Conversation with Vlado Martek by Sandra Križić Roban

The Guardian of the Outer Walls of Photography


Photo of the work: Boris Cvjetanović


What is photography really? If we ask Vlado Martek, the answer will be an uncommon stream of thought, musings on the medium as a base or a material. And that base can be the content, it can be engaged, while the role of the material will also be ‘’complicated”. Martek is going in circles, as he put it “like a cat circling a bowl of hot porridge” (even though we know from experience that cats are not fed porridge). His opus encompasses photography. In the middle of it all the photographer is missing, which some might consider a weakness, but that is his project. He stands on the side, as in poetry, on the margins of photography, safely guarding the position of the borderline cases like, for example, Stilinović. At the same time Martek is a borderline case when it comes to poetry, photography and painting. He never felt at or made a home, but that was his decision, in line with his spirit.

Martek treats photography in such a ‘’hesitant’’ way. As is the word, the photograph is necessary to him, he considers it to be the most poetic thing next to poetry, he loves its ability to freeze “as emotions are in a way frozen through words”, and the results are interesting because he guards the fringes of photography. His preparations for photography are a kind of a slash through the medium which creates a different kind of reality, breaking the automatism in a time when there are too many photographs and stereotypes. The distance he created in 1981 with his Preparation for Art exhibition is used to gain an ethical, conceptual space, a distance which gives him freedom.

In our first discussion he said: ‘’I have a text in which I write about photography and only then take the photographs. I call it: preparation for photography.” That is followed by cleaning, also with the help of photography – the works from the Feng shui series. Staged, full of fetishes as objects, documents of a conceptualist change. Photography as material, base, volume. Documents and ‘’classic’’ photographs. Prepare yourselves for Martek – a liminal photographer.


If everything we see was a preparation for a photograph, what would a photograph you took after all the preparations were done and the moment for the “real” photograph came look like?

I believe that in that case I would photograph my preparations; I would make photographs of my works which are part of the preparation process, thereby closing the circle. With time a man somehow gets used to doing things a certain way, working on a project which lasts for several years, for example, leading me to taking old photographs. Photographs of old photographs, friends and myself. If I were making classic photographs, then I would record everything which I’ve already done with these fringes of photography. That says a lot, it says that I am trying to comment about the center, about photography, from the periphery. And the periphery means that I treat the photograph as ready-made, as an object, something already done, which I then put into new experimental context and try to remain emotionally honest. In American neo-avantgarde it was said that experimental works are mostly an expression of emotional honesty.

The exhibition seems“disordered”, we did not comply to chronology or make reminiscences of certain topics, approaches, things which interest you. It seemed to me, and I’m not sure I’m right, that some of the photographs from the second part of the 70s are not very different visually from your contemporary work. Do you agree with that or do you think you significantly changed your relationship with the medium over the past years?

I didn’t really change anything. It is a continuity of contact with the photographic surface of a taken photograph, which is followed by applying things onto it. You can see a marked surface of a mirror, that is, the contact with the photograph which was also made by others, and which already has its raison d’être and its meaning. To me that is not enough so I try to add something, not in order to make it mine but to strengthen the communication. That is something that is always following me, the desire to intensify and turn photographs from mere photographs into something outside of some kind of automatism. In a way, a witnessing of an authentic contact. The same is when I write – I try to, and you can see it in one work, when I tape a pencil or a brush when I am drawing, turn this tool, which is automatically taken into account as a given, a special presence, in that way intensifying communication and creating something completely different.

This has been pointed out by many theoreticians of conceptual photography who have been following this phenomenon from the second part of the 60s – it is a type of photography which functions as a channel for the distribution of information. It is a kind of communication. It is especially present in those compositions where you use mirrors and include the spectator in the composition. In which way do you feel the participation of the spectator? Why did you start using these other materials which you apply in photography, and in what way do we distinguish between a mirror which helps us look at ourselves and staples which are an aggressive instrument and which, in a sense, annul the entire scene?

