A Room in the City:
with Mark McCawley
“Of myself there was present only the witness, the observer, in traveling coat and hat, the stranger who does not belong to the house, the photographer who has called to take a photograph of places which one will never see again.”
• Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way
hotographer, artist, writer, gallery and studio owner — Gabor Gasztonyi’s photo-documentary work continues in the documentary tradition of such photographers as Anders Petersen, Josef Koudelka, and Nan Goldin, putting a human face to the prostitutes, transvestites, lovers, drunkards, and drug addicts who call Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) home, documenting their struggles to survive the plagues of poverty, illness, addiction, violence and indifference.
In the fall of 2004, Gasztonyi began his five-year photographic odyssey photographing the hotel rooms and residents of Vancouver’s DTES beginning with the Cobalt Hotel on Main Street and moving onto other hotels on Hastings, including the Balmoral, the Regent, the Sunrise, the Lux and the Roosevelt. “I wanted to look inside the windows of these softly lit rooms and put aside for a moment notions of illness and poverty and discover what was really there.” (Gasztonyi, p.14)
“Sometimes photographers get lucky and can see themselves in their photographs. Sometimes they can learn who they are by listening to the living things around them. My journey into the hotels of the Downtown Eastside gave me the possibility for both. By opening these doors, I found a story that belongs to all of us.”
Gabor Gasztonyi, Preface, p.15
Accompanied by a selection of Gasztonyi’s diary entries, and poems, his photographs were published by Vancouver’s Anvil Press in September 2010 as A Room in the City.
With Gasztonyi as guide, we are invited to explore and investigate some realities of Canadian culture (yet hardly limited to Canada alone), “the bland, racist, sexist, and ‘classist’ prejudices buried in Canadian society: an institutionalized contempt for the poor, for sex trade workers, for drug addicts and alcoholics, for aboriginal people. And we might add, for the mentally ill.” (Gabor Mate, Forward, p.8)
Gasztonyi reveals Vancouver’s DTES as a sort of modern Gulag, quickly learning the pecking order of East Hastings “beginning with the invisible leaders of the drug gangs, the gang stooges and drug carriers, the petty enforcers on bicycles patrolling the outer edge of sidewalks, the addicts taking drugs from the petty enforcers who in turn were handling the drugs and selling them to the low level users… relationships held together by fear, violence and deception.” (Gasztonyi, p.14)
“Each day as the rest of us in the city live our own lives at home, at work and in public, many of the people of the Downtown Eastside that I came to know in these photographs continue their struggle with illness, finding ways to love in a world filled with despair.”
Gabor Gasztonyi, Preface, p.14
Over the past six to eight months I conducted an interview by email with Gabor Gasztonyi about his book, A Room in the City, his subject matter, and the process of bringing the book to fruition.
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Mark McCawley: What initially drew you to the A Room in the City project?
Gabor Gasztonyi: I suppose every good photographer needs a good subject. In this way all artists are the same, once you’ve found something interesting you try to find a way of getting it done within your vision as a human being.
The Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver has always fascinated me. It’s always referred to as an area with Canada’s poorest postal code. Many who live here suffer from not only poverty, but addiction and mental illness. My brother also lives here and as I have visited him over the years I came to believe that perhaps it would be a good thing to look deeper and to meet and talk to folks in their own homes rather than simply on the street.
And so I began photographing everyone who would meet with me in these derelict hotels including the Cobalt, The Balmoral, The Regent, The Sunrise and many others. I soon became fascinated by the beauty of the light and of the people in these rooms.
Mark McCawley: As a photographer, how did you gain such intimate access to your book’s subjects? Their lives and their homes?
Gabor Gasztonyi: There is no substitute for perseverance. There were many times during the six years I was taking these photographs in the hotels that I wanted to give up. Sometimes the doormen wouldn’t let me in depending on their mood or if I had a few bucks in my pocket to slip them.
Often the night clerks were also exploiters selling cigarettes at high prices or arranging tricks with the girls for their friends or people they knew. Sometimes people did not show up as promised. You waited for hours. They would slip past you in the dark hallway and suddenly remember you were coming. But you came to forgive them for most things and you became used to the sense of time that is there in the DTES. My subjects got high on dope but I just got high on the light in the room and the sense of astonishment when a great image came to life in my mind and in the machine, the camera in my hand. My heart felt connected to my mind and the machine at all times as I reached my hand out looking for the soul of another human being. Was I an exploiter? Yes, probably, all artists are in some way. We exploited each other.
