Faces of Time

Zvonko Maković on Darije Petković‘s work

 

In 1929, German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) published a book with sixty photographs portraying the people of his time. In genre terms, one might call these photographs portraits which either show individual persons, or several of them set in the same environment. It is clear that each person is aware that he / she is being photographed, since all of them are looking at the camera. Preface to Sanader’s book was written by a great writer Alfred Döblin and the book was titled Antlitz der Zeit, which is to say Faceof our Time. The author’s intention was to record as many ethnic Germans from the beginning of the century onwards, and thus present the face of a German of his time. The earliest photographs in the book were taken just before the First World War, while the last ones are from the late twenties, the time of the Weimar Republic. It is not difficult to see how they all belong to the dramatic moments of German history. Speaking of people on photographs Döblin in one place wrote: “People are shaped by what they eat, by the air and light in which they move, by the work they do or do not do, and also by the peculiar ideology of their class”. In other words, Sander’s photographs were a precise document of time’s state of mind, and this condition could be read on non-idealized faces of the protagonists. A few years later, when the Weimar Republic was replaced by the Third Reich, the National Socialist strategists found Sander’s project to be subversive, as they discovered the Germans that did not stock to any type of the Aryan race as they imagined. The book was banned and all images were intended to be destroyed. Sander, however, had an even more ambitious plan to implement a more comprehensive project of photographing much more of his contemporaries and entitled his imagined work Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts – People of the 20thcentury. Photographer failed to complete his intent in its entirety, but later on from his rich legacy others have edited and published a huge book in seven volumes titling it the way August Sander wanted, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts.

With this lengthy introduction to the text dedicated to the work of contemporary Croatian photographer Darijo Petković, or more precisely to the book composed of photographic series entitled Wonderland, I see the same intention which Alfred Döblin saw in Sander’s project. Author constructs the whole from fragments with distinct characteristics of time and space. To be more specific, he is a witness of time in which he lives through photography. August Sander did this by photographing faces of Germans, while Petković focuses all his attention on visible signs in typical environments in which the human presence is almost extinct. That is, when the human form does appear in the frame, it is subordinate to the other functions from which we read the main content of photographed scene. Petković has entitled his book Wonderland and this title can be understood in two ways. By dividing it into ten series, mutual similarities are revealed to permeate parts of the book and connections that are made create a complete story. First of all it is clear that for the most part all the photographed events are located in the same area, the streets and squares of the city of Zagreb, while only in two series does he wander away and takes us to the island of Vir and the city of Sarajevo. This departure from the main set has, however, a legitimate reason, as the narratives that he develops in these two series still refer to the starting point, Zagreb.

Space is not the essential substance of Petković’s photographic storytelling. He is far more interested in time and thus each photograph can be understood as a reflection of time. Therefore, it also seems justified to see in these photos “faces of time” to re-evoke Döblin’s take on Sander’s works, his photographs in which he recorded the difficult days of German history ranging from the cataclysm that followed the end of the First World War, and those that soon followed after the book’s publication in 1929. The introductory series of Petković’s book has somewhat generic title, Colours of Croatia. Photographs presented here offer a very wide range of colours: we will only find in details the standard tricolour of the flag or the distinctive Croatian historic red-white coat of arms. Intense colours dominate, in some cases colours of the rainbow as the spectrum that we see in the iconography of gay pride. Indeed, Darije Petković photographed scenes of the event, but these he crumbled, fragmented to highlight colour as the key element of the story, not the people. Moreover, only fragments of the body of the protagonists appear which is understood only as an addition to colour of clothing worn or props held. From this colourful patchwork a sign is revealed that might leads us to the title of the series, the fact that this is Croatian territory. Finally, in the first and introductory photograph of the series a flag appears as an identification mark. However, through a series of details Petković as if emphasizes that this detail accidentally came to be in the frame, just like the head of a young man in the lower part of the scene. What becomes the main content of the story is revealed in the background – theblack sheep that appears there and has its own clear origin: it is a character taken from the advertising iconography which floods not only the media, but also the real space.

