The Inner Shadows of Mankind.

I believe we are not black nor white, not even grey, but we are a very complicated mix of good, bad, darkness and light

Art by Peter Zelei - Interview by Jill Gould

Hungarian photographer, Peter Zelei, creates conceptual imagery from his own subconscious and surroundings, and by manipulating color as well as black and white. His stunning photographs tell a story and create a sense of mystery all while exploring the human experience. Mr. Zelei often delves into themes that some may find a bit uncomfortable but are always thought provoking.

beauty and the beast last supper ©Peter Zelei

Beauty and the Beast Last Supper ©Peter Zelei

Your images are beautiful, mystical, sexy, surreal, humorous, and often disturbing all at the same time. You base some of your imagery on stories and tales such as The Resurrection of the Rose, Beauty and The Beast, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But how do you come up with the unique and personal spins you bring to life in your photography?
The stories you mentioned do not always have a strong connection to my series. For example, in the case of The Unbearable Lightness of Being I just borrowed the title, because it really fit to the images, but the images itself don’t have any connection to the movie/book. It also happens that I don’t have any preliminary plans relating to any stories, only later when I finish the post-processing and am pondering about the title I find connections to particular stories.
The Beauty and the Beast series was different. I think there are very deep psychological symbols in that story; I felt a deep connection to it and a strong urge to create my version.

red pain ©Peter Zelei

Red Pain ©Peter Zelei

Your “Vilhelm’s Room” series is an homage to the Turn of the Century Danish painter, Vilhelm Hammershoi, who is known for his simple, muted portraits (often of his wife) and interiors. What about Hammershoi’s work speaks to you that compelled you to create such a surrealistic and minimalist photo series based on his art?
Although Hammershoi is well known in Denmark and the surrounding countries, people from Eastern Europe usually don’t know his works. I met his paintings first in 2015 when I had an exhibition in Copenhagen, and visited some museums in my spare time. I immediately was captivated by the silence that is radiating from his paintings. He very often-painted rooms interconnected by doors and I also felt a strong symbolism in these “door in a door in a door…” scenes. We see very often just the back of the main figure and it has the strong feeling of loneliness and the absence of personality. I immediately decided to make a homage series to these paintings but didn’t have the slightest idea how and where… But after a few months I accidentally found a very similar “door in a door in a door” location in an abandoned rocket base in Hungary, and spent two days making the series with different props and models. The modern but derelict concrete hangar gave the exact feeling and setting of what I needed for my images.

vilhelms rooms ©Peter Zelei

Vilhelm’s Rooms ©Peter Zelei

The Pieta in Christian art and in the famous Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus in her arms after the Crucifixion. In your “Pieta”, “Angel”, and “Martyrdom” photographs, you feature a model with a scar on her breast, a breast cancer survivor, in the place of Jesus. This imagery is incredibly powerful. What message are you sending out to those who are fighting and those who have survived breast cancer?
This project was inspired by the figure of Saint Agatha of Sicily, who is the patron saint of breast cancer patients, martyrs, and rape victims. According to the legend, her breasts were torn off with pincers during the tortures she received. Because I wasn’t raised up in a religious family I met her story 3 years ago, when I saw a medieval painting (by Sebastiano Del Piombo) about her in Palazzo Pitti, Florence. For some reason I decided to reinterpret her story, but just copying the painting seemed too simple and brutal. So I put aside the idea for a while, and a few years later when I met the model, the right concept immediately popped out from my mind. Regarding your question about the message, I would like to cite the words of Robyn from Pennsylvania (with her permission), who wrote this text for an Instagram feature of one of the images from this series: “I will never forget the moment when the doctor told me I had early stage breast cancer in both of my breasts. I was 35 years old, and I felt the earth slip beneath my feet. Even though I caught it early, it felt terminal because so much of my life had been marred by my mother’s young death at 47. I was 15, and it ripped our family to shreds.
I see this folded mastectomy scar, and I remember my own, on both sides, before my reconstruction was successful. I remember feeling as if I were no longer a woman, as if I were mutilated and no longer beautiful. Ten years later, I miss my breasts still. My fake boobs are not mine. The nerves are gone. Although, scars fade.
Peter, your title on this exquisite photo says, martyr. I think it conveys how you feel at first. But I choose not to be a constant sufferer. I choose to survive as long as I can in this amazing world. I am so grateful to the people, who have held my hand and adored me even with scars – my daughter, and my husband. He is a survivor, too.  Michael, thank you for being my light, my best friend, my soul mate, and for telling me I was beautiful when I felt I was not. If you have a family history, please get checked. This is how I caught mine early.”

