Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Eva Besnyo

Born in Budapest, Eva Besnyö was brought up in a well-to-do Jewish home. In 1928, she started to study photography at József Pécsi‘s studio where she also served as an apprentice.

In 1930, she moved to Berlin where she became Peter Weller’s assisitant. first worked for advertising photographer René Ahrlé before working on with press photographer  Peter Weller. She became part of the social and political circle of intellectuals which included  Gyorgy Kepes, Joris Ivens,  Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Otto Umbehr and Robert Capa.

The city is, at the time, a modernist and experimental centre where she plays with objects within precise compositions before exploring the lives of workers, the swimmers of the Wannsee lido or the games of gypsy children. Sensing the imminent political turn of Germany, she moved to Amsterdam where, introduced by artists such as Gerrit Rietveld, she earned recognition. There, she documented the innovative and functional forms of a new architecture and, inspired by the New Vision movement, she experiments different perspectives, playing with angles and framing.

In 1931, she opened her own studio where she was successful in receiving agency work. Her well-known photograph of the gipsy boy with a cello on his back stems from that period. Threatened by the onset of National Socialism in 1932, she moved to Amsterdam with her Dutch friend John Fernhout whom she married. With the assistance of Charley Toorop, she participated in exhibitions which led to commissions in press photography, portraits, fashion and architecture.

Her solo exhibition in the Van Lier art gallery in 1933 consolidated her recognition in the Netherlands. Besnyö experienced a further breakthrough with her architectural photography only.

In 1934 she became a member of the association of artists for the defense of cultural rights. In this capacity she participated in the association’s 1936 protest exhibition against the Berlin Olympic Games, the “Olympics under Dictatorship” and organised the internationally-oriented exhibition “Foto ’37” at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, intended to enhance awareness of photography as an art form.

After the capitulation of the Netherlands army in May 1940, as the conditions of Jews steadily deteriorated, Eva Besnyö was forbidden to engage in all journalistic activities. In 1942, when her sole source of income was a few private commissions, she went underground for two years. After the war she received numerous commissions for photo-documentation and remained professionally active, though she was now the mother of a son (born in 1945) and a daughter (born in 1948), fathered by the graphic designer Wim Brusse, from whom she separated in 1968.

From 1970 to 1976 Eva Besnyö was active in the Dolle-Mina feminist movement for women’s rights and through her photographs became the chronicler of events. In 1980 she rejected the Ritterorden (knighthood) which was to have been bestowed on her by the Queen of the Netherlands. In 1999, in Berlin, the “grand old lady” of Dutch photography was awarded the Dr. Erich Salomon Award for her life’s work and at the end of the same year the Stedelijk Museum held an exhibition of her work.


Untitled, 1933 (John Fernhout, Anneke van der Feer, Joris Ivens, Westkapelle, Zeeland, Pays-Bas) /Eva Besnyö /sc


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