Marton Perlaki’s experimental images explore the line between order and chaos

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C13 Ice Cube (Blue) 2018 © Marton Perlaki. All images from The Third Hand

Considering an uncanny medium and how we understand it, the Hungarian’s new book blends the playfulness with a welcome loss of control

“Photography is an interesting medium,” says Marton Perlaki. “There is this machine you use to create something, but then it immediately transforms by just the sheer fact of taking a picture. The whole thing is so scientific, so mechanical, but a successful picture is much more than just a technicality. It is something that is even transcendent – something magic happens.”

It is this push-pull between magic and logic that runs through Perlaki’s new book, The Third Hand. Made mostly between 2018-2023, it combines Perlaki’s luminograms with everyday snaps, found photographs, images of his sketchbooks and drawings, and shots of his studio. These image sets are separated into sections – 12 in total – which are marked out by coloured dividers and papers. Many of the images have identification numbers, which include individual digits plus letters of the alphabet assigned to image sets. The book also contains a larger index of some of Perlaki’s work made over the last five years, from which this smaller edit is drawn. There’s also a short definition of each image set. “Luminograms. Part of the tradition of abstract photography”, the text helpfully states. “Snaps are characterised by their casualness.”

A53 Easy Target (Pink) Nr. 24, 2020 © Marton Perlaki, from the publication The Third Hand
A63 Fading Connection Nr. 1, 2020 © Marton Perlaki, from the publication The Third Hand

“We’re obsessed with being in control, but something is lost in that”

There’s a pleasing, quasi-scientific order in this separation of taxonomies and types which comes across in other ways too. When we speak, Perlaki describes his former studio in terms of a “laboratory”, and his drawings – abstracted images of his parents – in terms of diagrams. “Anything that feels too close to home or sentimental, I tend to try to cool it down,” he explains. “I try to step back from it emotionally and make it as objective and as scientific as possible. That’s why the drawings are almost like architectural plans – that’s why one of them is blue. I was thinking of the blueprint technique that used to be used for architectural drawings, where it’s not about the beauty of the house but its parameters.”

But Perlaki’s project is also open to the playful, the unexpected, and the mysterious – to the third hand referenced in the title. To make his luminograms he has to work in darkness, manipulating cheap light sources over the image surface, and moving the paper between each phase in the process. His shots of sketchbooks bear testimony to the painstaking notes required. “It’s just science, photosensitive paper and light, photographs in the very purest way,” he says, but he adds that the results are unpredictable, and that his studio is also a laboratory in the sense of experimentation. “It’s important to see that this is a thought process, and that includes sometimes senseless play,” he says. “I wanted it to feel open-ended, not something very perfect.”

A140 Getting Used To Emergencies II, 2022 © Marton Perlaki, from the publication The Third Hand

Perlaki’s decision to include everyday images and found photography is inspired by a similar urge and embrace of the unexpected. The selected shots cover a wide range of subjects and are matched by visual correspondence rather than a formal order. There are weird and wonderful combinations of airbags and umbrellas, ice cubes and illuminated thumbs. But though they are enigmatic, the subjects don’t seem totally random, with ongoing strands around science and nature, ancient statues and politics, the history of art and the prosaic.

The unifying force is Perlaki himself who was like “a big magnet” over this period, he says, “gathering all these visual notations that are somehow connected”. “I also wanted to inject a little bit of humour into the book,” he adds. “It’s not all about some highbrow, difficult technique that nobody can do.”

Spread from Marton Perlaki's publication The Third Hand

The Third Hand starts and ends with images of teeth: a medical image superimposed on the front, and a hand-drawn illustration on the inside back cover. The drawing shows incisors cracking and breaking, evoking the common nightmare of teeth fracturing or falling apart – unfunny dreams which Perlaki sometimes experiences. He interprets them as “about losing power and losing control”. The third hand in this case is the subconscious, and perhaps that’s haunting the whole project. ‘Fingery Eyes’ by Felix Bazalgette, one of two essays in the book, explores a spectral, psychic theme, discussing how in the 19th century people “made sense of photography” with fantastical stories.

Bazalgette considers how horror films continue to digest this uncanny medium, and in particular our growing obsession with screens. As he points out, films such as Orpheus (1950), The Matrix (1999), and Ringu (1998) suggest the screens which surround us might be permeable – that what’s shown in them might leak out or absorb us. In the past, people believed photography might be able to trace out thoughts, he writes, “and why not, when the idea of recording the perfect outlines of bones encased in flesh had previously been an equally strange proposition?” Actually these ideas aren’t so fanciful, or paved the way for a new reality: in March 2023, the New Scientist reported that researchers from Osaka University had used AI on brain scans, to make pictures of what people were viewing. As sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke put it: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Our relationship with photography is hard to pin down, and the medium is fast evolving. Perhaps a publication such as Perlaki’s, which foregrounds both chaos and our attempts to find order, is as much sense as we can make of it. “You know, I’m one of the few people who doesn’t mind going to the dentist,” he says. “I find it relaxing. You’re in a situation in which you have less control, and I think losing control is sometimes very good. We’re obsessed with being in control, but something is lost in that. This is more about a different way of focusing, without your senses, or especially without your eyes.”

Marton Perlaki, The Third Hand is out now (InOtherWords)

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy