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Peter Zelei - How Does It Make You Feel?

Words:

Edd Norval

Photos:

IG @peter_zelei_images
April 6, 2022

How Does It Make You Feel? This question feels paramount to the work of Hungarian photographer Peter Zelei, whose surrealistic and conceptual images provoke feelings of uneasiness, of intrigue, of desire and disgust.

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Heavily coded and steeped in symbolism, from surreal compositions, gothic lighting and tacky decorations, Zelei’s photographs ebb and flow between the real and unreal, the kitsch and the cool. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what part of each photograph does exactly what. There’s a lot going on and, even after more time spent with each photograph, things don’t get much clearer.


If anything, things get even more complex. He’s telling a story, or several, but about what and whom? The subjects are both protagonists and conduits, symbols and sacrificial lambs to the vision of the auteur. Zelei revels in moments of precarious balance. There’s those mentioned above, but also that within his characters. Sexually charged, his images dance around death, love and unlikely relationships.

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Wide age-gaps set the scene of discomfort, compounded by various stages of undress. In some, a woman’s breasts are showing as a man sits, only a few feet away, with his trousers around his ankles. Whether this is the scene, or it’s the precursor to, or aftermath of, generates an exploratory curiosity, where the immediate story might be cleared up by engaging with the other 'clues' that can be found in the photograph.


Ultimately, his photographs rest on pushing taboo, questioning what should and shouldn’t exist and then probing why? Undeniably raw, both in their development and general atmosphere, Zelei’s images are incredibly cerebral. They seem to goad us into thinking, forcing us to confront, not shy away from. It’s hard not to notice the hints towards acute mental illness, nods towards allegory, signposts towards complex discussions.

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Edited in such a way as to look old, even slightly damaged, one can’t help but feel as if these aren’t photographs we seek out, but stumble upon. They catch our eye, but not because we’ve tried to look, more like we just couldn’t help ourselves. This brings into question who the photographer is and what his role could be. Usually the subjects tell the story, everything is self-contained within the image. Here, something seems to be going on outside too.


What kind of sick mind arranges people in this way? Who dresses men in pig masks and orders women to sit amongst a creepy plastic doll collection? Underpiined with a vague sense of sadism, like the photographer himself is a part of the art - not just a hidden character, but an intrinsic part of the story.

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