Silvestar Kolbas


1995 - 2009 Nataša and I were living in her apartment in Novi Zagreb. I loved to watch the meadow which could be seen from our window. There was something poetical in that scene. There was a path of an unusual, graphic shape. This path looked to me like a silhouette of a boy running. I began to obsessively record it on video and photography. We were trying to conceive a baby at the time, but that wasn’t going smoothly. We started the procedure of artificial insemination. We decided to record our efforts which finally bore fruit. We didn’t get a boy but a girl. We called her Eve. I made a film about it called “All About Eve”. I included the recorded scenes of the path in the film. Afterwards, I exhibited the photos of the path without making connections with the film. In these photos, I could still see a boy running. In time, I started to relate the photos of the path with the story of Eva’s birth. Soon enough, even Eva started to consider this path as her own.


2008 - 2009 Many photo shops that I knew of recently closed down. Skilled craftsmen worked in those shops and made portraits by an expressive use of lighting, controlled lens aperture, large-formats, or retouching techniques. The standard of their work was simple, but the works often widely differed, bearing the professional mark of each master. On one hand, new, simple and strict regulations about photos on official documents, and on the other, the digital revolution, have taken their toll. Photography was Mcdonaldized, and this was supported by the law. You can have your document photo taken anywhere by anyone – even someone without the professional training. Special skills are no longer required. However, trained photographers also do it. I decided to do a little experiment. Within a set time frame, in several Croatian cities, I would go and have my picture taken by a different and randomly chosen photographer every day and they would all be faced with the same request – making an ID or a passport photo. I would always be dressed the same: in a white T-shit, with the same glasses, and kempt hair and beard. I promised myself that I would go every day to a different photographer, regardless of everyday circumstances. I assumed that the difference between the images would be minimal, that I would look a bit different every time. But would those differences be noticeable at all? And If so, why? Will I change in these two months during the course of the experiment? Will the photos of my face be different because of (every day a bit different) me, or because of the (every day different) photographer? What will influence the outcome: my feelings that particular day or the individual characteristics of a photographer, his potential mastery, or if he’s having a good or a bad day? What’s more important? If I feel happy, anxious, tired, if I, perhaps, feel chilly in the studio, or different types of cameras, optics, lighting and the methods of printing? Will I turn out more handsome or less handsome, or will some of the photos just to be of better quality? Content or form? Will I get any answers?

The Cinema Crvena zvijezda

1991 - 2013 As I am a professional cameraman, I spent the year of 1991 shooting footage for the Croatian Television of the war-affected areas of Croatia, mostly in Vinkovci, where I grew up. In the city centre, on the promenade, where we spent our evenings idly strolling by, there was a movie theatre of my youth. In the fall of '91, the cinema hall was struck down by missiles. Before World War II, the cinema was a part of the Croatian Cultural House, but I remember it as the Cinema Crvena zvijezda, or as the Big Cinema. Do I even need to tell you how many of my memories are tied to this place? It is where I went out with my friends and girlfriends during my youth, but also where I dreamed about my movie career. In reality, I was filming its destruction. I perceived it as my personal failure and as a huge loss. In the ruins of the building I found boxes containing leftovers of a film tape. The tape was crumpled, dirty and its emulsions were damaged by the rain, but in some places, you could still make out what it contained. I placed the tape in a plastic bag and took it with me to Zagreb. It took me a long time before I worked up the strength to deal with its content. At a much later time, I enlarged the images found on the pieces of that film tape. One piece of film contained a black and white image of the promenade next to the old bridge in Mostar, a part of a newsreel shown before a feature film. The images on the other tapes are unrecognizable; weather conditions have dissolved the colour images into abstract stains. I was able to reconstruct a frame of 108 photograms. If projected at 24 frames per second, it amounts to 4 and a half seconds. I exhibited the enlarged series of 24 consecutive frames, one film second. For me, the enlarged series of photograms taken from the pieces of the found footage visually summarizes the whole war:the Serbian aggression against Croatia and Bosnia, the Croatian involvement in the war in Bosnia, and my inability to distance myself from all of that. That is why I consider the photographs created by enlarging the dirty photograms as my personal paradigm of war. They express the war frenzy, the impossibility to escape it and the feelings of utter loss caused by the war.




In reflecting upon the artistic research of photographer and filmmaker Silvestar Kolbas under the title of Fotokemika, I will use a sentence from Sebald’s novel as a guideline. It reads: “In photographic work I was always especially entranced, said Austerlitz, by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again if you try to cling to them, just like a photographic print left in the developing bath too long.” Sebald’s protagonist, of course, speaks of analogue photography, and the event of these “shadows of reality” emerging as analogous to memory is possible only in the nowadays almost forgotten area of the darkroom.