This photograph could be understood as an introduction to the second series of the book entitled Occupation in 26 images. The title is, of course, quote of the title of a famous film in which the author Lordan Zafranović presents a darker period of the more recent Croatian history. Specifically, crimes committed by the Ustasha during the Second World War, which means during the time of occupation of the country. In his story Petković speaks about a different form of occupation. Croatian landscape today, of course, is not submerged into that ideological signs which were characterized as crimes that Zafranović presented in his film. However, signs which can be found in this photographic series clearly reveal the presence of some new (occupying) forces that govern the land by their laws. The ideology of the current masters is clad in a market attire that in their exploitative intentions sometimes show a similar brutality that we have seen in the film of the same name. Signs of insurance companies, banks, chain stores, Croatian firms with foreign owners, which held onto the old name to highlight tradition as a bait for better consumption…. etc., etc. In the aggressive imposing of the new occupiers of the country no means is forbidden in approaching the citizens-consumers, and in a fine way Petković unfolds vulgarity and absurdity of their behaviour either through visual editing, or verbal messages already contained in the scenes. Sometimes it is enough just to photograph the title of the company with the accompanying slogan and exclude it from the whole scene (Bauhaus), in order to reveal the absurdity that is underlined. Sometimes it is enough to choose the camera angle and connect the two signs in the same frame to open a new area of meaning, as it is shown in the photograph where Petković filmed a giant advertisement for the Korean car company Hyundai in the immediate vicinity of the monument to Croatian king Tomislav. Observed as a whole, the scene changes its meaning and the message it wants to transmit becomes absurd.

The series in which Darije Petković takes photographs of Zagreb factories that have ceased with their production, and only remaining thing are the buildings which are being worn down into ruins, or transformed into new factories that have arrived here from other countries, is precisely determined not only by the place (Zagreb ), but also with time. In fact, they were photographed in the month preceding the Croatian accession to the European Union. Just as in the previous series presented in the book, he is trying to show the face of time in the specific area, as he has donehere. By stringing images of ruins he not only reveals to the viewer the state in which he found them by coming in front of them, but constructs a very accurate story about the state of the environment in time of important political and social transformation. What is missing in these photographs, the absence of which is the real content of the story, are the people who were with their work related to these factories, which are now empty and dilapidated buildings. The absence of true protagonists in Petković’s story reinforces the void and social weight that certainly emanate from the photographs. What is shown, are the spectres revealing the political and social history of the country caught up in the moment of its transformation. Of course, the consequences of this transformation can only be surmised, but there are enough indicators that do not promise anything good. In other words, the appearance of dilapidated factories and factories converted into something else make a clear metaphor for the historic moment.

Factories, which Petković photographed on 1 June 2013 in the previous series of this book, are mostly located on the outskirts of Zagreb. In the series dedicated to the appearance of the main street – Ilica – he brings forth the scenes he took three months later, on 1 September 2013. The fact that he has introduced us to the centre of town, with scenes revealing the same dire state of the run-down facades, closed shops with empty store fronts streaked with graffiti and covered with shabby commercials, with signs that open just surreal situation, reinforce the impression of general anxiety. He singles out the details from the context of the whole of the street and the city by building the meaning of the chosen scene on the principle of assembly: doing this as collage artists do by bringing in their own language ambiguity and elements of black humour.

