Sandra Križić Roban
At the Second Glance. Positions of the Contemporary Croatian Photography*
What is photography? Something elusive, writing with light, or “just” an image separated from its world? Where does our gaze lead, can we decide to take a single approach only, a single reading, or is this a deception of the eye, as Baudrillard calls it, part of that unreal play with visual techniques that facilitate the crumbling of reality, playing with motionlessness, stillness, reduction? Although two-dimensional, in incredible, sometimes exciting ways photography reminds us of the multi-dimensionality of the world. Barthes thought that he could “only sweep it with his glance”,1 by placing it into a general context that lacks intimacy, visible to everyone. However, photography remains “yet more inaccessible and mysterious than the thought, (…) unrevealed yet manifest”, absence-as-presence.2
Photography is an art often perceived as direct, objective and unambiguous, but during the 20th century it has changed its status and appearance several times. This has called for new theoretical considerations and the interpretation of the known material. After the initial research and the development of media technology, the 30s of the 20th century were the period of the first radical change of its status, especially in the larger social context. Some authors active in Croatia during the second half of the century, whose work is the subject of my interest, have also been influenced by these events.
I was introduced to photography by Davor Matičević during the first half of the 90s; thanks to his influence, I started to get acquainted with the special characteristics of the photographic image. Regardless of the topic, content or the person it depicted, photography has encouraged my investigations and interpretation in diverse discourses, reaching from the dislocation of time and space to the conveyance of historical and geographical topics and conceptualizations. Therefore I have decided to consider the tendencies in the field of art photography in the national context, by linking particular authors with international tendencies. I am interested in different aspects – social, political, theoretical, and critical. I view them primarily within the framework of contemporary art production. (…)
Complex cultural systems I am building upon have been identified long ago and shown as part of critical formalism deeply rooted in Western ideology. In the attempt to define my position towards different events, actions, and personalities connected with contemporary photography in Croatia, I have surveyed the processes that had caused the changes in the meaning and understanding of photography and influenced the identity of media in correlation with other, different occurrences in art. I have focused my attention on the problem of the relations between language and photography, the processes of endangering the substance/matter, as well as on particular experimental procedures pertaining to the so-called “non-observing” photography. I have also encompassed the traditional aspects of photography, like documentation – but also the self-referential qualities of the artists’ work – by showing interest for the proceedings and the analysis of their procedure. The attitude of criticism, theory, and history of art towards photography must necessarily be re-examined and numerous and various social and political circumstances, characteristic of particular periods, should be taken into consideration. All that together influences the interpretation of the position and the critical reconstruction of the photographic medium I have indulged in.
An Assessment of Post-war Tendencies
Photography is a medium that (along with moving images) has mostly contributed to the deceptive feeling of the wholeness of the world. With its help, everything has become accessible and thanks to the releasing speed, we have faced an endless multitude of images – of one-off, expendable scenes whose special features we are not any more able to discern.
Many artists are increasingly using technology for the creation of interactive imaginary worlds and scenes. They are concerned with topics interpreted as multisensory; the corresponding terminology is linked with terms like processuality and interdisciplinarity, while the status of the image/depiction is often reconsidered. What has changed? And what do we actually see? Have the mentioned terminological and technological guidelines influenced the status of the image and the viewer?
Despite the mentioned aspects, we still view and interpret photography in a continuous line. In Croatia, this continuous line consists of a series of individual events – short-term publishing projects, activity of galleries like the CEFFT3 or the Tošo Dabac Archives, as examples of short-lasting exhibition venues, where a “parallel” exhibition activity was going on: “In the last forty years, there was no continuity in Zagreb, but primarily enthusiasm and occasionally rapture. These circumstances, more than clear standpoints, have enabled the following: the Zagreb Salon organized by the Photo Club; exhibitions organized by CEFFT (among others Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, and Robert Mapplethorpe); short-lasted exhibition venues (…); publishing activities of limited duration”.4
Trying to take a clear standpoint towards different tendencies and personalities in contemporary photography in Croatia, I have structured this survey in dependence on the authors whose experiences and ways of looking at things have led me towards the focus of my interests. Starting with the post-war abstraction and the new understanding of documentariness, we shall be moving on to the interest for new photographic art practices; the visual field, simultaneously occupied by authors with different interests and approaches to their medium (…).
The Interest for Avant-garde Tendencies and the Liberated Art
The survey of events that started after the Second World War is determined by crucial changes – by the breach with the until then dominant continuity of traditionalism, in favour of establishing connections with avant-garde experiences between the two wars, as well as the appearance of innovative artistic approaches.6 (…) A short period of imposed socialist photography that should have served the “struggle for truth” was soon replaced by entirely different ways of expression. Political interests that used photography for propaganda purposes were not too pronounced and without much hesitation we could say that comparable practices could be found in different parts of the world. Photographers are expected to show a certain depth in their approach to topics that illustrate a certain political period. However, the detachment from ideology set in relatively soon; the critique points out the emergence of EXAT 51 with reason – with its help contemporary art managed to escape the socio-realist paradigm of active participation of art in society.7 Two dominant projects belonging to high modernism (EXAT 51 and New Tendencies) show the proportion of integration of art into society; EXAT 51 has redefined the notion of applied art by publicly announcing a clearly defined program.