Mark McCawley: Not all photographers and photography of Vancouver’s Downtown East Side has been done with your book’s intimacy and sensitivity; indeed, your photos force a rethinking of assumptions — personal, social, political, as well as creative. Your thoughts?
Gabor Gasztonyi: Its easy to shoot on the street, not so easy when some crazy guy smashes your camera, or you happen to get the Guatemalan dealer on the sidewalk in your photograph or the young girl who is eventually noticed in your work by a grandmother somewhere in Alberta. This grandmother realizes her granddaughter is now a heroin addict and a prostitute and you have to ask yourself, “Did you tell them her secret?” “Did you have the right to do that?” Perhaps you didn’t.
People are much different in their own homes than they are on the street. You come to know them as they really are and not the caricature or stereotype that appears on the drug laced streets. You come to learn why they are there and in some way you learn why you are there yourself. You come to realize that you are just as deluded as they are and as you sit beside them you compare notes and discover all the things that torment both of you. The camera is always a tool for psychoanalysis.
I have no interest in pretty pictures.
Mark McCawley: There will always be a contingent that will question the ethics of photographing the marginalized and disenfranchised of society. That said, what do you consider the redeeming social value of presenting images of the marginalized and disenfranchised found in A Room in the City? Please elaborate.
Gabor Gasztonyi: Great question. All photographers and artists for that matter are voyeurs in a sense. It’s difficult when delving into humanity not to be otherwise for if we did not have an interest in life, much of humanity would not know of that life. Our goal however is to present intimate glimpses into the lives of others in a heroic and dignified way. I am not sure if this is voyeuristic or not.
Sally Mann who made a career of photographing her nude children as they grew up raises deeper moral issues. Did she have a right to do that? Interestingly during her too long career these images are the only ones of value as the rest of her work is not as strong. Without her children and the images she took of them, her legacy would be meaningless. How did this affect her children? How did it affect their relationships? In the end I am not sure she had the right to take those photographs.
Sebastiao Salgado, one of the greatest photographer of our era, has often been referred to as, “a voyeur of the world’s pain.” Much of his work documents the suffering of humanity on a global scale from children with polio in India and Africa as well as world migration and starvation. His images are striking and represent an important representation of our history as humans.
Robert Capa shot a famous photograph of a rebel in the Spanish Civil War just a second before he was shot in the head. The photograph was done without the permission of the dead man and yet the image is his legacy to the world. Did Capa have a right to take that photograph? How did he justify that image? It’s difficult to answer these questions.
The photographs in my book are the result of intimate contact and openness. As I mention in the preface, many of the images are also about myself as I have always believed the photographer must have part of his soul in the picture for it to be authentic. The images are as much about me as they are about the people in them.
The photographs also represent images of people living in parts of our society, such as the poverty stricken Downtown East Side, which are misunderstood. I think the images reveal a powerful sense of poetry and humanity which are important for everyone to see and feel.
I am not sure if it’s correct to say the photographs are of the “marginalized” because the people I met there had more spirituality in them and more love than most people I have met. Their only fault is that they have suffered. Suffered from the abuse of others since childhood. Perhaps we are more marginalized that they are. I am glad I was able to speak for them and tell their stories.
Mark McCawley: Contrast the process of first bringing A Room in the City to fruition, followed by that of putting the book together. Were there any special challenges technically or creatively?
Gabor Gasztonyi: The original photographs were taken on film. They account for roughly 70 per cent of the images. Later I got involved with digital in my studio and had a hard time going back. I developed a way of working digitally as if I was in the darkroom, avoiding the smell of chemicals and the constant running taps of water washing film and prints.
Having worked in film for so many years and having a sense of what a good black and white print is, I taught myself, through many months of experimentation to replicate digital images in black and white. I actually have come to believe that the digital black and white is in some ways better, particularly in the 35 mm format. In medium format film is almost impossible to replicate as well. Since these images were shot in 35 mm, I felt comfortable shooting in digital and converting to black and white using my own personal formulas. It’s unlikely other people’s black and white conversions will be like mine. It’s important to get nice lighting no matter what medium one uses.