In a kind of archaeology of the self that interferes with industrial archaeology, or more precisely, the archaeology of industry that produces the materials prerequisite for the emergence of a photographic image, Silvestar Kolbas has been dwelling and working in a sort of darkroom for several years. This darkroom is a building containing the abandoned and devastated production halls and offices of the now no longer extant, but once strategically important Fotokemika factory, semantically different from the darkroom of the photographic laboratory, yet genealogically inextricably linked to it in the genesis of Kolbas’ work.


In the second half of the 20th century, Fotokemika was the only factory producing photographic material in South-Eastern Europe. It was founded in 1947 by a political decision of the then ruling socialist structures, and its manufacturing facilities were located in the capital of Croatia, Zagreb, and the nearby town of Samobor. At first, it produced photographic and diazo paper intended for copying technical designs, and from 1950 it also produced photographic films, photo-chemicals, and cameras. It should be mention that the factory included a Scientific Research Department. In the following few decades, the factory expanded its capacity and production programme. New plants were opened and new licenses purchased, but the products and production tools were largely designed by Fotokemika’s own experts. Along with the continued development of the standard programme for black and white photography, Fotokemika also produced X-ray and graphic films, as well as colour photographic materials. Its products were mostly intended for the Yugoslav market, and the high quality segment of the range was exported. The production of photographic materials, and thus Fotokemika itself, was considered strategically important for the whole of Yugoslavia, so that by the end of the 1980s the factory employed about 800 skilled workers who had a factory resort (at the coast) and several sports fields at their disposal.


The disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991, and the inherent change in the political and economic paradigm, marked the beginning of the end of Fotokemika. On the one hand, the new state borders between the warring republics of the former federation significantly narrowed down the market, while on the other, the factory that was once self-managed by its workers fell victim to criminal privatization that took place in Croatia during the 1990s. It should be kept in mind that the collapse of communism in eastern and south-eastern Europe, and the ensuing wars in the territory of former Yugoslavia, coincided with the so-called entry into the digital age. The increasing use of digital technology narrowed down the scope of photochemical photography, which resulted in Fotokemika’s reduced production volume and the number of workers. In 1992, it was first transformed into a joint stock company, but the change of ownership structure in 1998 led to financial difficulties and liquidation in 2003. The company’s plants in Zagreb were demolished or repurposed, while in Samobor, a company called Fotokemika – Nova was established in 2004 as a private initiative, taking over the remaining workers. After its bankruptcy in 2012, the workers were laid off, the production facilities emptied, and the machines thrown into scrap metal, so that nowadays only some rare traces indicate the manufacturing processes that once took place there. One part of the devastated factory complex currently serves as a pet crematorium, and Fotokemika’s products are no longer available for purchase.


Photographer and filmmaker Silvestar Kolbas, born in 1956, graduated in Cinematography in 1982. When speaking of his artistic research – a work in progress that he simply calls Fotokemika, he emphasizes the “personal viewpoint from a non-distanced position” as its fundamental feature. He thereby explains that his own photographic history is related to Fotokemika’s products, which he used at the time when the factory, in the former Yugoslavia, was a symbol of the profession in which he intended to spend his working life.


The art project Fotokemika develops in a simultaneity of several diverse research procedures. During his archival research, Silvestar Kolbas has found documents about the “birth, life, and death” of the factory, including photographs of the working process taken between the 1950s and 1980s, which coincides with the decades of his own birth and the completion of his studies. In parallel with this research, he has performed an archaeological reconnaissance of the abandoned and devastated production facilities in Samobor, which he portrayed using various analogue and digital cameras. These portraits are self-portraits of Fotokemika and self-representations of the photographer at the same time, since he has used only photographic material produced at that factory when taking analogue photographs. The material is the same as he used in his photographic beginnings, in the 1970s and 1980s, when photographic films, photo-paper, and chemicals produced by well-known international manufacturers were simply not available on the Yugoslav market. Today, some forty years later, Kodak or Ilford materials are readily available everywhere in Croatia, but products from the Fotokemika range can hardly be bought anywhere. This is why Kolbas’ work in progress also involves the collector’s activity of finding and buying this rare, antique material, which is photographed before being used to capture and produce manual photographic prints – with both an analogue and a digital camera.


The exploration of temporality, which is characteristic of photography, takes place on multiple levels. On the one hand, it is an experiment with photographic materials that have expired, where unpredictable layers of the image may appear on the developed film and on photographic prints. On the other hand, Kolbas focuses on the modalities of the discursive erasure of historical memory, paying particular attention to a source on which official historiography seldom relies – the so-called oral history. Specifically, one of the research segments is his experimental documentary film Fotokemika, structured by his interviews with former workers of the liquidated factory. With this film, Silvestar Kolbas has re-semanticized the meaning of Lumière’s title Workers Leaving the Factory, which in the collective consciousness symbolizes the birth of the cinematic medium. While the silent film from 1895, which records the workers leaving the factory of photographic materials in Lyon owned by the Lumière brothers, speaks of the modernization processes and economic growth based on industrial production, the memories of Kolbas’ interlocutors testify to the causes and effects of de-industrialization that abolished all possibility of a welfare state in the southeast of the united Europe at the outset of the information age. Therefore, it might be appropriate to approach the function of the dynamics between analogue and digital in Kolbas’ Fotokemika project with sentences that, in 1986, Laurie Anderson used in her intermedia performance Home of the Brave to unmask the invisible social performatives of a binary code: “Nobody wants to be Zero (...) but almost everybody want to be Number One (...)”


