Father Knows Best
By Maida Gruden


With his exhibition Father Knows Best, Mihailo Vasiljevic is reflecting on a number of questions pertinent to the aporiae of the photographic medium. He does this by performing the seemingly simple act of appropriation of photographs – those taken by his father Radomir Vasiljevic – and displaying them in the form of an exhibition in a gallery space. The photographs were made from the negatives that date from between the late 1950s and 2010. The aforesaid simplicity of this act corresponds to the proverbial simplicity of the photographic process of clicking on the camera, by which a certain sight, object, person, event or situation is chosen and registered, and in that way, printed out, appropriated and kept as an image. However, the investments required are complex, and the inputs and outputs are various. The mere fact that the exhibited photographs are the property of the family implies an analysis of the relationship between the private and the public, the personal and collective history – issues, which go beyond the exclusive equation of private and personal photography with family photography.

Mihailo Vasiljevic, photographer and photography theoretician, an artist who perceives photography in a conceptual way, approaches the corpus of his father’s photographs in the same way as he would make a selection of his own work. He is applying the criteria of an artist and theoretician who is well acquainted with the history of the photographic medium and reflecting on its use, and acting at the same time as a researcher and interpreter.[1] At the same time, the artist is inevitably also the user of these photographs, considering that they belong to the family history, a complex web of memory and the emotionally charged content.

Along with the modernization of the Western culture, personal and family photography has developed as a medium through which individuals explore and confirm their identity. The users enrich their personal photographs from an abundant treasury of meanings, whereas for the interpreters, these photographs, on their own, represent a more restricted code. Mihailo Vasiljevic’s decision to exhibit the photographs from the series Father Knows Best without any additional explanations that would contextualize them, apart from information such as date and location of shooting, testifies to this assertion. With the selection and repositioning of the photographs from the private history to the public domain, Mihailo Vasiljevic has emphasized the limits of the photographic code, the dependence in reading photographs on the context they belong to, the ambivalence of the position of the observer, as well as the user and the interpreter, and the relation to the material traces of history, regardless of their fragile and ephemeral appearance. However, having in mind the usual redundancy of private photographs, i.e., ‘snapshots’, with their familiar poses, ambiences and framing, and familiar conventions of representation, Mihailo Vasiljevic has recognized something quite the contrary in the photographs of his father: an unconventional approach, interesting situations and extraordinary moments. The recorded moments seem to be coming into view slightly before or after the important images of memory, as if adhering to them and establishing the contextual layers of the personal history, thanks to which the more predictable type of photographs can be read. A feeling of expectation and anticipation infallibly accompanies these almost diary-like records and opens a field of relationship between photography and memory. We could call them documents of the sentimental context within private photography, but they are also a sort of junction where personal and general histories meet and where accidental overlapping occurs, without drama, but rather through subtle echoes and fragments.

In his book Words of Light, Eduardo Cadava states that the fact that memory and thought can be said to belong to the possibility of repetition, reproduction, citation, and inscription determines their relation to photography.[2] Having in mind the way in which memory works, photography establishes itself as a surrogate of memory, because it is often by way of photographs only that we tend to construct memory of certain events. Within the personal framework, the existence of family photographs and our re-looking at them becomes particularly important in the historical circumstances of a society permeated by discontinuities, frequent breakdowns and intentional forgetting. In the most intimate sphere, family photographs represent a hint of knowledge about the closest members of the family when they are away from home, or about their ancestral origins, and therefore about our own origins. On a broader level, this dimension of the exhibited works puts the focus on and awakens the fragmentary nature of each existing archive or photo collection, the whiteness, the problem of artificial memory and of modern forms of archiving that permeate all our relationships with the world.

By selecting and exhibiting photographs from his family collection in the context of the institutional art system, Mihailo Vasiljevic is re-examining the correlation between amateur photography and art photography. Having in mind that his father is a lawyer by profession, who has been continually taking photographs for fifty years, this act of appropriation and exhibition opens the possibility of a far broader analysis of the medium of photography, surpassing the narrowly construed notion of photography as an aesthetic phenomenon reserved for study in strictly artistic terms. Photography is a democratic medium, constituting an unavoidable part of our everyday life. Its democratic nature and multiple roles often remove the boundaries of authorship, especially in the domain of family photography, bringing the relevance of what was recorded to the fore. In this way, by introducing the amateur photographs into the art context, under the name of an author who is not the author of these photographs, another issue is introduced, which is relevant insofar as it embraces many ambiguous aspects of the photographic medium which at first sight appear to be straightforward and obvious. The fact that Mihailo Vasiljevic is a photographer, whose father also has a passion for taking photographs, boosts the dynamics of a possible delineation of the personal and professional history of the artist. The title of the exhibition, Father Knows Best, borrowed from the conservative American radio and TV series from the 1950s, represents Mihailo Vasiljevic’s intimate self-critical attitude in his research and the witty linguistic conceptualization of this artistic enterprise. However, it can also be interpreted as evidence of an ironic attitude towards any authoritarian system, in this case, the art system, which verifies the status of a photographic image as a work of art.

[1] The difference between an interpreter and a user stems from Basil Bernstein’s analysis of elaborated and restricted codes. The restricted code is the one that is interpreted according to the context. However, to an extent, each photograph is marked by its restricted code.

[2] Eduardo Kadava, Reči svetlosti: teze o istoriji fotografije, Beogradski krug, Beograd, 2002, 22.


Maida Gruden, “Otac najbolje zna”, in catalogue for the exhibition “Otac najbolje zna”, Galerija Doma kulture studentski grad, Beograd, 2011; translation: K. Radovic/J. Boulting

Maida Gruden is an art historian and curator at the Studentski grad Cultural Center, Belgrade.

© Maida Gruden


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