Using staples is somewhat more aggressive and resolute. Mirrors are present in all of my work, even when I write and when I was typing poems on a typing machine, at one moment I put a mirror between verses, I even used mirrors in my gouaches. With me it is a constant, and I believe that it is always a good thing for a person to see their own image while looking at my work. It then becomes something that can become a shared good. And all the other things I can think of – writing on a photograph or putting new pieces of glass. I always somehow feel or want, each one of those times I insert new materials and create a new situation, to destroy understanding, to remove the preconceived notion of mutual understanding, to create a new space which will through interaction bring about a new way of looking at things. Something different from what is classically determined.At that point, of course, things, simply put, tend towards ethics and not aesthetics, which is something that I always insisted on in my work, for things to have that dimension of ethics. In that way the photograph becomes an expanded photograph, that is, I say that I am preparing for photography which, like the poetry I will never write, will not be done in a classical way. Through these fringe situations, these outlying things, I am trying to somehow remove all possible automatisms and create a work that will induce thinking, not only about photography but in art in general. Is art a product, a goal or is art more of a means for self-development – this is my dilemma, and I am more inclined to always getting prepared.As is the case in preparing tea for the tea ceremony, preparation is always the most important part, as when brushes are prepared for painting. This is more important than finished things. Preparing for poetry or photography includes complete consciousness and, if nothing else, that is as important as some classic product.



Photo: Nenad Roban


The statement that there are too many photographs is touching. Namely, work with that slogan was being done in a much more different time and surrounding than we could have predicted, especially over the last few years when there are simply too many photographs. We ask ourselves how to even look at a photograph, how does it reach us? You make photographs which are “transformed” into text, turned upside down, photographs which we try to imagine, where a few words might possibly give insight into the contents of the image. Can photography be replaced with text?

Well, it can, if we understand it as some sort of a body. Photography is a body with its background, it has another side and it completes a whole. In this case the whole can no longer be seen, but the fact that I gave attention to that which is behind, that should say something about the life of a photograph, about the human contact with a photograph. When it comes to the “There Are Too Many Photographs” work, I was truly in a situation where the university threw away a lot of old photographs near my library, so I started digging around through them, there was an incredible amount, without meaning, with meaning, and there were truly too many photographs. It is all connected with the fate of printed photography which was sealed when it comes to the status of the photograph as a document, fetish, and largely as a medium, a memory. Nobody keeps photo albums today. My daughter and stepdaughter don’t want me to place photographs in their hands, they only want them on their mobile phones, the others they won’t even save. This made me take a radical move with all the albums of my parents which my daughter will not take. It’s reality, and the reason why I made “Feng shui” and turned the family photos on the other side. Only the body of the photograph remains, but the content is gone, the thing is changed and it is, in a way, an attempt to change it into something else. If it transforms. But the fate of that photograph has been made visible.

In that case, what happens to all the memories recorded on them? Those who nobody after you will be able to see?

Well they won’t be able to see all of it because photographs from that type of albums are all more or less similar – love, goodbyes, joy – that remains, we all memorize that even without photographs and now those individual protagonists are no longer even relevant, especially as we grow more distant and the interest for holding and going through photographs in your hands is gone. The photograph can no longer be a fetish, because if it is not on paper it is no longer a fetish. I don’t know if looking at something can create a fetish because an object must exist.

Does this mean that reason took over the place of the feelings we usually attribute to family, private and intimate recordings? Do we depend on reason?

It is an act of reason… I don’t know how to put that into words. Reason cannot save feelings, but it can store them in such a way that it selects them and through a special process turns them into symbols. We need some symbols, not details, we need symbols of parenting, symbols of summer. That can all be stored without printed photographs because they are no longer handed down from generation to generation.

BrankaStipančić: What do you mean they’re not handed down?

They’re not, because something that you like and find interesting will not be interesting to those you hand it down to.

BrankaStipančić: But it’s interesting to your daughter.

No, only in a digital format, not on paper.

BrankaStipančić: Maybe her daughter will find it interesting to see what your father looked like.