The period of the 50s and 60s was the time of post-war modernism, which according to some interpretations in its early phase retained certain characteristics of a special variant of socialist modernism.8 The position at the crossroads of the politically dogmatic Eastern Bloc and important impulses that kept coming in from the West – especially in the form of travelling exhibitions, as well as participation of Croatian artists at visual art events abroad – was a specific one and it certainly influenced the development of photography (in the same way as it has left evident traces in the development of other art media). Although during the 50s special interest for photography able to meet the expectations and express the ideas of the third path of a developing society persisted, simultaneously with the peak point of building up Yugoslav self-managed socialism there was a deflection from the proclaimed active participation of art in the society.
Some authors were intrigued by the aesthetics of New Objectivity, which is a proof of intensive connections artists after the Second World War established with avant-garde movements from the pre-war period. (…)
A lot of features pertaining to New Objectivity photography are characterized by thoroughness and visual precision of the scenes. Purified from experimentality, these works are perfectly convincing and precise, and to a certain extent their character is documentary. In several examples that I ascribe to this context, like Nails or Thread,9 Dabac focuses on exact form. His relation to the motive or topic is not burdened by the photographer’s self-references. In the documenting of reality as it is and not in satisfying the artistic craving I find the reasons for which we can ascribe only some works of Croatian photographers to New Objectivity that found the classical repertoire of motives insufficient.10
(…) The interest for structures in the 50s and early 60s is directly linked with the experience of the disrupted existential context as a consequence of the war. (…) This decade, marked by complex contradictions as we see it from today’s historical distance, contained the characteristics of the so-called liberated, New Art11 even in our environment. On the one hand, the New Art formulated new ideas, while on the other it continued the tradition of the avant-garde between the two wars. (…) With the help of abstract qualities emerging from nature or the immediate environment, the visual meaning was stressed; the photographs did not describe the perceived reality, but singled out particular pictorial values, thus conveying the author’s striving for fantasy. The subjective impression was important, which is completely opposite from the social documentary photography, predominant at that time. The strategy according to which photography referred to the outer – real – world, by participating in the humanitarian task of betterment (or at least awareness-rising) of humanity, got a certain counterpoint. Abstract reflections of a person’s inner life encouraged the viewing and the experience of photography in a different way.
(…) During the post-war years, Tošo Dabac retained his interest in similar motives that he had shot before; photographic tasks he was entrusted with were often directed at topics and scenes of the country and its people. But while earlier he had often brought them into the relation of interdependence, in the 50s and the 60s, among other things he photographed compact landscapes, showing characteristically stressed spatial relationships, of which we could assert that pictorial properties were his primary interest. His autonomous visual language has managed to bring out the individual essence of nature contained in its inner speech, in the relation of the solidity of the rock towards infinity. Landscape scenes are liberated of concrete form and their expressive power is contained in the motive that does not need man to ensure it the purpose of its existence. Structures of cracked earth photographed by mid-fifties correspond to the aesthetics of bodilessness, the procedure of isolating an abstract form from a material context. Like several other authors interested in similar motives, Dabac was also focused on the facture and structure of the soil, of wood surfaces with peeled off layers from the trunks of trees or crumbly, gossamer-like walls built of roughly hewn stone.
(…) Zlatko Zrnec is one of the authors who by the beginning of 50s examined the contrasts in the texture of the material that he photographed; in that concrete case, it is the magnifying of a leaf, after which he gradually commenced the dissolution of the motive, which lost its primary meaning. The thus emerging photo-graphics retained certain elements that enable us to connect them with the world of nature, but they are primarily instinctively made abstract compositions, whose mainstay can very probably be found in modernist painting.12
A subtle interest for abstraction can be observed in the work of Milan Pavić, one of the certainly most interesting authors of the 50s. Not only graphism and constructive elements,13 but also a series of other visual means have been compressed into a very particular photographic opus. We could immediately ascribe many of its determinants to a specific social (but also political) aspect, the existential framework of complex relationships within which individuals tried to gain room for their explorations. Photographers to some extent decided to turn to their inner world of personal contemplations because of very slow changes in the post-war society and also because they faced the affluent society as a consequence of superficial materialism that had swept over the people of the world.14 The war had caused a deep caesura, it clearly displayed fear, insecurity and fragility of life. The changes they could observe around them were not necessarily the ones with which they would privately agree, so that they could find some kind of security in nature and its constancy. Therefore the interest for abstraction as the imaginary space of freedom and dreams, uninfluenced by external factors does not surprise us.15
Milan Pavić took many photographs as a part of his job; at first he had no camera or films of his own.16 He acquired certain knowledge on photography together with other members of the Zagreb Photo Club, through guest exhibitions, catalogues, and magazines, as well as through submitting his entries at international photographic events. Pavić did not yield to indifference or nihilism; he looked around, open to what he saw. The beauty of his landscapes is constant, bur let us point out that with the same interest and feeling for compositional details he also photographed urban situations – broad, new city spaces that are not just plain recordings of the process of socialist rebuilding and construction. It is interesting that his photographs do not accept to be documentary impulses; they are not instruments for proving political enlightenment and social changes; they are not narrative and they do not follow (neo)realist tendencies.
