Several Theses About Mihailo Vasiljevic’s Belgrade Topographics
Ana Bogdanovic


The series of photographs entitled Belgrade Topographics, created between 2011 and 2016, is one of several multi-year art projects by Mihailo Vasiljevic, others of which include Serbian Mythology (2005-2016), Trans. (2009-2016) and New Money (2011-2016). Belgrade Topographics consists of several hundred photographic images – photographic examinations of the urban nature of Belgrade, which Mihailo Vasiljevic performed by employing a methodology of dilligent, continuous and dedicated observation and documentation of the architectural landscape of the city. The recording of the complex, intertwined and often ambivalent urban structure of various parts of Belgrade, from centre to periphery and back, is based on the clearly defined composition of the photographic image, taken from the position of an active observer – a pedestrian, whose focus is on architectural objects and/or scenes without the presence of human figures. In a large number of examples, the photographs from this series depict fragments of the urban core, in which, facing each other or positioned next to one another, there are plenty of layers of historically, socially and stylistically diverse architectural manoeuvres: luxury villas from the interwar period, examples of residential architecture of the post-war socialist era, run-down family houses and luxury buildings created during the transition period over the past twenty years, old craft shops and shopping malls, current and forgotten construction sites, demolished or bombarded facilities, and those which have never been completed, examples of industrial and corporate architecture, renovated buildings and buildings with non-legalized annexes, etc. Among the recorded scenes, the famous symbols and so-called masterpieces of the architectural history of the city are very rare. Instead of the widely known and reproduced topoi of Belgrade, this series, with an analytical photographic view that aspires to objectivity, records its (only) apparently atypical, unrepresentative urban landscapes, without emphasizing or creating an illusion of monumentality. Even in those cases where the renowned architectural features of Belgrade are in the focus of Mihailo Vasiljevic’s photographic view, they are presented without accentuating their historical essence, and they are treated in the same way as other ‘less significant’ segments of the city’s urbanistic ambience. And, although it might be assumed that such a relationship is based on a certain distance on the part of the photographer towards the objects he documents, the exact and concise manner in which the recorded scenes of Belgrade Topographics appear in the final selection, and especially in the exhibition setting, indicates a good working knowledge of the city, not only from the perspective of the conscientious observer of its actual landscape, but also of the dedicated connoisseur of the transformations of its history. Such a procedure of selecting scenes and their transformation into photographic images points to several important characteristics of Mihailo Vasiljevic’s photographic practice, which are related to the complex past, status and tradition of this medium, and which must be considered before returning to further analysis of Belgrade Topographics as a series of photographs.

Photography and the City

The relationship between photography and the urban environment and its transformations is at the centre of the formation and determination of the social and historical status of this artistic medium. One of the earliest roles of photography, which separated it from other ways of recording the visible (and in particular from painting), was related to the its potential for documenting the rapid changes in the city environment which were taking place during the second half of the 19th century, as a result of the development of industrialization and, consequently, the urbanization thereby implemented. The new photographic medium offered an almost revolutionary opportunity for creating images, which provided testimony to the rapid changes in the urban scenography of the modern world, significantly contributing to the production of a new and constantly changing image of reality. This image included the various scenes and stages of constructing bridges, large architectural buildings in steel and glass, and many other facilities which were being built during that period as a result of the development of science and technology. Photography, as the result of this progress itself, has taken part in the process of constructing a (new) image of the new world and its own important role as an unavoidable actor – it was, simultaneously, a factor and a witness of modernisation, that constant process of the transformation of the immediate environment, above all the urban environment, which represents the central place of the manifestation of modernising tendencies. It should be emphasized that photography has developed an ambivalent attitude towards modernity and is not exclusively related to the recording of its exploits, but also to the discovery of those facets of the urban environment that evade restructuring under the influence of modernity and speak about its contradictions. Photographic images of ruins and historical sites have also found their place in the context of the functionality of the new medium, since the specific optical technology of the photographic camera has developed the possibility of detailed reproduction not accessible to the human eye (or hand), thus enabling research and better understanding of historical layers of architecture.[1] In each of the abovementioned cases of photographic interventions in the image of the city, which also refer to the period after modernity, architecture is treated in such a way as to stand inevitably in relation to the time in which the photograph was taken, thus acquiring a specific and multiple historical value – architecture in photography not only reveals the layers of the past in which a certain building was constructed, but also points to the characteristics of the contemporaneity within which the given photograph was created. Taking Walter Benjamin’s writings as his source, David Campany claims that photography is of crucial significance for understanding architecture, since, with the way it is able to reproduce it, photography isolates, defines, interprets, emphasizes, and even produces the cultural value of architecture.[2] It should be noted that, apart from making the cultural value of architecture visible, this genre of photography also points to the cultural values of the broader social framework, which shapes its surroundings with the given architecture, and also functions as a secondary study of the ways in which a society conceives and constructs the image of its modernity.

