook.

This time the dinner would come later, as we settled for a long-overdue chat. The past wove itself instantly into the conversation, and the Hungarian-born artist gives it a quick recap. His first attempt at escape from Communism, in 1949, at the age of 21, ended in capture. He spent five months in prison. The second time, in 1957, following the 1956 uprising, he made it with his father to Vienna. There, they applied for visas to Canada and Sweden. That same year, they arrived in Halifax.

VdA: Your love of photography came with you to Canada, did it not? When and how was the spark ignited?

GS: After my first capture and prison, I could not go back to university to continue my medical studies. I was considered and enemy of the state. So I started working on the construction of the underground, while going to Alliance Française to learn French. There I discovered books and magazine with photographs by André Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson, Avedon, Izis… When I started taking photographs, at first they were of my friends, excursions in the mountains, camping. I did some landscape photography but what I was interested in was capturing reality. Documenting. I just photographed what pleased me. Basically, I didn’t have a subject matter.

VdA: For a photographer with no subject matter, how did you begin your career in Canada?

GS: I got my first job was with the Department of Lands and Forests in Quebec City, doing cartography, drawing maps mainly. Then I heard that they were looking for a darkroom technician at the Service de ciné-photographie, which later became the Office du film du Québec. After a few weeks they realized that I could do better, that they can use me as a photographer rather than a darkroom technician. And then I got a grant from the Canada Council, and with that I went to Charlevoix, Beauce, Abitibi. My first exhibition was of images of Charlevoix county. I didn’t really know the countryside when I was in Hungary. I found it so beautiful, quaint, mountainous, L’île d’Orleans, L’île aux Coudres…

VdA: This may not be a fair question, it’s a «what if» question: What would you be photographing had you stayed in Hungary? Would your pictures be any different?

GS: I don’t think so. I like to photograph people, architecture. I went back to Hungary after 24 years and took a lot of photographs there. But I went there with a baggage already. And I always look for the image, wherever I am.

When you photograph, or you do any artwork, you are intuitive. If you feel something, than you click the shutter, and it’s later that you look and see the contact sheets and there might be nothing interesting, and in the next there are five great images.

VdA: I imagine that’s how this, iconic image of the nun at Dorval airport came about?

GS: I went out on the viewing terrace, at Dorval airport, and I saw this beautiful shape. Intuition. I had to be very fast, so she doesn’t notice me. And it’s only when I developed the negative that I discovered the graphics of the image. It is one of my first images I made.

VdA: You also took a lot of photographs of friends, family. How different is it photographing someone you know intimately and a stranger?

GS: It is always about the image in the sense of inviting the viewer into it. But I stopped street photography in early 80s because I feel much more comfortable when my presence as a photographer is accepted. That I work in an arena that is familiar to me. In all the street photography I did, I didn’t really publish much because I found it in a way exploitive, like shooting a drunken guy sleeping on a bench.

VdA: Are you perhaps doing photography to be part of society, belong? To dialogue with your environment through your photographs?

GS: Yes! That’s right. One thing that is also very important for me, is that when I photograph people here, or in Charlevoix, or La Beauce, it’s very important that the images go back to the community. I usually do two, three trips to an area and on the second trip I would bring 8 x 10 prints of the photographs I took and give them to the people there.

Gabor’s wife, artist Doreen Lindsay, was stirring upstairs. It was time to start cooking dinner. I was, of course, invited to stay.

Biographical notes

Renowned for his exceptional documentary photography of Quebec culture, Gabor Szilasi was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1928. He immigrated to Canada in 1957, settling in Montreal, Quebec two years later. From 1959 to 1971 he worked as photographer at the Office du film du Québec. He taught photography at the Collège du Vieux Montréal (1970-80) and was associate professor (1980-95) at Montreal’s Concordia University. Self-taught, Szilasi has had more than 30 solo exhibitions across Canada and Europe and participated in over 60 Canadian and international group shows. In 1990 he was commissioned by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to produce a series of photographs of Claude Monet’s gardens at Giverny, France, as part of the exhibition Monet at Giverny: chefs-d’oeuvres du Musée Marmottan. In 1997, the MMFA presented a retrospective of his work. He has received grants from the Canada and Quebec art councils and in 2010 was named winner of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

Gabor Szilasi is represented by Art45 (Montreal).