Angel ©Peter Zelei

Angel ©Peter Zelei

In your “Beauty and the Beast” series, you feature a beautiful woman, a man in a pig mask, and a plastic doll and depict the threesome as “One Happy Family”. You even incorporate cannibalism in your “The Last Supper” photo in the series. Is this how you view romantic relationships? Someone is eating a part of the other?
Sometimes that happens (although usually just in the psychological way) but in this case my original intention was depicting events and happenings from the unconscious – so these images are not about a family or relationship (I know the title is misleading sometimes) but the hidden inner forces of our souls. Imagine the young woman as the anima (according to the theory of C. G. Jung the anima is the female soul of a man), the pig man as the inner shadow, and the doll the inner child. Perhaps you figured out that I tried to re-create my own subconscious. 🙂

beauty and the beast ©Peter Zelei

Beauty and the Beast ©Peter Zelei

Plastic baby dolls, baby doll parts, baby doll heads, baby dolls in mason jars are significant in many of your photographs. What do the dolls represent to you?
Plastic dolls for me almost always represent the “inner child” who didn’t receive the necessary things (love, safety, attachment) when it should have been received by them.

the collector ©Peter Zelei

The Collector ©Peter Zelei

Can you explain your “The Fantastic Mr. Rabbit” series? As in your “Beauty and The Beast” series you have a very interesting take on the family unit. In this series your family are lettuce, carrot and cabbage eaters made up of an older bunny man, a Playboy bunny like female, glittered bunny eared skulls, again, baby dolls, and other interesting props such as guns and gas masks. What are you saying about families in these works?
The Mister Rabbit series was my first attempt to create some bizarre and surreal reality about alienated and dysfunctional families and relationships. The members of this family don’t have too much connection to each other; they act and behave without consciousness and awareness like an animal. I really love this series and have continuously worked on it since 2012. Usually the images with more than one person are composites from different shootings.

Mr rabbit Saturday night 10 15 ©Peter Zelei

Mr Rabbit Saturday Night 10:15 ©Peter Zelei

In other series such as “Iron and Steel” and “Angelology” you incorporate Steam Punk fashion with softer imagery of flowers and young women, and tough looking characters with angel wings and halos. The dichotomy of hard and soft imagery is often found in your pieces. Is this how you look at life, a constant mixture of hard and soft? Is this how you see people, a constant mixture of good and bad, angelic and naughty?
Yes, that is true but I have never thought about it in this way. But I believe we are not black and nor white, not even grey, but we are a very complicated mix of good, bad, darkness and light, etc. And I haven’t mentioned the colors yet…

martyrdom ©Peter Zelei

Martyrdom ©Peter Zelei

In your “White Pain/Red Pain” and “Undoing” photographs, you work with female models in various poses in bathtubs that are a bit reminiscent of graves. Symbolism is prevalent in all of your work, but what do the women in tubs symbolize in this series?
I really like that symbols, especially strong symbols, have so many different meanings to different people, depending on the unconscious, the memories and experiences of the viewer. For example I have never thought of the bathtubs as a grave, but I really like the idea! In my view the tubs are supposed to be the place for cleaning, purification, and this is what happens in my tubs too, but via pain and suffering. About the women: Generally we can say that on most of my fine-art images the woman is the symbol of the anima, my anima. (The anima, according to C. G. Jung is the totality of the unconscious feminine psychological qualities that a man possesses. Basically we can say that the unconscious of a man is female.)  So perhaps the most simple explanation is if I say they are my soul.

white pain ©Peter Zelei

White Pain ©Peter Zelei

For your “Post-Apocalyptic Nudes” series, such as your “Last Woman on Planet Earth” and your “Blurred Lines” sequences, how did you find such a post-apocalyptic looking location? What does the human form against urban architecture and older abandoned buildings symbolize for you?
I found this location 3 years ago in the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary. It was a building site that was supposed to be a new luxury quarter of Budapest. The building process was started in 2007 and it was a big plan, new offices, apartments, malls, hospital, helicopter pond, etc. But due to the big financial crisis (2008–2012) the banks stopped supporting the project in 2010 and the whole project was terminated. They built approximately one-sixth part of the original plan and just the concrete skeletons of the buildings were erected, nothing else.