Maybe 1%, and I can’t influence that. You simply have to accept the needlessness of photography, or not. There is no discussion here or reasonable elements. You can see that the time for some things passes away and you have to store memories in a different way.


Photo of the work: Boris Cvjetanović


Is this the way you use other people’s photographs? A lot of your work was made from other people’s photographs you’d bought at flea markets or got somewhere else, and which do not possess your personal memories. Are they the same kind of symbols you just mentioned?

Yes, those are the memories of others, amateur photographs. For example, I bought about a hundred photographs from a man who went on an excursion to Italy in 1957, and from all of those photos which mostly showed open space I cut out the sky and clouds, sorted them, made collages and assemblage with them. The thing was recycled so that it got a new meaning. It was obviously worthless to the people selling them online – either they would end up in the trash or they would sell them. But ending up in the trash is not the point. Maybe they lost all meaning because they are on paper and they might have converted them into a digital form. This is the spirit of the time; paper is no longer stored or interesting.

I don’t know if the material can designate their meaning. Maybe they will be less accessible but because of that more valuable.

That is what I am doing. I believe that something needs to be done with photographs and not leave them in an album to wait until they get to a flea market. Remove all possible automatisms and create something that provokes thought. Not only about photography but art in general – is art a product, goal, or more of a means of self-development? This is my dilemma.

Turning the photograph so that the back side is visible, is that in line with your decision of not returning photographs into albums? An album is like a relic of the past, it has no meaning and we must turn towards a new, different reading. Do you use digital photography?

No, I have and like to have negatives. When I work, I make a staged photograph and I don’t intervene anymore. As you know, I put my books on the grass or in various different situations. Staged photography is a finished thing. What others have photographed, well everybody would react differently to someone else’s photographs, but I believe that I add something to the photograph that can create a new use for it, as a sensation, an experiment. The thing needs to be provoked in order to be interesting, despite the fact that the 20th century has passed and we believe that that road has been crossed. Things need to be led somewhere, to a situation where we can even attract a glance.


Fotografirao: Nenad Roban

Photo: Nenad Roban


Which of the photographs that we’ve mentioned is most interesting to you? Fetish, document, pre-photograph, scened?

I am most interested in what is radically happening, the fengshui, the photograph as a paper fetish which I place in a new context which largely destroys the photograph but also doesn’t. The photograph remains a photograph with a background, it is a legitimate state, why should a photograph be only a visual sensation? It can be morphological, from the other side. These are the things which should eventually enter into the consciousness of the public, and myself, the idea of some new movement. Not allowing for things to be perceived automatically. Automatism in everything is the worst thing.

Why feng shui?

Well, it is a cleansing, when you enter certain years of your life, you clean, throw away some things, leave some which carry important memories, you bring them to the level of a symbol. That is also often necessary on numerous levels. And then you enter the space of photography, fetish, memory and you do something. Man feels as though there is less burden, remembering gets easier. It is all personal, it comes from the melancholy of the protagonist, someone who is a sanguine and of a different temperament will not accept that so easily … these are after all some individual redemptions. The only thing I believe that I give that may mean something to others, is the surprise, the new approach to photography which is not photography in the broadest sense, I give people a moment when they have to think “Why this way?”, making them understand that the work is not a destruction of photographs.

Rather, it is about a new chance?

Yes, and about adding, maybe sometimes to the level of a paroxysm and no necessity. Too much of that will hurt no one. This is the description of me as a photographer. A photographer who does not make photographs. I’ve lived all of my creative life up to now with friends who were photographers, including Jerman and others. I first visited Foto Lab when I was fourteen and I was fascinated by the photographs but I never decided to be the one taking the photographs. I decided to use words. I began writing, that is my primary medium, but my fascination with photography remained. That is why I love Paris as a city, because it is a city of poetry and photography. That combination is not found in any other city on Earth. I believe that photography and poetry are two ultra-melancholy things that bring us joy.


* The interview was held on 7th November 2016 in Gallery Spot, during the opening of the External Borders Photos exhibition.

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