Contribution to the Interest for the Human Family
(…) Apart from the photography formed with awareness, as subjective photography was interpreted by its contemporaries and later on by critics, in the history of photography the 50s are marked by the phenomenon of the exhibition The Family of Man and its originator Edward Steichen. It was held in 1955 in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and described as “the greatest photographic exhibition of all time”.17 After that, it was shown in many other cities and seen by more than nine million visitors. Some of the critics accepted it as the most evident peak of interest for people; it was a kind of quest for unstained Utopia, which helped the acceptance of photography as art medium in the museum world, but also in the broad public. Focused on the human, and not on the social context, on the religious and not the religion, photographers mostly participated with works that demonstrated their striving for the creative potential of their medium in the depiction of love and truth. Its influence was so great that the next generations of photographers were forced to constant comparisons with it. It is very probable that a certain time span was necessary for building up a critical attitude that enables us to view it as a spectacle of mass culture that by means of clichés and generalized standpoints tried to avoid the always problematic truth.18
In the national context, Steichen’s exhibition is usually linked with Mladen Grčević, who took a trip to Algeria and Morocco in 1954. After that he travelled to the Near and Far East and then to Mexico. During that time he made diverse series of photographs collected in several separate issues. Between his journeys, in 1954, he spent a short period in Paris, where he organized a solo exhibition; in the context of that time’s photographic solo exhibitions, this achievement was a true rarity.19 Very positive reviews resulted in his participation at the UNESCO symposium, together with Edward Steichen in the photographic section.
On the other hand, Grčević is interesting for his small, but in the national context valuable contribution to subjective photography. It consist in luminograms shot on the way back home in 1953, “under the deep impression from the Zagreb premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony”.20 He pointed out himself that this was by no means an experiment like the ones conducted by photographers dissatisfied with the limitations of the medium. Grčević suspended a small flashlight by a thread and shot the trajectory of its movement, wishing to evoke the impression of the symphony’s movement that in his opinion had unified the idea of the Universe. During the same year, inspired by the EXAT exhibition, he executed the first abstract photo-collage with black and white surfaces that he submitted to the competition of the Mozaik art magazine.21 His work was awarded and a year later published on the front page. Ten years later, the cycle Multiplication was created by the method of kaleidoscopic multiplication. These are also photographic explorations that we can include into the national contribution to the process of free artistic development of the medium.
Not Only Documents
In the sixties, Mladen Tudor appears on the photographic scene. He is our only follower of Bresson22 and a photographer who did not ask what to shoot but how, in that way acquiring “his own facture and style that withstood even the reporting tasks”.23 His seemingly simply structured and balanced photography with unobtrusive contrasts shows that it is possible to link the incompatible in visually resourceful way, to communicate on an equalized level without obstacles of any kind. The documentary character of his scenes is free of sensationalism or similar reporting features. Tudor’s interest for man results in equal treatment of all components of the scene (the environment and the subject), without further manipulation and finishing touches. Magnum’s “school”, with which he comes into contact,24 stresses the importance of the decisive moment for the understanding of the scene (which is, of course, the essence of Cartier-Bresson’s philosophy). In Tudor’s photographs this moment is not dramatic, but subtle; it does not record important events that changed human history, but small events from people’s lives that he encounters in his travels through Yugoslavia in the 60s and later through Europe.
Writing about him, Tenžera mentions that “a photo-reporter is the youngest child of journalism.”25 The rightness of this assertion can be corroborated by leafing through everyday newspapers and magazines, from whose pages photographs made with dignity have irretrievably vanished.26 This can be maybe best observed in Tudor’s legendary scenes from the Return of Guest Workers, taken in 1978. These photographs show no sensationalism and no pathos, they do not court the viewers hungry for cheap, disposable anecdotes. His communication with protagonists is direct and on equal footing; without hesitation he photographs a heavy-moustached man in the train corridor, who proudly shows a typical guest-worker acquisition – a transistor radio. The communication flows on an even level, because the photographer does not assume a privileged position that would enable him a critical, ironical, or some other intonation. He approaches his characters in a relaxed manner, respecting their personalities and without turning them into grotesque, romanticized scenes whose aim would be the illustration of his own or other people’s views.
Functionality and not exoticism of the characters are in accordance with Tudor’s decision not to manipulate the meaning or question the objectivity of the depiction. Beauty is in the superfluity of additional commentary, in the immediacy of visual language, and directness so uncompromising that it is entirely understandable that Tudor could not find his place on the pages of newly published (not to say springing up) magazines that give no insight into the (neglected) wealth of reporting heritage. In this context, the Globus weekly magazine, whose publication started in Zagreb by the beginning of the 50s, is a deserving exception.27 When Frane Barbieri became the editor-in-chief of the magazine, important changes in the way of presenting photography took place. It stopped being the illustrative supplement of the article and became the dominant communication medium. Real time and space as contextual normative influenced the improvement of the position of photography,28 which will to a certain extent be repeated only later, in 1978, with the appointment of Goran Trbuljak as the graphic editor of Polet.
Photography as a Fatal Consequence29
Sometimes we perceive photography as a coordinate, as an echo of events whose parts we are trying to reconstruct thanks to particular characteristics of this medium. In the sense of meaning, we do not automatically equalize such photographs with works of pronounced aesthetic quality and artistic intentions. Artists and critics perceive them in different ways: for some, photography is a kind of channel through which certain information on events reaches us;30 documentary photography of a performance or some other art event is a retroactive “secondary statement”, whereby a confusing circumstance is its placing within a strictly delineated (mostly rectangular) frame.31 They are multiplied originals – proofs and not objects – that support the communication which takes place outside the semantic field of work or events.
