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In the moment: Dan Budnik

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He may have shunned the limelight, but Dan Budnik's work captures some of the most significant cultural, artistic and political firestarters of the 20th century

Taken from Dazed June 2011:

To list his subjects seems a gaudy but necessary first step towards recognising the imprint of seminal historical forces on Dan Budnik’s work: Martin Luther King Jr, Willem de Kooning, Georgia O’Keefe, Dwight D Eisenhower. All have fallen under the watchful gaze of Budnik’s “anonymous” eye – the word he uses to summarise, and substantially de-emphasise, the weight of his presence in the shots he’s captured on the freedom trail of the American Civil Rights Movement, the Cuban revolution against General Batista and in the melting pot of artistic forces that gave rise to the American abstract expressionist movement. 

Down a crackling phone line from his home in Arizona, Budnik’s voice, fermented over 77 years, carries a sense of its orator’s past. He talks at ease and with great eloquence about the memories of his life; one spent, to no small degree, in a perpetual state of waiting for the right moment to come so that he might catch it on film. “As a kid on a Saturday, I’d make a sandwich and just go sit in the woods. There’d be nothing happening but if I just sat there and tenderly and patiently waited then suddenly the whole place would be alive with critters. Once you weren’t making loud noises or doing strange things to them they’d just be themselves and it was always a thrill. I guess that was one of my great early discoveries, and it fed into my work.”

Budnik’s chronology is one littered with happenstance meetings of people through people who led him down an invisible path. One such trail lead him to vaudeville legend Connie “Nel” Lupino with whom Budnik “palled around” as he puts it, “Nel in her late 60s, and me as an 18-year-old boy.” Through this friendship Budnik began to develop the idea of travelling to Paris to study painting. Nel suggested the two of them head first to England, where she’d show him round “the Isles”. These sorts of phrase Budnik drops with ease alongside flourishes that would slip from the tongue of a JD Salinger protagonist – “in earnest”, “with great vitality”. The trip to England and Paris never panned out as it happened – the US draft board denying Budnik a passport on the grounds that painting wasn’t essential to the war effort. “So there I was, this frustrated kid denied the chance to pick up in Paris, kicking a can down 57th St in Manhattan. I’m kicking this can and it comes to a stop and as I look up I see I’m standing outside the Arts Students League.”

The ASL, founded in 1875, attracted a broad swath of artists from across the demographic spectrum, in part due to an informal schedule and flexible intake that made accommodations for individuals’ circumstances. Enrolling at the League, Budnik was thrown into a world he soon realised he knew little about. “We were chatting art in the cafeteria, me and this group of GI’s who were between five and 10 years my senior. I just had to tiptoe out of there and run straight to the library. I spent close to two solid weeks reading as much as I could until the woman who ran the library offered me a dollar a day to sit there and stop people walking off with the books.” Picking up a Saturday class with the renowned muralist Charles Alston – the first African-American teacher in the history of the ASL – opened Budnik’s eyes even further. “The Saturday class soon turned into an evening class and this one time I got invited over to dinner with Alston and his wife. I wasn’t eating very well at the time because I was living on $10 a week, but that didn’t bother me because I was following my passion. Well, Alston’s wife just took one look at me and said, ‘Boy, we’re going to fatten you up.’ I went up there quite a bit after that.” 

In the company of the Alstons and their dinner guests, among them the daughter of the preeminent African American sociologist WEB Du Bois who lived in the same building, Budnik became aware of discussions of race. “We didn’t call it that back then but I suppose what we were talking about was the civil rights movement.” The seed sewn, Budnik’s energies over the following years grew simultaneously towards race issues and the collection of young artists who coalesced around the Cedar Street Bar in Greenwich Village, a regular post-League haunt for budding artists. 

“The first time I went down there Willem de Kooning was sitting with Jackson Pollock, Franz Klein and Jacob Lawrence. A couple of times a month they’d meet for what they called The Club – an informal association of these almost dysfunctional people who formed this family unit so they could better understand themselves and art in general. They were pioneers – they were really ploughing new soil, which was tough because they weren’t embraced immediately.” 

Through these associations, Budnik established himself within the heart of the abstract expressionist melting pot. His relationships with de Kooning and the sculptor David Smith would lead to Budnik creating a series of photographic portrait studies of each, the de Kooning prints in particular, which he shot in 1962, being some of the work Budnik is most proud of. While at the ASL, Budnik was also introduced to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, co-founder of the photography cooperative Magnum along with Robert Capa, David Seymour and George Roger. “Cartier-Bresson’s work really changed things for me,” Budnik buzzes, energised by the memory. “I just sat there transfixed thinking, ‘Yes. This is it. This is what I need to do. I need to become completely anonymous if I’m to capture the essence – the root fact about the person and not merely their surface – his Decisive Moment concept.’” 

“I need to become completely anonymous if I’m to capture the essence – the root fact about the person and not merely their surface” – Dan Budnik

Upon his release from the army at the age of 22, a photo essay Budnik had shot of a marine-turnedartist caught the eye of the picture editor at Life, who hastily arranged for a meeting. “After 20 minutes of telling me how great I was and congratulating me for making the team, he passed me over to a colleague to conclude business. This guy had this cat eating a canary look in his eyes that I’d seen in the army. He tells me, ‘This arty stuff you’re doing is fine but we’re a news publication. Until you’ve proved your worth, you’re going to have to work on half rate.’” The half rate, $50 a day, was enough to cover Budnik’s month’s rent. But he turned it down. Not long after that, in 1959, he also turned down a $100,000 commission for a Revlon commercial. “I just couldn’t work with people who thought the way the men on Madison Avenue did,” he says. “There was no truth in that stuff.”

