Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lens and Pen as Mirrors: Guest Post by Misko Kranjec

(Click on images for larger view)

[I’m honored to host a guest post this week by Slovenian photojournalist Misko Kranjec. I met Misko in the spring of 2007 when he traveled to the United States to give a presentation at the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s annual conference. He spent several weeks touring the U.S. on that visit, including a few days photographing in Pittsburgh prior to traveling to the Chicago area for the conference. Misko is an award-winning photographer and the son of writer Misko Kranjec. ~ Dory]

Lens and Pen as Mirrors

When Dory invited
me to write a short reflection of how my father, a prominent Slovenian writer, and his writing influenced my photography, I thought it would be a piece of cake – a few sentences, blah, blah blah, and voila – done. This was not because I would undervalue Dory's blog and her endeavor in any way; I was just overestimating my capacity to analyze myself, and in English on top of that.

Actually, I never gave much thought about my own photographic aims – the concepts and inner meanings, or the mission of my work. I was just an observer of the world with the camera, recording what attracted my eyes and triggered my feelings. I didn't make a fuss of my efforts. For me, photography was always fun, and throughout the 30 years of my photojournalistic career, I always tried to keep it this way.

My father was a prominent writer in his time, kind of a Slovenian Faulkner, writing about Prekmurje – that northeastern region squeezed between Austria, Hungary, and the Mura River – and of the people living there. At the time of his birth in 1908, this region still belonged to the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but after the First World War it was associated to the new born Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Totally rural and without any industry worth mention, this region was extremely poor. Half of it was either swamp or covered with thick forest, most of it belonging to the Hungarian Count Zichy family who had a castle in Beltinci and owned the biggest part of the arable land. What was left was far from being capable of sustaining the peasants living there, so the men either temporarily left their families to work as seasonal hired help in other parts of Yugoslavia or abroad, or whole families immigrated, mostly to the United States, Canada, or to the countries in South America.

After the WWII and with the birth of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, the last of the Zichy Counts, the Countess Maria Zichy, fled to Austria. The land and the castle were confiscated and turned into a state farm. The swamps were mostly dried and turned into fields or grazing land and divided among the farmers. Significant progress came to this region and several factories were built, yet the region still remained predominantly rural, underdeveloped, and poor. What money came in was mostly from those working temporarily in Austria, Germany, and

However poor they were, the people living in Prekmurje were extremely friendly and open, willing to invite even a stranger into their modest homes and share with him the last loaf of bread and the last bottle of home-grown wine. Those were the people and the land my father wrote about, and when I started with my photography back in the early 1970s, the scene there was pretty much the same as it had been decades earlier. While many new houses had been built, and cars and tractors started to emerge in ever greater numbers, there were still numerous clay-plastered wooden cottages with thatched roofs, carts and plows were still draw by cows, and the farmers, especially the women, still dressed as they did a century ago.

All this gave me a great opportunity to record on film at least a bit of
what my father wrote about in his novels. True, the scene was changing rapidly and it took some careful framing to avoid the signs of modern times in order to record it as it had appeared in the past. Perhaps I could even be accused of deliberately twisting the truth, but in this case it was not the truth or the present I was aiming for, but rather the past – the world of my father which gave him so much inspiration and so many stories and human destinies to write about.

Disappointed with my first attempts to write about this for Dory’s blog, I decided to steal from my father by translating from the beginning of his book Y
outh in the Swamp, one of his last novels which is actually a biography of his childhood. So I started to translate this part of his book, and became too excited with my doing it to stop. Some of my father's work has been translated in several languages, but none in English. In front of me was my father’s book about his youth in this poor land, and on the very first inner page, before the title, written in his handwriting was inscribed: To my son Misko, as the mirror to the long gone days. January 15th, 1963. I was sixteen at that time, and little did I know that one day I’d be holding a mirror of my own – the camera.

As a kid, I was often in Prekmurje. During the summer holidays my father would take me with him whenever he would go there to write in the house that he, my mother, and his brother had built before World War II, which replaced the thatched-roof cottage where he was born. Back then, I didn't even like Prekmurje very much. We would stay there for tw
o or three weeks, and these were very long and boring weeks for me. I was a city boy, and at home I had friends that I would play with the whole day long, every day in summer. But in Prekmurje, I had no other friend but the son of the school master. All the others were peasant kids, who spoke a dialect I could hardly understand. While my father was writing, I was left to my own devices which meant mainly reading books, playing with my toys, and feeling lonely and bored. In fact, I hated Prekmurje then.