The oldest series of photographs, which is included in Petković’s book Wonderland, was created in 2006 and is one of two that have not been made in Zagreb. Title of the series – Invasion in the Bay of Pigs is ambiguous. Of course, this title is also loaned from a well-known events of 1961 when the crisis in Cuba reached its peak and the danger of the outbreak of the Third World War. Political action called the Bay of Pigs invasion failed in intentions to overthrow Fidel Castro in Cuba, and showed all the deficiencies of US President John F. Kennedy administration. However, what has the administration of an American president at the beginning of the sixties similar with the events on a small Croatian island which is the origin of images that Darije Petković photographed in 2006? Petković addressed here one of the most bizarre Croatian islands that gained fame after independence of the country, so at the beginning of its transition period when accelerated construction of cheap tourist resort began on Vir, including that in the Bay of Pigs. “Cove” and “Bay” could be understood as synonymous, but the problem is not at linguistic, but at the political level. More precisely, the photographer wants to emphasize that the evident strange situation of the demolition of newly built houses can be blamed on the poor public administration, just as it was in the occasion of the crisis in Cuba in 1961. The landing the CIA members in the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in order to overthrow a legitimate government, reminded Petković of what he witnessed in 2006 when in the bay on a small island in the Adriatic, power truckson the orders of state, with the sole purpose to destroy a number of newly built private homes, disembarked. True, many of them did not have a settled administrative permits, but the fact is that the houses had their own addresses with the name of the street and house number, and thus were registered in some books under the jurisdiction of the authorities, that they had water, sewage, electricity and all the other facilities that they apparently allowed the same power which at one point started to destroy them on the pretext that they were built illegally. By displaying new buildings completely ruined on a deserted part of the island without the presence of people, Darije Petković cuts into the fabric of the legal system of the country, and from his sharp and precise cut the rotten state administration emerges. These photographs as they are cold in their unmasking and mere recording of bare facts, are also extremely painful. Those who are most affected by this destruction, the same those who are excluded from frames, are also absent in all the scenes. The striking absence of the people gives the scenes even more coldness and reinforces the impression of terror that is obtained by observing the destruction.

The title series of Petković’s book Wonderland is unusual in every respect. From one photograph to the other we follow, as in a movie sequence, the same event: the man who runs from one position and is approaching a static camera. Initial position is obviously a closed shop whose windows are plastered with advertising posters for famous beer. Shop window and shop itself belong to the same circle of the devastated area in the centre of Zagreb that the author has already shown in one of his earlier series (Ilica). What is unusual in this one is the name of the former store –Wonderland. What was sold in the store, really does not matter. Anyway today all that is gone, except the title that gives the scene a touch of surreal. Certainly what is surreal in Petković’s work, irresistibly reminds me of the surreal in the photographs of a great French photographer Eugène Atget who was obsessive in recording the scenes of his city that has been transforming and in these scenes he often caught emptiness and absence. Atget was a photographer of pluperfect tense and time disappeared in his sight, leaving us in return with quite specific substances, which are recognized as metaphysical and surreal. However, in this series one of the main protagonists is the man who in the race approaches the photographic lens. His leaps and gestures with open arms reveal the ultimate sparkle and presence of what might be called now-and-here. It is precisely this quality of intensely lived moment that gives the background of the scenes feeling of an even greater stupor. The character who is suddenly approaching is not an accidental participant in the scene. It is a well-known photographer Milisav Vesović who is his own rich oeuvre frequently documented similar conditions of time, understood as the sum of intensely lived moments. By linking the two elements of his story into a single one, the name Wonderland seems therefore adequate and not only for this Petković series.

The previous year, 2014, was the year in which the whole world celebrated the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. The origin of this tragic event is precisely located in time and space. Time is 28 June, 1914 and space is Sarajevo. More specifically, it is an area on the bank of the Miljacka River, where the Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip carried out the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. This act over time was interpreted in different ways, as well as were the roles of the key protagonists of events. On the anniversary of the assassination Darije Petković went to Sarajevo to the site in order to observe various forms of commemoration, and the events that have turned a historical and highly political act into a spectacle. Hundred years later by placing himself in the position of the assassin Princip, a contemporary photographer also sought adequate targets. Of course, his shooting was different from the historical one in all respects: the former’s gun was now replaced by a highly sophisticated photographic camera and its shutter was deprived of any direct political references. The protagonists of 28 June, 2014 that passed in front of Petković’s camera belong to a completely different type of people. These are the people of spectacle, not history. People who understand time and history only as a narrative structure. In one scene, we see many colourful and bright balloons that remind us of the installations of the contemporary American artist Jeff Koons. In the second luxury cars appear, then numerous characters who patiently await to type the exact minute in which a hundred years earlier, the assassin fired his bullets. Of course, photographs of a slain couple appear here and resemble icons carried in some similar occasions and as resonance which also appears is the building of a museum that preserves historical relics which remind us of the assassination which was the initial point of a great, and above all, the tragic historical fact. Darije Petković photographs fragments of events through the eye of a contemporary who is conscious of all the differences that divide, but also connect the two events: one authentic and the other belonging to the sphere of fiction. Although parts of this book relate almost exclusively to the area of Zagreb, the event of that late June days in Sarajevo in 1914, echo with the same intensity, and here, on the stage of Petković’s narrative. Moreover, the photographer does not refer only to the facts of history, but even more so to the modern constructs that deconstruct history and create categories of spectacles from the resulting debris.