As chance would have it a desk job opened up at Magnum in 1957 and, pursued by Cornell Capa with the promise of his first assignment within three months, Budnik made the leap. In 1958 he turned his lens towards humanitarian issues, heading first to Cuba to record the atrocities committed by General Batista that would lead to his overthrow in January 1959. “I knew that as an American the Batista people probably wouldn’t kill me if they caught me, but they’d certainly have fun nonetheless. As long as you didn’t sleep in the same bed two nights running you were relatively safe. Batista was killing about seven people a night in interrogation. You’d wake up in the morning and there would be a body hanging in a tree as a warning not to get involved.”

Budnik managed to embed himself in the underground revolutionary movement, a lesson he’d later call on when penetrating the segregationist community in Alabama. Returning to the States, Budnik’s association with Charles Alston brought him into contact with Harry Belafonte, who was using his profile as a performer to pull the spotlight on to the AfricanAmerican voting issue. “I decided to head to Washington to photograph the Youth March For Integrated Schools, which Belafonte was leading. The two young men who were supposed to present the petition at the White House got within three feet of the gate, this symbol of democracy, and had it slammed shut in their faces. I remember thinking, ‘If this is what it’s like at the White House, what’s going on in the South?’” 

Cemented in his purpose by his firsthand experience of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s historic “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington in 1963, Budnik proposed a story on the white segregationists in Alabama to Magnum. In part, the play was a rouse to get down to Selma, where voting rights activists were planning a march to neighbouring Montgomery in protest against voting rights violations. As Budnik remembers with crystal clarity, there was one specific memory from his childhood that propelled him south.

“It was my second day in kindergarten and we were playing marbles. This kid who’d moved up from Alabama leaps up and starts throwing fistfuls of stones at this old black man walking under a tree nearby. I can still hear the sound of them ripping through the leaves. I grabbed him and shook him, asking what the man had done to him. He just started letting off the n-word. ‘He’s one of them!’ he said over and over in a crazy rage. I didn’t understand how someone who was only five could be poisoned like that. As I travelled to Selma, I had that in my mind.” 

The Selma to Montgomery March took place over three days in March 1965, an incandescent moment in the Civil Rights Movement that would lead to the Special Voting Registration Act, enabling thousands of African-Americans to exercise their political voice. “One of my clearest memories from the march was at the Beulah Baptist Church in Montgomery. Dr King was there at his lowest point, on the cusp of losing control to the factions who were beginning to get violent. Jim Forman stood up to deliver his speech, at the climax of which he whips the crowd into hysteria by shouting, ‘If they’re not going to let us have a seat at the table of democracy then we’ll kick the fucking legs off it!’ He actually said that in Church.”

“Once you get something moving it’s very hard to stop it. The people we’re witnessing now in the midst of their struggle are not afraid to die – they’re beyond fear” – Dan Budnik

Budnik captured a series of profound shots showing King deep in reflection, dejected and on the brink of seeing all he’d fought for descend into chaos. As luck would have it news reached the church that the march had been granted permission to go ahead, placing the reigns back in King’s fist. “Moments like that were decisive for me,” says Budnik with measured consideration. “It’s almost like what’s happening now in the Middle East. Once you get something moving it’s very hard to stop it. The people we’re witnessing now in the midst of their struggle are not afraid to die – they’re beyond fear. We get resurrected through people who’ve suffered immensely under the boots of dictators and suddenly they have nothing to lose – they’re willing to stand up and be killed. There’s an incredible power you can feel growing at those historic moments.” 

After the march and post-1965, Budnik’s attention turned primarily to ecology and Native American issues. “My focus shifted to the sacredness of land and life, first with the Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico, then with the old Hopi and Navajo inhabiting the super-sacred Black Mesa just to the East of the Grand Canyon – viewed by them as the sacred heart of our planet.”

Budnik breezily talks at length about the spiritual upbringing of the Hopi children, instilled from birth with the concept of harmony and balance, walking a fine line between opposing forces. He also namechecks the theories of comparative religion and mythology developed by Joseph Campbell as an influence on his inner thought. The idea of The Force in Star Wars? That’s one of Campbell’s, a consultant on the trilogy and good friend of George Lucas’s. 

“I think you’re born with a conscience and so it should be your guidance system for life. I think in our time, though, it’s easily subverted, and it becomes a device for individuals to commit horrible acts. It stops being a guide and becomes an accomplice.” In particular, he seems now – with age and consideration on his side – to have been drawn towards this idea of reconciling dualities at the core of individual identity, just as much as his work seems to demonstrate competing interests in art and the political. 

“I don’t politicise my work though,” he’s keen to stress. “I never will and I really deplore other people doing that to my work, even though I may well be on the same side of the fence as them. I have a respect for the people in the photographs and I’ve gone out of my way to protect them but I won’t politicise what I do.” Budnik draws parallels between the land divisions forced upon the Hopi and Navajo peoples and his observations photographing the devastating separation of East and West Berlin.

“You witness these instances when humanity seems completely to have failed. Moments when we’ve fallen so far from the tree that we’re in the cauldron. Civil Disobedience by David Thoreau is a text that has influenced everyone from Gandhi to King – a guiding light in times where humanity has come under attack. He taught that we have to defend the integrity of our conscience and not allow ourselves to become accomplices for wrong through acquiescence. That message has travelled all over the world and still remains as relevant today as ever.”