The Sensation and Experience of Looking at the Known Photographs
By Ivan Manojlovic


Photography – like no other human discovery – has been giving us some of the greatest pleasures: the ability to travel through time and space, to peek into geographically distant worlds, and to look at people who are no longer alive. Photography transports us there – in fact, it locates us there. With its power to compress real space and time, each photograph constructs its own photographic time – a time interval that lasts as long as we look at the photograph, the duration of which depends exclusively on the viewer and has no relation to the real moment at which the photograph was made.

Looking at photographs, I often remember the film trilogy Back to the Future, where, in accordance with the plot, it was in the photographs that the altered events from the past were first reflected. The photograph is the key element in the film, the most reliable record of the past, the proof that events from the past really happened (or, in the case of this film, were altered). Dreaming about the possibility of one day traveling through time, I’ve always wondered whether the scenario of the film could really happen, and whether the change of events could lead to the change in the content of the photographs. Would these changes affect our experience of looking at, for instance, our own family photographs? In his book The Pleasures of Good Photographs, Garry Badger writes about how his own face in photographs from the past seems to him like that of an entirely unknown person, of some foreigner, because it is only thanks to our memory of some past events that we become emotionally attached to such photographs.

Looking at Mihailo Vasiljevic’s photographs, I am thinking of that other power of photography – the transposition in space, in this case, into a specific landscape. By this I refer to a specific genre of landscape photography, to which Vasiljevic’s photographs belong, and which record known images from nature. These scenes seem familiar to us, because they are already in our personal or collective memory, and as such they allow for an uninterrupted and almost physical experience of the photographic space. These landscapes do not appear as remote places, unknown locations that the photographer discovers for the first time; they are places that can be found anywhere, on the outskirts of the city we live in, or the parks we visit or along the busy highways. As a further classification, I would define this particular photographic category as a method the artist uses when approaching the subjects of his photographs. The characteristic of this manner of landscape photography is of a certain emotional detachment in composition. The author adjusts the camera level to his eye level, assuming on the perspective that could be the perspective of anyone present on the spot. The photographed image is mostly in focus and with no additional motifs that could distract the viewer from looking at the main subject. As such, this sort of landscape photography is deprived of any interpretation on the part of its author. It is presented to the viewer as a system open for consumption, which allows different interpretations depending on personal worldviews.

The photographing of the landscape has its roots in the origin of photography and is an integral part of the history of this medium. However, the first thing I have in mind when I think about the landscape is the great emancipation of painting that occurred at the beginning of the 19th century in the works of artists, among whom a special place is occupied by Camille Corot. According to Corot, the main impulse for art is the communication and unification of spiritual (inner) reality and external reality. Nature, as Corot said, is a motif, or rather a quest, in which case, Nature is not as important as is the feeling of Nature. The painters of the Barbizon School, among whom Theodore Rousseau above all, dedicated their entire art to the (psychological) study of the landscape. The fact that a branch or a whole tree in a painting can be replaced by a blot, the Barbizonians explained by saying that the blot creates meaning through our experience – that is, through our memory. The Impressionists – the artists who followed the birth of modern man – elevated the genre of landscape to the next artistic level, by proclaiming the painting of Nature in Nature – the so-called en plein air painting. Art, they claimed, and especially the art of painting, is similar to engineering in its structural explorations and in the direct connections between space and the way space is built in the image.

It could be said that Eugene Atget was one of the photographers loyal to the idea of plein air painting. Apart from faithfully recording the streets of Paris with all their details, he also often chose as his subjects the semi-rural Parisian outskirts. In those semi-rural landscapes of Eugene Atget, created between 1890 and 1927, I can see what the contemporary photography theorist Jörg Colberg called the wait a minute effect. This rather simple description can be identified with the experience of looking at photographs that seem familiar to us. As we stop looking at them, something in those photographs suddenly catches our attention, something that we missed seeing at first glance. For Colberg, these photographs possess a subversive depth, i.e. a kind of discomfort that is not noticeable on the surface.[1]

The known photographs of Mihailo Vasiljevic do not depict only the familiar landscapes; they are also documents of certain human activities and their traces. The details are apparently easy to interpret, but soon enough they become the main reason for a re-look, becoming, in effect, metatraces. It is hard to decipher the purpose of these creations and the reason for their being created. When I first saw Vasiljevic’s photographs, I thought that the author was documenting the locations of some strange rituals. Thinking further in that direction, I could only deduce that the Known series is a photographic archive that chronicles and preserves from oblivion the unusual, the enigmatic and even the bizarre results of human activities in the natural environment. Within Vasiljevic’s rich artistic opus, three of his photographic series refer to the problems of the reading of the photographic archive, using it as a medium for his own artistic expression. By using the photo-archive of amateur, documentary and ‘snapshot’ photographs of his father and great uncle, Vasiljevic put himself in the dual position of author and curator, the interests of both of whom explore the boundaries of the public and private spheres, i.e. the personal and the collective. “The appropriation, repetition and presentation of photographs in a new context become a conceptual means that Mihailo Vasiljevic recognizes at many levels as adequate and productive in the process of taking into consideration a number of questions, such as: the analysis of the photographic medium and its archive potential, the role in the formation of memory, the relationship between the private and public domain and between the personal and collective history, the structure of identity, and the functioning of the art system; and also the indicating of a new space for possible discoveries in the study of the history of Serbian photography.”[2]

In an attempt to categorize Vasiljevic’s photography within the wider coordinate system of art, I come across a similarity with what the art historian Jesa Denegri formulated as photo-art. Describing this art as the technical production of images, Denegri defined photo-art as a genre that interests artists more than photographers.

By using the properties of the photographic medium, these artists, among whom are be included Sigmar Polke and Klaus Rinke, recorded their thoughts and behaviour, creating images that speak more about the artist’s mental processes than about the mere physical aspect of things and appearances.[3] It is here that I find another possible reading of Mihailo Vasiljevic’s photographs – as a specific photo-archive, in which we encounter elements, or rather remnants of particular art interventions, actions and thoughts, to which Vasiljevic unconsciously refers. Taking the role of a postmodern archeologist, Vasiljevic creates a virtual map of an alternative art practice.

I have been able to eventually conclude that the known photographs of Mihailo Vasiljevic are mostly about their creator. We have a chance to meet a new type of artist-researcher, whose rational and clear-headed approach to his subject in Nature, or to the point of reference in the entire art corpus, nevertheless, reveal a certain dosage of play and mysticism. Vasiljevic is playing with our perception of the world, in the same way that his series of appropriated photographs disrupt our need for a classification system of the world and its order. One should not trust Vasiljevic’s photographs at first glance; one should look at them again and again.

[1] Jörg M. Colberg, Petros Koublis’ Minor Landscapes,, acc. 17.06.2013.

[2] Maida Gruden, R. V. Knows Best, from the exhibition catalogue for Mihailo Vasiljević R. V. Knows Best, Gallery of the Cultural Centre Studentski Grad, Belgrade, 2011.

[3] Jerko Denegri, Jedna moguća istorija moderne umetnosti: Beograd kao internacionalna umetnička scena 1965-2006, BIGZ, Muzej savremene umetnosti, Beograd, 2009.


Ivan Manojlovic is an art historian and curator at The Museum of Yugoslav History, Belgrade.

© Ivan Manojlovic


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