Martin Szipál - Hungary’s one-time Hollywood photographer
"Photography isn't a calling or a passion for me but an opportunity to be creative," says celebrity photographer Martin Szipál. Born in Szolnok (east-central Hungary), Szipál lived for more than 40 years in Hollywood and shot both the stars of music and film, including the likes of John Wayne, Priscilla Presley and Leslie Nielsen. Seven years ago, the 80 year-old returned to Hungary because of the women, "who are more beautiful," and the comfort of life in his native land.
You might think that Martin Szipál was born with a camera in his hands. His father worked as the photographer to the royal court and tried to initiate his son into the art early on but he rejected it. "I hated photography and worked instead in a bank and an insurance company." After the Second World War the young Szipál sought an opportunity to make money. With a loan from his aunt he bought his first photographic equipment and began to follow in his father's footsteps.
Szipál didn’t just inherit a large portion of his talent, but he also learned much of the technical fundamentals of photography alongside his father in his studio. "I learned through listening and watching," said Szipál. It is no surprise that he quickly made a reputation for himself with his photos in Hungary and around Europe. His initial rejection of the art rapidly changed into great enthusiasm. "I began to love this job simply because I was successful."
The 32-year-old Szipál emigrated to the USA in 1956 and similar to so many other moments in his life, he stumbled into the adventure. "My friends said that they were going to the USA, are you coming? I said yes."
Once in the US one fortunate coincidence after the other followed him, some of which opened many doors for him in the course of his life. Shortly after his arrival, for example, he met then-Vice President Richard Nixon - and failed to recognise him.
Two months later he saw a newspaper advertisement from a photo studio. Szipál drove to Los Angeles, introduced himself on Saturday and started work as an assistant and make-up artist on Monday. After just a few weeks he received his first commission as a photographer. Because of his excitement he broke a light and a lens during the shoot but his photos were convincing. "My boss offered me a job as a photographer on the condition that I learned 200 words of English." At the age of 35 he opened his own studio on Sunset Boulevard and almost overnight became photographer to the stars. "I was just lucky and had the gift to idealise my motives and to make them more beautiful than reality," said Szipál in explaining the success which lured the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and Bob Hope in front of his lens.
That is also the reason why he still prefers people who are not photogenic as motifs, h said. "I would like to create something, the perfect face in the perfect photo - again and again."
His customers apparently appreciated this and deluged him with commissions. In the 1970s and 1980s he was devoted to the business, drove a Rolls Royce and threw his money around. Buses full of tourists stopped in front of his house. Henry Miller and Sylvester Stallone hung out in his house as did numerous women. "As a schoolboy I was already friends with women." Szipál has had five wives but he did not propose to any of them. He assembled his ex-wives around him - he wanted them all to be friends with each other and replace the large family which he had left behind in Hungary.
At some point his star started to fade with a fall in demand for his kind of photography in the movie business. Not much of his money remains and the Rolls Royce has gone. "I could not maintain my standard of living in the USA. That's why I came back to Hungary." He has been back in Hungary for seven years, where he takes pictures for friends and teaches a new generation of artists and exhibits his works.
Martin Szipál does not look like an 80-year-old man as he walks through his one-room flat in Budapest's District V, rummaging through photos, periodicals and albums as well as handling his computer and DVD player. Only the chaotic state of his worn out clothes and his flat in which Art Deco lamps, 1960s-style coffee tables, paintings and numerous large format photos show that he has seen better days.
Despite this he appears content, saying he doesn’t miss his once- glamourous life on Sunset Boulevard. "I can only miss what I never had. And anyway the only meaning in life is change."