This historical sketch of the significance and meaning of the relationship between photography and the image of the city through the recording of architecture, is important in the context of Mihailo Vasiljevic’s work, for a better understanding of his intentions as regards Belgrade Topographics. Having acquired a profound knowledge of the history of photography, which he incorporates into his art practice by constantly questioning and pointing to the functions and meanings that this artistic medium has developed over time, Vasiljevic approaches the city as a culturally complex and historically multi-layered image, in which transformations of urban landscape dating back many centuries as well as their wider socio-historical contexts have been inscribed. With a clearly defined goal, which is inextricably linked with the forementioned decades-long relationship between photography and architecture, the author points to the vitality that photography still possesses when it comes to describing the city, opening, at the same time, the question of the social and cultural values that can be read in the specific context of Belgrade. What can we conclude about the society which, through its architecture, produces the images of modernity such as those recorded by Mihailo Vasiljevic? What are the characteristics of this society’s relation towards modernity and what kind of experience of modernization processes is visible in the precise documents of Belgrade urban settings which the author creates? What can those more or less defined layers and junctures of gravel, iron, glass, concrete and other building materials that make up the structure of Belgrade’s new, old and older architecture refer us to, in relation to the history of the city and the visions of its future?

One should not, however, confuse the role Mihailo Vasiljevic assumed during his work on the project Belgrade Topographics with the position of a historian of architecture or culture. His aim is not to offer his judgment of a certain historical period or architectural style, classify the architectural heritage of Belgrade according to some criterion, or provide an insight into understanding the chronology of urbanism. However, photographs from this series could definitely be useful to some historian as a valuable subject of research. Lingering in the domain of the visual, that is, in the domain related to the process of constructing the image as a historically conditioned and meaningfully potent field that participates in the processes of the constitution of knowledge, Vasiljevic develops Belgrade Topographics as an art project based on the competences of the photographic image. The fragments of urban environment which he chooses for the subject of his research and photographic recording, have been discovered and recognized through a long-term process of observation preceding the photographic procedure – in order to produce a topographic image of the city by means of a camera, he must get well acquainted with it, directly and without any external intervention. Such a methodology, which includes long-term research, preparation, selection and, finally, photographic recording of the city landscape, is an integral element of Vasiljevic’s practice, which only partly refers to the act of photographing, i.e. the production of photographic images. Much more than that, his methodology points to an analytical art practice based on a multiply ranging research whose results are visible in the form of photographic artifacts.

Topography and Document

Unlike big cities, which have often featured as the topic of photographic recordings throughout history, Belgrade has not been the subject of great interest to photographers, in terms of a systematic and dedicated engagement with its urban transformations and topographic facets, except for individual endeavours on the part of Colonel Jeremija Stanojevic in the 1930s.[3] Bearing in mind, however, that the local photographic heritage is largely neglected, there is a possibility that some photographic projects of this kind have remained unknown to us to this day. Such a status for photography is one of the reasons for Vasiljevic’s dedicated commitment to creating Belgrade Topographics.

The notion of topography, originally related to geography, refers to the method of studying the Earth’s surface by describing its characteristics by means of draughtsmanship, i.e. by rendering them through the image, and above all, in the form of detailed and precise maps and cartographic displays. In the context of our subject, topography refers to the processes of describing urban architecture and landscape in relief by using photography, which also provides a detailed and objective insight into its visible characteristics. In other words, it refers to the documentation of urban landscapes with the medium of photography. In contrast to other photographic series which Mihailo Vasiljevic has developed during many years of research, and which, in various ways, pointed to the author’s direct intervention and position, or in some way challenged them, Belgrade Topographics shows a tendency towards achieving objectivity, i.e. the documentary quality in the recording of the seen, which is directly related to the topographic framework it creates. Before we begin a discussion of the complex subject of the documentary in photography, let us first deal with topography in the context of photographic practice.