Along these lines we can interpret the proto-conceptual works from the 60s, like the photograph of an empty shop-window, reproduced nine times in the first issue of the Gorgona magazine from 1961.32 (…)
In the context of radical modernism, the “Gorgona photography” can most probably be interpreted as criticism of art production whose aim is the production of a work. (…) Photography is one of the ways they transgressed from the rational into the absurd; the mentioned example is characterized by emptiness and silence remaining after some, as it seems, paradoxical event. We link the Gorgona appearances with nihilism and questioning of social norms they detach themselves from by walking in the nature or through the city streets. The common “experiment” of living has been photographically verified several times and we might conclude that this is a constructive way of “self-organizing and self-institutionalizing activity”,34 at which they participated with staged photographs (according to Marija Gattin).
The photographs of performances, happenings, and other kinds of action are a kind of shortcut, something like the already mentioned channel for access to information about events. They are visual metaphors that represent an artistic action, “documents” used in different ways.35 Their status is a subject of many discussions; the ambiguity of their character emerges from the fact that they are often examples of photographic art, but also documentations of performances. Of course, this kind of documentation is not “functional work”, devoid of aesthetic qualities; even when we do not know who has photographed certain events, we shall very rarely be in the position to comment on them as amateur photographs.
Documentary photographs of performances are hybrid forms of collaborative art practice almost entirely conceived by the author of the event. More or less precisely directed, previously elaborated in many details, the performance is part of conceptual construction that by the beginning of the 60s started to treat photography outside of the approaches prevailing earlier. In this context it is not anymore possible to speak of a decisive moment or instances of modernist aesthetics that we have encountered during the previous decade. In the 60s, throughout the world, with a special stress on very early years of Gotovac’s, but also Gorgona’s actions, traditional media are replaced by “ultraconceptual art that emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively.”36 According to Rosalind Krauss, this was a time of establishing the expanded field in which the camera became one of many tools to help the realization of a project.37 The conventional status of the artefact has been challenged and since that time photography has become, among other things, one of the artist’s media.
New Understanding of Photography
Events and processes in photography since mid-sixties can be problematized in the context of the New Art Practice – a period when the phenomenon of art activity caused by socio-political and cultural changes that came about (also) as a consequence of student riots occurred and was articulated. In this period, when the focus moved on spiritual environment – which is not any more a passive spectator of isolated art events, but a source of active influence and a participant – there was a generational group of artists who stood out; they met in alternative, informal places (Podroom, 1975-1980); especially important were the Students’ Centre Gallery, Nova Gallery and the Gallery of Expanded Media, conceived as an experimental field of authorial activity; it was a place where the position of art and the possibilities of its realization in society were continuously examined.
Many photographers, together with artists who used the medium of photography, began to examine the meaning and purpose of their activity. Art became an open field in which the phenomena of culture, society, politics, and economy were equally explored in photography, film, video, performances, actions, installations, and interventions.
This particularly interesting period in the context of photography is not easy to define, because conceptual art practice has shown a certain level of disobedience; its authors very self-assuredly used different media, choosing mostly the ones that at a particular moment in the most direct way (often also the simplest) mediated their ideas. Probably because of that, one of the important works created by the beginning of the 70s is primarily considered within the context of forming an ethical attitude as a principle of artist’s activity38 and not photography.
In one of the most important exhibition events that presented contemporary art in Croatia – Innovations in Croatian Art of the Seventies – photography has been given relatively little room as a separate medium. In 11 Digressions on Culture and Art of the Seventies, Dimitrije Bašičević39 mentions the detachment from the metaphorical system of thinking and the establishment of the “instrumental” system in its place, based on machine work; the instrumentalization of the artistic procedure is to a certain extent supported by the photo-camera as “the instrument of new consciousness, i.e. the new thinking mode”.40 Conceptual art strategies condition the process of the change of meaning and understanding of photography, whose identity is justified by the idea, procedure, destruction or deliberate illumination of matter. As much as we can judge from the selected examples (Antun Maračić, Mladen Stilinović, Fedor Vučemilović, Željko Jerman, Željko Borčić, Petar Dabac, Tomislav Gotovac, Ladislav Galeta, and Vladimir Gudac), the authors of the exhibition were interested in particular aspects of photography – processuality, experiment, seriality, installation, as well as ways of expression whose aim was not to show that which is usually considered the true essence of photographic art or commonplaces (like the decisive moment).
In some cases, experimental procedures “break up” photography in its constituent parts, which is observable in the works of Petar Dabac from the beginning of the 70s. Dabac is one of the founders of SPOT and his works were published in this magazine several times.41 He has very early questioned the two-dimensionality of photography, because, writes Putar, “he has difficulties accepting norms and set canons, so that a unified, flat, classical photographic surface was insufficient for him.”42 Photograms that he made in those years are traces of his interests and media research that did not find understanding in the traditional “established” community. They were created by taking away the lens from the enlarger. In its holder for negatives, he would insert, for example, grids drawn on foil. (…) The influence of New Tendencies is observable in the series of photograms in which the process of perception depends on the dosage of the light influx, resulting in constructions with defined rhythm. Although photograms can, among other things, be read as ornamental structures, the author’s intention was to explore the possibilities provided by technological processes set in motion by letting the light reach the paper through obstacles. Thus emerging layered compositions of the interplay of light and shadow are supplemented by precisely determined colour values, while the author remains focused on “non-observant” approach to photography, dependent on inner patterns (and not on external events).43 From that period are also the Xerox copies of photographs on which he intervened with paint.