It was a photographer’s dream location, because it was intact and clean, quite unearthly and post-apocalyptic. You needed to get permission from the owner company to get in, because it was guarded – but also because of this the place was free from anybody, when you walked inside the buildings you just felt you were the last man on Planet Earth. Sometimes the echoes of your footsteps create the feeling that someone’s following you. After rainy days the whole area was covered with 2-3 cm deep water, the reflections were perfect and made the location even more unreal. Places like this create strong feelings in people because they are a symbol of the environment of the alienated lonely human being.

last woman on planet earth ©Peter Zelei

Last Woman on Planet Earth ©Peter Zelei

What kind of cameras, lenses, and film do you use? Does your equipment change depending upon your subject/s?
I don’t like to speak too much about equipment. I am in that group who says that a good image can be made with any kind of equipment. And I don’t want to advertise big companies for free. 🙂 To be a little bit more specific, I use DSLR cameras, with good quality lenses, because I make big prints for exhibitions and for sale, and big prints are better if the original image has larger size (the more pixels, the sharper and better print). Subject always determines what kind of lenses I choose, and also the circumstances at the location can affect strongly what is the final decision about the equipment. For example I almost always use tele lenses (70mm-200mm) in studio, but on location shots it depends on how much room I have to move and how much part of the surroundings I want to compose in the image. I have a full scale of lenses from 15mm to 300mm, so I have the option to choose what I need.

Mr rabbit we are a happy family ©Peter Zelei

Mr Rabbit we are a Happy Family ©Peter Zelei

From conceptualizing your pieces, to finding the locations, dressing the sets, costuming your models, taking the photographs and then manipulating the images and colors on your computer, how long does one photograph in a series usually take you to complete?
Very hard to answer this question properly, it always depends on the project. Most of the times it requires a few months, but this is not a continuous work, I work on many other projects at the same time. The shooting is approximately the 10% of the whole stuff, getting or making the props, and doing the post-process requires much more time.

vilhelms rooms II ©Peter Zelei

Vilhelm’s Rooms II ©Peter Zelei

In your work, both figuratively and literally you play and experiment with lightness and darkness. What do you hope people take away with them after viewing your work?
As I mentioned above symbols have so different effects on people that I really can’t predict or imagine how my images will affect them… My main goal is to create images I like and have meaning to me and the only thing I hope is that there will be people who will find a message or a meaning for themselves in my images and they will receive something that is important to them. This message or meaning is not necessarily the same as mine. Sometimes it can be very, very different, but that is good, and I like it.

Links to more work:
Instagram: @peter_zelei_images

vilhelms rooms II ©Peter Zelei

Vilhelm’s Rooms II ©Peter Zelei

At the moment Peter Zelei creates images, but it wasn’t always like this. He was originally a trained pharmacist; he actually has a Master’s & a Dr. title. But he has tried lots of things in the past years. He played the guitar (and wrote lyrics and music) in a punk rock band when he was a young man in Hungary. He worked on building sites as a laborer; he was a clerk in shops, a receptionist in hotels, and a nurse in an ambulance car. Besides music he also wrote a lot of poems and a few short stories.His photography career started in 1995 when he worked in the Department of Anatomy of the University of Szeged (Hungary), and had to make educational photos covering the prepared corpses. After working 5 years in different pharmacies in Hungary he founded a web design company where he worked as a designer and CEO. But in the end he left all of the above stuff for the desire of creating images, which happens to be his love of life. He is an artist of a gallery in Copenhagen (Gallerie Lorien), where his photos are available as limited edition prints. He is completely self-educated as a photographer. He is living and working in Budapest, Hungary.







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