Arguably the most unusual part of this book Petković entitled Traces. This series of photographs was taken at Zagreb’s Prečko. From frame to frame photographer brings subtle scenes filled with fog on a wet and chilly autumn day, then the snow on which the body of a bird with outstretched wings is outlined. At first glance these images might be considered as idyllic, simply beautiful. But that feature would soon prove deceptive. While looking at these photographs they remind me of the famous Rilke’s verses from Duino Elegies in which the poet gives the most accurate definition of beauty.For beauty is nothing but / the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear, says Rainer Maria Rilke. Indeed, behind the lovely hazy images rotting corn stalks are revealed, large puddles of water in between residential buildings on whose surface these dwellings, from which the human presencedoes not reach, are mirrored. What is the most expressive here is the emptiness and silence from which a terrible sense of anxiety emanates. In fact, this seemingly idyllic part of Zagreb, takes on apocalyptic features, resembling the parts of what we saw in the vicinity of Chernobyl.

Holidays are special occasions from which much can be discovered about time, environmentand people. In one series of photographs Petković captures details of the popular May 1 holiday in Zagreb’s Maksimir Park. Thus, we see people who obviously come here from different motives: some out of curiosity and fun, while others came to get a serving of food that is given free. For me one of the best documentary films is the one entitled Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1930) in which directors, including Kurt and Robert Siodmak, and among the writers is also then young Billy Wilder, show thebehaviourof Berliners on one summer weekend before the end of the Weimar Republic. From scene to scene, the authors introduce us to all spheres of life in Berlin, and gradually we ourselves enter into the world of leisure, sometimes boredom. Authors of the old German film attempted to accurately record the state of the great city full of contrasts. In fact, they did the same thing as their contemporaries August Sander and Alfred Döblin in the photography book Antlitz der Zeit that was published almost at the same time when the cinemas began showing film People on Sunday. Scenes that Darije Petkovićphotographed in Maksimir one of the last May 1holiday are on the trail of such a view of reality around him. What gives a taste of bitterness to Zagreb festival are the scenes of poverty that has crept into all aspects of society. Such imagery is not shrouded by any compassion, an image is not broken down into a complex story. Petković’s goal is only to conclude a seen motive and transfer it in the photo through the precise eye of a sensitive observer.

If May 1is the holiday of pronounced social content, then the Day of the City of Zagreb, which is celebrated on 31 May, is marked by a special ceremonial atmosphere. On that day the statue of the patron of the City of Our Lady of the Stone Gates is carried in procession through the streets and squares of the city and everything exudes ceremony. All city dignitaries and notables from Kaptol, many citizens from all social groups, but what is emphasized is the visible absence of poverty. Povertyhere is as if masked, obscured. This Darije Petković’s book would certainly be poorer if it did not contain the scenes from the celebration of Day of the City. More sensitive eye of a curious observer will, however, easily recognize even here the very same analytical observation of immediate reality and the very same desire to speak about seen truth that we found in all previous series. And in these scenes all the author wants, is to document what is seen. Of course it has long been understood that the photographic vision of reality is equally subjective, and that means as deceptive as any other. It was understood that objectivity isonly one of the conventions, which can easily be manipulated by any other representational means.

I entitled this article Faces of Time,dedicated to selected photographs of Darije Petković,modifying in minute detail another title, which I mentioned in the beginning. Petković, however, called his book Wonderland. I believe that we are not at all in conflict, as a turbulent time which he captures with his camera without much comment, and as it reveals the miracle of becoming also a precise chronicle. Chronicle of what? I would say of small events in which the numerous faces of time are mirrored. This is why I turned singular borrowed from Döblin’s title into plural, Faces of Time.

 

Zvonko Maković