Ivan Posavec’s44 disciplined, carefully framed and got up photographs do not belong to a context in which we might speak of dominant motives and they do not yield to the influence of any methods used at that time. The author shows the space in which he moves in a special way, while the details he spots in the immediate environment are not connected by a narrative; I would rather say that they constitute a series of separate scenes, connected only by his underlying freedom of movement and observation. Putar is right when he asserts that Posavec had no intention of sailing in conceptual waters, although at the first glance we might come to the conclusion that he is no stranger to them. (…) Noticeable is his visual culture, the sense of measure and a special balance of elements in the series of black and white photographs. He achieves graphism by contrasting relatively large white fields on which he separates elements that seemingly hold his attention. But in the photograph of a small hand mirror, whose refracting surface is completely darkened and whose function we actually recognize only by its contours, we are suddenly not sure if this ordinary object is the true focus of his interest or is the topic at hand primarily the perceiving of particular features of light and colour, spotted by chance, unintentionally.
Special traits of Željko Jerman have also been recorded already in the SPOT-circle and his works were included in the selection of the earlier mentioned New Photography 1. All the author’s “exaggerations”, negations of the media, and the entirely free, Putar even says “insolent” method of annulling photographic norms,86 mentioning that to negate technology does not necessarily mean to discard it, are part of a unique photographic practice in this region. Jerman wished the end of art long ago and with his performative actions – the reasons for them we also find in his existential dilemmas – he seemingly kept the balance on the very verge of the medium. The subjectivity of his approach and elementary means that he used are foundations of the artistic concept of leaving a trace of one’s existence in time and space, i.e. the belief in the overlapping of the existential and artistic reality. He was one of the co-founders of the Group of Six Authors, an informal, loose art formation with which he participated in a series of self-organized exhibitions-actions.
By obstructing photographic techniques and often avoiding even the usage of a photographic camera, Jerman has both literally and metaphorically imprinted his traces into the paper, peeling its layers and treating the material with rebellious neglect, typical of him. The life and body of the artist were his lasting tool and the object of interest, uncompromisingly presented in all phases of creative and life power and feebleness. Jerman’s struggle with himself was fierce, same as the striving to continue communicating with his environment despite all setbacks. One of his most noted works, This Is Not My World from 1976, was created at the time while he experimented with lying on photosensitive paper, exposing both himself and the paper to light.
Although it seemed that there was no way out of the situation in which he had brought the medium of photography to the breaking point, Jerman has never entirely given up the simple procedure of shooting his diary, an action that he conducted every day during the year 1977 and that is considered to be his continuous striving for announcing his presence in condensed form. My Year 197745 is the evidence of his existentialist explorations; it is a subjective experience of the world in the simplest possible form. The notes to each of the photographs are freely written and almost unbound to other content; at the same time, they indicate personal dramas, a complex relation to reality and its limitations, in which he has left lasting traces of elementary, impoverished photography.
Groups, Cellars, and the Expanded Understanding of Media
New forms of understanding photography during the 70s, at the time when craft skills were losing their importance and the meaning of motive and its contextualization with the aim of achieving “a higher order of communication: communication with pure ideas”46 was coming into the foreground, are important in the national context, because they define the relation to the medium as the means of recording and forming the concepts of exploration. Photography became the mediator of numerous aspects of the culture of image. Ambience actions are organized, the society examined and criticized; many artists continued that practice later as well. It is important to note that photography, while slowly enhancing its communication potential, became an unavoidable component of the complex multimedia structure.
“Pure” art production and experience are no more sufficient reasons for creation; new strategies show interest towards the document, provisional “adventures” in urban space, critical re-examination of society, individuals, and artists. The change is also visible in the media space, especially in youth weeklies like Polet47 and Studentski list, from whose pages resound reactions to the understanding of the role and importance of photography in contemporary urban context.
Polet’s media expansion is narrowly connected with the fact that Goran Trbuljak was its graphic and photographic editor from 1978 to 1981; his greatest contribution was the socially self-aware use of photography in that popular weekly newspaper. Trbuljak is responsible for publishing photographs in large format, life-size (and even larger) portraits of interviewees, which directly reached the reader in an – for domestic circumstances – yet unseen manner.
This unconventional approach was achieved, among other things, through the proportion of image and text (in favour of the image), as well as through visual recapitulation of everything that constituted urban life of that time. The interest for reporter photography reappears at the world level as well, but in the Polet variety (that should be considered in the atmosphere of political and social situation of former Yugoslavia), the urban scene is presented in its genuine and raw form, far from the “representative” matrices of the so-called “high culture”, mediated by the works of Danilo Dučak, Siniša Knaflec, Mijo Vesović, Ivan Posavec, and Andrija Zelmanović. Photography confirmed McLuhan’s thesis about the medium as message, presenting the domestic environment as it was, i.e. as it was seen and experienced by its participants. For its time in large format, Polet’s photography directly and critically observed and commented on social, political, and cultural relations. Thanks to this newspaper, standpoints and opinions of photographers attained dominance: they were not anymore illustrations of someone’s theses, but independent critical works in which the public image was not shown in the form conceived and publicly presented by the society of that time.
Goran Trbuljak’s contribution to authorial, independent, experimental – primarily conceptual photography – and thus to the new art practice is very important. Sensibilized for unrepresentative scenes that he encounters in everyday life, through a combination of motives, completely unrestrained use of media, and the change of context, he alters the meaning of each of them. Squatting in a deserted apartment, which was, according to his words, after that for a short period transformed into art atelier, is part of the author’s complex conceptual strategy of examining the meaning of exhibition space, the role and position of the artist and his/her social relevance.48 The photographed scenes reveal unusual, sometimes absurd images, also reflecting the sceptic view of the author, whose analytical attitude is almost always softened by a portion of humour and irony. In a certain way, his work destabilizes the system, leaving individual viewers disoriented in an art environment that is neither descriptive nor picturesque. However, artists like Trbuljak have contributed to better understanding of photographic practice outside the narrow boundaries of technique (and skill).
