Eva Besnyő was born on April 29, 1910 to a liberal Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. She received her first camera in 1928 and soon after began training with Josef Pécsi, an established local photographer. Her early career was affected greatly by the political atmosphere in Europe. It dictated both her intercontinental moves and her publishing strategies. She left Budapest after two years at Pécsi’s studio, relocating to Berlin in 1930, not only to flee from Miklós Horthy’s dictatorial regime in Hungary, but also to benefit from the German avant-garde.
In Berlin an advertising photographer, René Ahrlé hired Besnyő as his laboratory assistant. Besnyő worked a short while for Ahrlé until accepting a more enticing position with a press photographer, Dr. Peter Weller. She established her own studio in 1931. While in Berlin, Besnyő experimented mostly with documentary photography, particularly subjects with a human interest slant. She also traveled in progressive social circles that comprised of politically-engaged artists and intellectuals such as György Kepes, John Ferhout, Joris Ivens, Lázlo Moholy-Nagy, Otto Umbehr (Umbo), and Robert Capa.
Due to the rising Anti-Semitic climate in Germany, Besnyő left for Amsterdam in 1932 with the filmmaker John Ferhout whom she later married. After the German takeover of the Netherlands during World War II, she obtained false papers and stayed underground. Despite her precarious situation, she completed numerous commissions, which included portraits, architecture, and fashion. From 1941 to 1944, her published work was credited to her second husband, the graphic designer Wim Brusse, to conceal her Jewish heritage. In addition to her production of commercial work, her endless devotion to the promotion of photography as a high art led Besnyő to help organize Foto ’37. The seminal exhibition, held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1937, aspired to elevate the status of its featured international photographers.
After divorcing the filmmaker Ferhout, she married the graphic designer Brusse with whom she had two children. Besnyő and Brusse separated in 1968. In the 1970s Besnyő became an active member of the Dutch feminist movement, known as Dolle-Mina. During this period, the photographer adopted a more direct and spontaneous approach to her subjects, supplanting her earlier predilection for an aesthetically formalist style. Besnyő has had several retrospectives including one at Porto, Portugal’s Centro Português de Fotografia in 1999 and another at Amsterdam’s Historisch Museum in 1982. She has received several accolades, most notably, the 1999 Dr. Erich Salomon Award from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie, the 1994 Oeuvre Prize from the Fonds Voor Beeldende Kunsten, Vormgeving en Bouwkunst and the 1985 Annie Romein Prize from Opzij, a Dutch periodical. The photographer, however, rejected the Ritterorden, or Dutch knighthood, from the Queen of the Netherlands in 1980. Best known for her portraiture and photo-reportage, Eva Besnyő died in December 2003 in Laren, the Netherlands.
József Pécsi Portrait, Advertising and Architecture Studio, Budapest, Hungary (1928-1930)
Assistant to René Ahrlé,
Assistant to Dr. Peter Weller,
Friend of Carel Blazer,
Friend of Alexander Bodon,
Friend of Robert Capa (Endre Friedmann),
Friend of Joris Ivens,
Friend of György Kepes,
Friend of Lászlo Moholy-Nagy,
Friend of Umbo (Otto Umbehr),
Married to and modeled for John Ferhout,
Married to Wim Brusse,
Step-daughter of Charley Toorop,
Student of József Pécsi
Dr. Erich Salomon Award, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie, Cologne, Germany (1999)
Oeuvre Award, Fonds Voor Beeldende Kunsten, Vormgeving en Bouwkunst, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (1994)
Anne Romein Award, Opziji (Dutch Magazine), Amsterdam, The Netherlands (1985)
Eva Besnyö: Uma Retrospectiva, Centro Português de Fotografia, Porto, Portugal (1999)
Historisch Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (1982)