I was fascinated by the beautiful light I found in these hotel rooms. They were filled with smoke and haze filtered through dusty windows and soiled sheets spread across layers of sunlight. The light came across leathery skin on faces and arms, skin marked by years of suffering. Above all the skin felt unloved as if it were calling out for someone to touch them and somehow to acknowledge them and say softly, yes you are alive, and you mean something.
In these tiny rooms I used a very wide lens, a 21 mm. It’s wide but not so wide that the faces were distorted. Some rooms were only 10×10, some slightly more. At 40.00 bucks a square foot it’s the most expensive rent in town. Often I hid the camera in a bag or around my back to get past the people at the front desk. In the private hotels like the Cobalt its tough to carry a camera around because the owners were always in battles with the city and pictures were forbidden.
When I had finished photographing images for the book I sent the images out to a few publishers. Brian Kaufman at Anvil Press got back right away. We met shortly after and hit it off right away. Brian is a great publisher and I really thank him for taking this project on because a photo book is always quite costly and requires a lot of work with design and production. Derek von Essen who designed the book was also great to work with. He has a great sense of style and fell in love with the images. I worked with Brian and Derek for over eight months before it was ready for printing. It’s more complex than people realize, but in the end it was all worth while.
It was also so wonderful to have Dr. Gabor Mate write the forward to the book. He is so knowledgeable about all issues relating to addiction and as a doctor at the Portland Hotel he actually treated many of the people in my book. He is a great writer and the forward was magically written. The photographs inspired him just as I was inspired.
We did an initial run of the book in greyscale printing but it lacked intensity. The printer in China agreed to reprint the book in duo-tone which was a game-changing moment. I flew to China and worked on the printing with Peter Ng. It was a fantastic experience and I realized that the printing process for a photographer in black and white was an art form in itself.
It turned out beautifully and I was most impressed with the work of the printers in China. They used the traditional metal plates to reproduce the images and this made a great difference in the quality of the book.
Mark McCawley: Are there any other Vancouver, Canadian, or International photographers whose work you find worthwhile or intriguing?
Gabor Gasztonyi: There are so many great photographers in the world. Salgado is one of the greatest and is my role model in many ways at least for his sense of understanding black and white and his composition. His work involves global themes and requires a great deal of effort and time to accomplish. Jan Koudelka is also one of my favorites. I have an original copy of his first book Gypsies. I am not sure those types of photographs can be taken today as much of that life has now disappeared. Great images are not always immersed in global themes; there are great photographs everywhere, but its becoming harder to find significant stories, as people are trying everything. I much prefer the found image in daily life where your heart and eye lead you in that direction and when you are lucky enough God gives you the gift of astonishment. Koudelka would often say that he could photograph for days and come away with nothing. Once in a while a jewel would appear and a photograph is created. Such is the mystery of photography. Sadly today often the found image is being supplanted by the manipulated image. These are not photographs but illustrations. The digital negative or the film negative must not be changed other than with simply correction, light and dark, and contrast otherwise it is only an illustration.
Mark McCawley: What other photographic projects are you working on?
Gabor Gasztonyi: I am still working on my documentary film, No Way Out, about a group of three addicted and aging couples. I have finished shooting but working now with Richard Martin on editing the film. I hope also to submit my native rodeo work for publication shortly. I have photographed native rodeo in BC for the last six years.
Mark McCawley: What does the future hold for Gabor Gasztonyi?
Gabor Gasztonyi: Having recently returned from Ethiopia on a polio vaccination campaign I have been intrigued by the idea of photographing the last children with polio in Africa and India. I have made a start but its an ambitious thing to do. God willing I can make a stab at it. It would be a great book. Exhibitions come down in short order and often forgotten, a book however can last forever.
Note on the text: Copies of Gabor Gasztonyi’s A Room in the City can be ordered from his website, www.gaborphotography.com, or from the Anvil Press website, HERE. The editor wishes to thank Gabor Gasztonyi for his generous permission to use select photographs from his book in this post.
Gabor Gasztonyi has had exhibitions across Canada, including Vancouver, Montreal, and the Arta Gallery in Toronto in 2008. His awards include The Professional Photographers of BC Nikon Prize, Society of Canadian Artists Award of Excellence, runner-up Magnum Scotia Bank Scholarship, and a Canadian nomination for the International Black & White Spider Awards in 2008. He operates a photographic studio and Art Gallery in New Westminster, BC.