The influence of the Group of Six Authors,49 especially Mladen Stilinović, on the further development and understanding of the photographic medium in domestic environment is of utmost importance. This informal, “loose” art organization has been determined by sixty-eight-type conventions, comprising the newly attained social, civil, political, and even artistic freedom of commenting and participating in public life. The authors have performed a series of actions at alternative locations, warning before, criticising, and opposing the political system, recording the “spirit of continuous rebellion” that has often stirred up the public not used to publicly expressing personal opinions, especially the ones critical towards the government, state, and civil rights. Their artistic and activist work emerged primarily from the ethical and only then from the aesthetic attitude. They used photography in order to document a series of performed actions, but the authors applied it to a broadly set problem field, continuing the work of authors with similar sensibility. Apart from the already mentioned Jerman, Sven Stilinović devoted his work to exploration of photographic motives by collaging different series of photographs and setting forth the thesis that photography had been taking over motives from painting to its own disadvantage. Boris Demur has photographically documented his artistic actions, whose processes he in particular cases compared to classic (sculpturing and painting) procedures. Fedor Vučemilović’s credit is that all actions of the Group of Six have been photographically documented. Apart from that, he analysed the photographic medium and the roles of the viewer and the photographer, enabling random passers-by to become authors of “his” works. He experimented with hand-held shooting, without looking through the lens, deconstructing the medium in its constituent parts, which he later displayed at unconventional locations.
Outside the Standard Production
Boris Cvjetanović has emerged from the PM Gallery circle. Many of his works are “commonplaces” of recent photographic practice in Croatia. Seemingly desolate locations and meaningless scenes that he has photographed for years point to different consequences caused mostly by social changes; they partly border with absurdity. His works show a very expressive atmosphere that looks seemingly nostalgic, but more important than that is the author’s sensibility for problems developing in the social, urban, and general context. At the first glance marginal contents – no matter if these are urban spaces, intimate places of temporary dwelling or portraits of forgotten, depraved individuals – witness of the importance of social and political iconography in domestic environment. At a decisive moment, Cvjetanović “subtracts” the traditional meaning,50 conceptually challenging one of the basic ideas of photography. His shots show “visible signs of that which was”; in them we seek, and maybe even find, the confirmation of our own differences – “what we are in the light of what we are not anymore”.51 Today we face erasure, negation, or disregard of common moments, whose particularity we recognize thanks to their truthfulness. Seemingly uninteresting, completely ordinary topics witness of the importance of social and political iconography in Croatia, which is an excellent description of Cvjetanović’s poetic photographs, focused on the perception of reality. Nostalgic traits as one of the elements of Cvjetanović’s work are not expressed in lamenting the times past; the author does not seek for details covered by unavoidable “civilisational” shifts. In his special photographic poetics, atmosphere is important; he finds it and records it like an archaeologist, creating an encompassing picture of time and space in which he works. Deserted places, faded advertisements, sealed doors and car wrecks are part of the story about us, about the ability of oblivion and readiness to turn our heads away, because many things do not concern us.
Cvjetanović does not detach the question of personal identity from the question of collective identity. Shooting at “leisure” time, unburdened by trends, genres, and standard matrices, he has realized several valuable cycles, in which the focus of his interest is not easy to determine. Anxiety-ridden portraits of people from social margins (Mesnička 6, 1983; Hospital, 1986 – 1988; Worker in DIOZ, 1989) in spite of the depressing theme do not have anything of the banal, for the majority brief compassion with other people’s problems. These are not scenes that feed on other people’s suffering or difference. In a procedure that contains certain elements of nostalgia and traditional photographic procedure, Cvjetanović approaches his protagonists liberated of all elements that usually characterize the documentary, reportage-like relation to similar contents. In the same way as he has not reached his other photographed motives by waiting for the decisive moment or by capturing exotic scenes, he remains faithful to his long ago adopted aesthetic principle of creation, which influenced many of his younger colleagues. (…)
translated from Croatian: Andy Jelčić
* Excerpts from the introduction chapters: Sandra Križić Roban, At Second Glance. Positions of the Contemporary Croatian Photography, IPU & UPI2M books, Zagreb, 2010. Text completed in December 2009. © text with the author.
1 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard, Vintage Books, London, 2000, p. 106