The term topography introduced here is related to yet another historically crucial moment for the medium of photography, which further determines Vasiljevic’s complex attitude to reflexivity as one of the important features of his practice. It is the seminal exhibition entitled New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, held in 1975 at the International Photographic Museum in Rochester, USA, which featured the works of photographers who had shown interest in the American urban landscape since the 1970’s (Robert Adams, Bernard and Hilla Becher, Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz and Nicholas Nixon). In his introductory text for the exhibition catalogue, the author of the exhibition, William Jenkins, set the foundations for understanding topography in photography, thus opening key questions related to this type of photographic image[4], which Mihailo Vasiljevic also examines through his work. The first and very important observation here concerns the separation of photography used in the conceptual arts and photography associated with the notion of topography. As already mentioned, the survey of topography through photography refers to the opening of questions about historical, social and cultural values, which are recognized and revealed through photography, rather than an examination of the semantic problems of the nature and status of art through photography, or an image with topographical intentions. In other words, this type of photography testifies to what is being observed during the transformation process of a scene into a fixed image and to the possibilities of the photographic image created in such a way, and not to the semantic operations that occur during the observation. The position of power in relation to the production of meaning is here transferred from the author, i.e. the photographer, to the image, i.e. the photograph, leading us to the problem of the documentary, which is (also) at the core of the creation and socio-historical and artistic status of photography.[5]

This insistence on the documentary manner in Belgrade Topographics is evident not only in comparison with other series of photographs by Mihailo Vasiljevic, but also through the achievement of specific formal characteristics, which refer to the equal treatment of the compositional structure of the recorded scenes in terms of framing and lighting, as well as the refusal to stage a photograph, which contribute to the seeming objectivity and distance alongside the absence of the author’s direct intervention. Nevertheless, one should bear in mind (as Jenkins already noticed) that the problem of the documentary in photography points to a paradox which is rooted in the identity of this medium, because it is as impossible to completely suppress the position of the author/photographer, as it is impossible to produce a photograph would be the true imprint of the image of reality. Conscious of this paradox, Mihailo Vasiljevic approaches photography in the execution of his Belgrade Topographics in a way that understands the documentary as a stylistic category, in order to highlight the topographic operation in relation to it – that is, in order to offer a photographic description of the city which gives the impression of a neutral, comprehensive and precise document and also provides cognitive material for the consideration of various aspects of the intertwined relationship between architecture and culture, city and history, photography and society. However, he does not abolish his position of author, but shifts it to another plane, i.e. to the domain of research preceding the emergence of the photographs – the space of   observing and recognizing seemingly unrepresentative and non-specific fragments of the urbanistic and architectural contours of the city, through which, but only after careful examination, one discovers the picture of a city that looks exactly the way its architects created it, with or without urban planning, or the way its rulers changed it, with or without vision, and the way its inhabitants live in it, with or without consideration for it.



[1] Compare with: David Campany, “Architecture as Photography: Document, Publicity, Commentary, Art”, in: Architecture as Photography. Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age, ed. Alona Pardo, Prestel, London 2014, (accessed on 15/07/2017)

[2] Ibid.

[3] More on the collection of photographs of Belgrade by Jeremija Stanojevic in: Divna Đurić-Zamolo, Beograd 1930. na fotografijama Jeremije Stanojevića, Muzej grada Beograda, Beograd, 1975.

[4] William Jenkins, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, exhib. cat., International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY 1975.

[5] Although Jenkins’s separation of photography “in the service” of conceptual artistic considerations from photography that aspires to the topographically documentary can be called into question, since the documentary intention indirectly touches upon the problem of the conceptual re-examination in art, which is evident in Mihailo Vasiljevic’s practice, this problem will not be further discussed here, due to the course of central argumentation in the text.


Published in: Mihailo Vasiljevic, Topografija Beograda, Centar za fotografiju, Beograd, 2017. [exhibition catalogue]


Ana Bogdanovic is an art historian and lecturer based in Belgrade.

© Ana Bogdanovic