Born in Budapest, Besnyö was brought up in a well-to-do Jewish home to father Bela Blumengrund and mother Ilona Kelemen. Her father was a lawyer who changed his name to a Hungarian sounding one in order to get ahead. She grew up fluent in Hungarian and German.
In 1928, instead of attending university like her older sister, she chose to study photography. She became the student of József Pécsi, a forward thinking photographer. She also served as an apprentice.
In 1929, while still Pesci’s student, she received a copy of the photo album Die Welt ist Schon (The World is Beautiful) by the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch. According to Besnyö, the book changed her life. It is also in 1929 that she began making the photographs that reveal Renger-Patzsch’s immediate impact as well as Besnyö’s ability to look at the the harsh facts of everyday life without becoming sentimental.
Die Welt ist Schon consists of 100 photographs of objects, nature, advertising and architecture. Everything is treated in the same detached, objective manner. Karl Kraus characterised the book as “Red Indians gaping at civilisation.” Walter Benjamin asserted that the photographs were about their saleability rather than about knowledge, triggering a debate that continues unabated.
In 1930, at the age of 20, she moved to Berlin where she first worked for advertising photographer René Ahrlé before working on photoreportages with the press photographer Peter Weller. She became part of the social and political circle of intellectuals which included György Kepes, Joris Ivens, László Moholy-Nagy, Otto Umbehr and Robert Capa.
Like her Hungarian colleagues Moholy-Nagy, Kepes and Munkacsi and – a little later – Capa, Besnyö experienced Berlin as a metropolis of deeply satisfying artistic experimentation and democratic ways of life. She had found work with the press photographer Dr. Peter Weller and roamed the city with her camera during the day, searching for motifs on construction sites, by Lake Wannsee, at the zoo or in the sports stadiums, and her photographs were published – albeit, as was customary at the time, under the name of the studio. Besnyö’s best-known photo originates from those years: the gypsy boy with a cello on his back – an image of the homeless tramp that has become familiar all over the world.
In 1931, she opened her own studio where she was successful in receiving agency work. Her well-known photograph of the gipsy boy with a cello on his back stems from that period. The photograph shows a Gypsy boy from behind. (The Gypsy people were outcasts in Hungarian society.) He is walking down the middle of a tree-lined road, which extends into deep space. On his back is an immense cello — it is larger than the boy — that sits diagonally on his back, going from the lower left-hand corner to the upper right hand corner.
Threatened by the onset of National Socialism in 1932, she moved to Amsterdam with her Dutch friend John Fernhout whom she married. With the assistance of her mother in law Charley Toorop, she participated in exhibitions which led to commissions in press photography, portraits, fashion and architecture. Her solo exhibition in the Van Lier art gallery in 1933 consolidated her recognition in the Netherlands. Besnyö experienced a further breakthrough with her architectural photography only a few years later: translating the idea of functionalist “New Building” into a “New Seeing”.
Unable to work during the German occupation of the Netherlands, she went into hiding. After the war she again received commissions for documentary work but became less active as she raised her two children fathered by the graphic designer Wim Brusse. In the 1970s, she was active in the Dutch feminist movement Dolle Mina, fighting for equal rights and photographing street protests.
Besnyö’s work includes many photographs of children. The earliest ones are from the 1930s and the latest ones from 1960. Both world events and her private life interrupted her photography. Unlike her American counterparts, Besnyö left her native country to broaden her possibilities. While she was able to get out of Berlin before the Nazis took over, she could no longer publish under her own name during the war because she was Jewish. She eventually went underground in the Netherlands and forged passport photographs and identity papers. She made discrete bodies of work, which, superficially at least, seem to have little to do with other groupings within her work. And yet, despite the interruptions and restrictions she had to endure, she became a modern master.
It is truly a shame that Eva Besnyö is not widely known. She was of the generation of women who took up photography between 1920–1940, in part because it enabled them to gain a level of economic freedom that women had not previously attained. They could become self-supporting through their work. They could also take the streets as their subject matter. Besnyö explored the different terrains that photography was opening up, while at the same time helping to define them. The various subject matter in her work make it difficult to characterise her.