2 Roland Barthes, ibid., p. 106
3 Centre for Photography and Film at the Museum of Contemporary Art (former Gallery of Contemporary Art), Zagreb.
4 Davor Matičević, Photography in Croatia from 1950 until Today, Zagreb, 1993 (catalogue published in 1997)
5 “The cultural climate in Zagreb of the twenties and thirties has enabled the affirmation of photography as a branch of visual art on equal footing with the others, thanks primarily to Franjo Mosinger’s efforts and texts by Iso Kršnjavi and Ljubo Babić, as well as to guest exhibitions of which we must obligatorily mention Film und Foto, organized by Deutscher Werkbund. Apart from organizing two exhibitions of his works that show the influences of DADA, surrealism, and New Objectivity, as well as echoes of the exhibition Film und Foto, held at the Zagreb Fair in 1930, Franjo Mosinger was the editor of the already mentioned Kulisa magazine, in which he tried to popularize photography. He not only published contemporary photographs by foreign authors and illustrated the articles with photographs by domestic authors, but also introduced a section in which he advised young artists on the art of shooting images. For these reasons it is no wonder that the pluralism of styles of that time’s European art also caused immediate reception with some of the domestic artists. Already by the beginning of the thirties, Tošo Dabac participated in international exhibitions together with authors like Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Man Ray, and Edward Weston, which made him a direct participant of relevant events in contemporary photography.” Iva Prosoli, The Beginnings of Tošo Dabac’s Photographic Work in the Context of Amateur and Professional Photography in Croatia, unpublished manuscript, 2010. I would like to thank the author for enabling me the get insight into her research, part of which I am quoting here in order to at least point to the fact that in the period between the two wars echoes of avant-garde came from Germany and Russia, simultaneously to the development of sensibility of several photographers close to the poetics of New Objectivity. About certain avant-garde movements also see Marija Tonković’s contribution, ”Domination of the Artistic Will over the Photo-camera“, Avant-garde Tendencies in Croatian Art, Klovićevi dvori Gallery, Zagreb, 2007.
6 Davor Matičević, ibid., p. 11. The author mentions the comparison of “theoretical positions from 1948, in which socialist photography in struggle for truth was required”, without quoting the source. On specific post-war atmosphere and the treatment of photography, see: Vladko Lozić, The Photo-amateur Movement in Croatia (contributions to a historical survey), Photo-club Zagreb, Zagreb, 2003, pp. 33-46.
7 Davor Matičević, ibid., p. 11; Marija Tonković, ibid., p. 165
8 Ješa Denegri, ”Inside or Outside ‘Socialist Modernism’? Radical Views on the Yugoslav Art Scene, 1950–1970“, in: Dubravka Djurić, Miško Šuvaković (ed.), Impossible Histories, Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia 1918-1991, MIT Press, Cambridge&London, 2003, p. 173
9 Nails, b/w negative 6×6 cm, ATD – R 4050b, about 1950 (?); Threads, b/w negative 6×6 cm, ATD – R 385, before 1949 (?). It is questionable if the photographs are dated correctly, because Dabac changed the numbers of the negatives. I owe this information to Iva Prosoli. An identical scene with spool-holder was photographed in 1950, probably by Albert Renger-Patzsch (I found an unsigned photograph that illustrates a text that mentions him), which shows that a latent interest for the aesthetics of New Objectivity arose simultaneously in different parts of the world. (https://www.fotosammlung-boeckenhoff.raesfeld.de/thema.0400/Document.2003-02-25.3337/; downloaded March 10th, 2009)
10 In spite of undeniable credits for promoting foreign movements and exhibitions in our region, as a photographer Franjo Mosinger retained his interest in the relation to himself; his photographs are poetic, to a certain extent expressive, mostly because of the contrast of light and shadow. There is no typical sharpness or clarity of forms; he is not interested in showing fixed relationships in space or their construction. His emotional engagement to a certain extent reminds of early Bauhaus works, in which important psychological effects emerge from the environment, which changes after the introduction of Laszlo Moholy Nagy’s New Vision.
11 The German term Kunst im Aufbruch explains almost every new period that strives for (re)establishment of creative freedom, something like emerging, oncoming art. It is often used for occurrences in visual art after the Second World War, although it can be applied to many situations and periods. This term shows the tendency for formulating something new, which is, for example, indirectly corroborated by informal painting and abstract expressionism.
12 The painting spirit is also mentioned by Borislav Istranin in the article devoted to Zrnec’s work. Davor Matičević, ibid., p. 39.
13 Josip Depolo mentions them as elements of Pavić’s artistic sense and order, as well as his exploration of micro and macro-structures in which he discovers abstract forms. Matičević, ibid., p. 27
14 Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, Laurence King Publishing, London, 2006, p. 334
15 Pavić’s wife Slavka has not confirmed that the photographs of Dry Stone Walls had been made under the influence of painting (actually Gliha’s and Šimunović’s works). We could certainly easily establish this link, but I shall accept the opinion of the person who is the most reliable judge of this. Unlike this opinion, M. Tonković says: „Milan Pavić (…) was the first one to draw his inspiration from contemporary painting.“ Marija Tonković, ibid., p. 166.
16 Many photo-shootings he was sent to perform were made with a camera owned by the Agency for Photo-documentation of the Government of the Republic of Croatia, which charged and discharged him with all the photographs made. Before the photographing sessions, often organized from a plane, he received special approvals for what he was allowed to photograph and what was banned. After the accomplishment of this task, the numbers of negatives were meticulously checked. He could also arrange aerial shootings personally and had friendly relations with some of the pilots, which enabled him to approach the desired areas from a certain angle, sometimes repeatedly (which depended on the nature and intensity of light). I learned these particulars about his work in a conversation with Slavka Pavić (March 2010). (https://www.arhiv.hr/hr/hda/foto/fs-ovi/fototeka.htm)
17 Jerry Mason (ed.), The Family of Man, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1955.
18 A book with papers from the symposium on humanism and postmodernism will serve as a most comprehensive critical survey of Steichen’s project. Jean Beck, Viktoria Schmidt-Linsenhoff (ed.), The Family of Man 1955-2001. Humanismus und Postmoderne: Eine Revision von Edward Steichens Fotoausstellung / Humanism and Postmodernism: A Reappraisal of the Photo Exhibition by Edward Steichen. Jonas Verlag, Marburg, 2004.