Years later, during my leave from army service,
I happened to visit Prekmurje for a day, and there I met a lovely girl who would inspire about a hundred love letters, and later she became my wife. With that moment, my eyes viewed this land in a totally different light. We visited relatives there at several times a month, and her home became the base for my photographic explorations. Even though it was in the early 1970s, modern times had not yet really touched this remote land. The old people, the old cottages, and the old way of living – everything in fact that my father had written about in his books – was still very much present. I was just taking my first serious, formative steps into photography then, and my father's world suddenly became a great subject for my camera. It also became very, very close to my heart.

I may have thought I hated this land as a kid, but actually I was soaking its spirit into my blood. The love for it and for its people had been hidden within me, but as I photographed, those feelings and affection surfaced. The people of my father's books were suddenly there, in blood and flesh, standing in front of me, speaking to me, inviting me into their homes, offering me their wine and food. Just as the people had come to life, so had the words my father put onto the page – all with new meaning.

Looking through the viewfinder, I felt them in my mind and they spoke to me and guided my eye while I was framing, and even then I did not yet realize that I was holding a mirror to those long gone days too. Yes, they were still there, as though frozen in time, not really the past yet – but it was fast thawing and running out.

Today, I am happy I had the chance to record the last remains of this world. In less than a decade the scene changed completely - the lovely old cottages were replaced with the modern houses, big John Deeres replaced the cows, and the old people died, one by one. In the mid-1980s there was almost nothing left of the old Prekmurje to photograph, and what remained was mostly weed-grown ruins.

I don't know whether it was an omen, destiny, or just coincidence that my father died in that same time. Unfortunately with his death also started the process of the oblivion of his work, more or less triggered by events which followed the secession of Slovenia from Yugoslavia in 1991. This was a time when the regime here changed to the right, to the conservative side, which considers my father as a "red" writer, writing foremost about the poor and deprived but good-at-heart people, the peasants from his Prekmurje, and because he openly favored socialism. Not a single book of his has been reprinted since his death, and I can openly say he was deliberately pushed into this state of oblivion.

Well, actually not quite, as last year was the 100th anniversary of his birth and suddenly he was remembered again – for a brief moment. The Association of Slovenian Writers organized a literary evening, held in one small auditorium of the big cultural center in Ljubljana, where writers and poets from Prekmurje read their works in honor of my father. Five days before this event, one of them remembered that I had photographed Prekmurje extensively and thought it would be good to show my photos during the reading.

They asked if I would prepare a photo show. At first I refused, as this would mean scanning and retouching many photographs from negatives that I hadn’t held in my hands for at least 25 years. I calculated I would need between 300 and 400 images for a two hour event, to be shown on a screen during the reading. However, after more thought, I changed my mind. First, because of my father; I said to myself, I owe him this. And second, because of me; it had been a while since I’d had an exhibition of my photographs, and I told myself, it is always good to show people you are still around, important to defy oblivion.

[To see more of Misko's Prekmurje photographs, visit his online gallery.]

Photo Credits: All photographs copyright Misko Kranjec, used by permission.

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Anonymous said...

I cannot tell you how beautiful Misko's story is. The photography is almost as good as the writing and both are exceptional. He was given a special opportunity-to help honor his father and to rescue him from oblivion. The pictures of the old women (and especially the one of the lady trying on the shoes) brings back memories of my grandma and all her friends on the Northside when I was growing up. I swear that the scene in the room with the boy in the mirror looks like her house on Phineas Street (she rented from the German Club). The appointment and spareness (is that a word?) of the room so reminds me of her place. I haven't thought about that in many, many years. As a kid it was so alien visiting her and smelling all the strange food she'd cook. I even recall seeing the ragman come down her street and wanted to run cause he was so scary-an old black man pushing a cart singing-hoping to find a knife to sharpen. All gone now just like Misko's past.
Thank you for getting him to do this.
Kevin N. Tomasic

Dory Adams said...

Kevin, thanks for sharing that comment -- it speaks to the universal nature of Misko's photographs even though they are of a very specific place and time. Kevin Scanlon mentioned that they were reminiscent of Walker Evans' work, and I couldn't agree more. The additional images of Prekmurje on his website are amazing (I hope everyone takes time to click on the link at the end of the post to visit Misko's online gallery). Misko certainly has a talent for photographing people -- those faces in his photos evoke so much. This is truly an important body of work.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Beautiful, stark images and sincere words to accompany them. I especially felt absence in that picture of the sewing room--the blank walls, the muted light, the single chair pulled away from the table. Thanks to Misko and to Dory.