With his art research titled Fotokemika, Silvestar Kolbas advocates what Donna Haraway has called “situated knowledges,” that are knowledges of communities rather than isolated individuals. In an article published in 1988, whose influence has by far surpassed the field of feminist epistemology in which it originated, she was arguing for “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.” According to her, situated knowledge requires that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and agent, not as a screen, a ground, or a resource. Challenging the dogma of the so-called objective scientific knowledge, Haraway has recalled that vision requires instruments of vision, arguing that an optics is a politics of positioning.  Kolbas’ optics is indeed a politics of positioning, while the object of his research interest – the factory, its history, its workers, and their products – are neither a screen nor a ground, or a resource, but an active substance. Thus, Fotokemika – a faceted work in progress – reveals itself as a sort of cinematic découpage that explicitly places in relation what, from the position of the present, that is from the situation of historical oblivion, seems unconnected and mutually unconditioned. In an age of imperative dematerializing digitalisation and the consequent dizzying acceleration of image production, Kolbas slows down the flow by focusing on the sedimentality. On the relationship between the materiality of photographic material and the corporeality of photographic image placed in relation to social materiality.


On the threshold of the digital or information age, in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Peter Gidal published his book Materialist Film. In the introductory chapter, he talks about the necessity of political positioning of the viewer, whereby it is crucial to recognize that representation is real, material, that representation is politics and ideology, which also means the ideology of the politics of meaning. “Without a theory and practice of radically materialist experimental film,” he writes, “cinema would endlessly be the ‘natural’ reproduction of capitalist and patriarchal forms.” Gidal’s conclusion is also applicable to materialist experimental photography as implied by Kolbas’ artistic research process.


In photographic jargon, the term “phantom image” refers to the effect of an error on a negative or in the process of developing a photograph, whereby something appears in the photographic image that did not exist before the camera lens at the time of shooting, at the level of what is visible to the human eye. When Kolbas uses an analogue camera in the process of photographic representation of the abandoned factory halls, inserting a film once produced at the shooting site, a blur occurs in the photograph that is, in its effect, analogous to the phantom image. This blur is visually manifested as a sediment of floating specks of varying light intensity and varying particle density, as an impermeable organic layer that, by occupying the foreground of the photographic image, gets in between the gaze and what the gaze is trying to reach. In the process of reception, “I am endeavouring to see” occurs instead of “I see”, which implies a change in optics, that is, the question about the politics of meaning in a particular photographic image. Thereby it becomes clear that, conditionally speaking, the phantom image dominated by the process of multiplication of specks does not appear due to an error on the negative or in developing the photograph, but rather it makes present the embodied time inherent in the materiality of media in analogue photography. It is time that abolishes the substantial difference between the one who is observing and the image that is being observed. It is the time of immersion, irreducible to the technical term “expiry date”, with which, however, it establishes a relationship. In this relationship, Kolbas’ undoubtedly self-representational portraits of Fotokemika impose themselves as pensive images.


The genealogy of the term “pensive image” not only leads to Benjamin’s comprehension of non-chronological time, manifested in the most enigmatic notion of his thought – the notion of image, but also to the elaboration of the optically unconscious, which, in his words, the camera makes us aware of in the same way as psychoanalysis reveals the drives of the unconscious. What happens here is what T.S. Eliot articulated in his verses written in 1943:


“Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future, 

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

What might have been is an abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation.” 


Translated by Marina Schumann

Accidental Foundlings

I see photographs of unknown people, accidentally found in various places over a long period of time, in correlation with the application of the General Data Protection Regulation, or the GDPR, with all the contradictions that its implementation entails, particularly in light of the dilemma whether it is more important to protect personal data or private lives, and how citizens relate to it.


A common thread among these photos is a certain carelessness in the way their owners treat their own image. What fascinates me is the disproportion between a negative hyper-awareness of a portion of the public about the possibility of being filmed in a public space, and a considerable indifference of a part (perhaps the same one) of the public towards their own persona.

What is the position of the artist who exhibits their images? Does the interest of the artist that affords them the right to display these found images, outweigh the right to protect the image of these unknown persons?

The implementation of the GDPR, which has been in effect since 2018, often wrestles with unnecessary formalities, while failing to fulfill its fundamental purpose.