19 Mladen Grčević, A Traveller along the Optical Coordinates of Life – Bio-Bibliography. Croatian Association of Art Historians, Zagreb, 1997, p. 42
20 From an interview with the author, 1999.
21 Radovan Ivančević, Mladen Grčević, ”Collected Works“, Kontura, 55/1997-1998, Zagreb, pp. 86-89
22 A thesis by Antun Maračić.
23 Veselko Tenžera, Photo: Mladen Tudor, ULUPUH, Zagreb, 1980, no pagination
24 “(…) thanks to special service contracts between the Vjesnik publishing house and Magnum from Paris and New York (…)”. Dubravka Osrečki Jakelić, Mladen Tudor: Photography 1954-2004, Museum of Arts and Crafts, Zagreb, 2005, p. 7
25 Veselko Tenžera, ”Life in Black and White Nothingness“, Vjesnik, Zagreb, May 19th, 1979
26 “I am abhorred by people for whom both reality and the camera are insufficient, which causes their aggression directed at both, and I am also aware of the endless outline of the current photographic clichés. I opt for Tudor’s interest for something as traditional as life; if an everlasting well of the new is not there (something like memories of the future), then where is it? Yes, so many things turned into photography, a shadow deprived of substance that we can be redeemed from this general nothingness of shadows only by new – photographing. (…) I am consoled and excited that Tudor has from the beginning understood that which we have forgotten, blinded by shining shadows – life.” Veselko Tenžera, quoted after: Mladen Tudor. 99 Photographs, Durieux, Zagreb, 1998
27 Dubravka Osrečki Jakelić, ibid., p. 7
28 It is therefore necessary to revise the assertion on the peaks of newspaper photography, which is in domestic circumstances assessed between the positions “held” by Svijet weekly illustrated magazine (1926-1940) and Polet’s generation of photographers from the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, even called a phenomenon. Between these two poles we must introduce the Globus’s generation of photographers, who preceded life reportage photography and sensed important shifts in its treatment. Tudor had an important role there.
29 Here I refer to Radoslav Putar’s assertion on Gorgona, noted in Anketa from 1961. Branka Stipančić, Josip Vaništa. The Time of Gorgona and Post-Gorgona, Kratis, Zagreb, 2007, pp. 98-100
30 The interpretation by Max Bense, quoted in: Lawrence Alloway, ”Artists and Photographs“ (1970), Douglas Fogie, The last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960-1982. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008, p. 20
31 Dennis Oppenheim, quoted in: Alloway, ibid., p. 20
32 Branka Stipančić, ibid., pp. 70-85
33 Stipančić, ibid., p. 149
34 Antonia Majača, Ivana Bago, ”Spit the Truth in the Eye (and then close your eyes quickly before the truth)“, Život umjetnosti 84, 2009, p. 120
35 Here I would like to remind of the “documentary” photograph of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void from 1960, a conceptual event that helped create one of the mythical aspects of the artist’s work.
36 Lucy Lippard and John Chandler quoted in Douglas Fogle, ”The Last Picture Show“, The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960-1982, p. 10
37 Fogle, ibid., p. 10
38 Marijan Susovski, ”Innovations in Croatian Art of the Seventies“, in: Boris Kelemen, Marijan Susovski (ed.), Innovations in Croatian Art of the Seventies (exhibition catalogue), Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, March 1982, pp. 23, 48
39 Dimitrije Bašićević, ”Consequences of Photography“, in: Kelemen, Susovski (ed.), ibid., pp. 83-91
40 Bašićević, ibid., p. 84
41 He tsook up photography in 1960, as assistant in Tošo Dabac’s atelier, which he curated from 1980 to 1987 and where he organized a series of exhibitions of works by foreign and domestic authors.
42 Radoslav Putar, (untitled text), SPOT, 1, 1972, p. 24
43 At that time, the author also experimented with paper for colour photography, “with the always present randomness element. The result were Vasarely-like bright-coloured works that corresponded to some directions in Croatian painting – which could actually be deceptive in the assessment of their place in the author’s photographic opus.” Branka Slijepčević, ”Petar Dabac – Kaleidoscope and Celebrations“, in: Photographic Diaries (exhibition catalogue), Art Pavilion, Zagreb, September 8th − 27th, 1998, Croatian Photo Association, Zagreb, p. 27
44 He was presented in a separate section of the SPOT magazine. Unnamed, ”SPOT Presents: Ivan Posavec“, SPOT, 8, 1976, pp. 19−24. The article was written by Radoslav Putar.
45 Željko Jerman, My Year 1977, SCCA, Zagreb, 1997. He conducted a certain continuation of this action in 1998 under the title My Year II.
46 Matičević, ibid., p. 13
47 Markita Franulić, ”Polet’s Photography – Ten Years Later“, Život umjetnosti, 45−46/Zagreb, 1989, pp. 40-53
48 Goran Trbuljak, ”Exhibition in the Nova Gallery“, SPOT, 11, 1978, pp. 31-33
49 Boris Demur, Željko Jerman, Vlado Martek, Mladen Stilinović, Sven Stilinović, Fedor Vučemilović.
50 Branka Sijepčević, ”Boris Cvjetanović“, Život umjetnosti, 64/2001, p. 7
51 Pierre Nora, quoted in: Marc Augé, Non-Places, University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
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