R. V. Knows Best
By Maida Gruden


The exhibition R. V. Knows Best by Mihailo Vasiljevic is composed of two, previously separate exhibition projects: R Photographs (2005) and Father Knows Best (2010). The acts of repetition and repeated representation are some of the strategies inherent in the art of appropriation, which Mihailo Vasiljevic applied in his initial projects, with a mind to further examining and developing them with his exhibition R. V. Knows Best. Namely, the R Photographs were enlarged and printed from negatives dating to the period between 1937 and 1944, and belonging to Mihailo’s father’s uncle, Radomir Vasiljevic, who took those photographs; whereas the photographs within the concept Father Knows Best were enlarged and printed from negatives created in the period from the late 1950s until now, and in this case the photographs were taken by Mihailo’s father, whose name is also Radomir Vasiljevic. The appropriation, repetition and presentation of photographs in the new context become a conceptual means that Mihailo Vasiljevic recognizes at many levels as suitable and productive in the process of taking into consideration a number of issues, such as: the analysis of the photographic medium and its archive potential, its role in the formation of memory, the relationship between the private and public domain and between the personal and collective histories, the structure of identity, and the functioning of the art system, and also the indication of a new space for possible discoveries in the study of the history of Serbian photography.

The project R. V. Knows Best by Mihailo Vasiljevic comprises photographs by the two authors who bear the same name, Radomir Vasiljevic. The fact that there is a family connection between these two persons brings in additional tension and throws light on the practice of naming as a fundamental aspect of the social process, thanks to which the specific circumstances of the moment a certain individual came into the world are revealed. The younger Radomir Vasiljevic became so to speak the heir of his tragically and prematurely deceased forebear, and their lives, in some aspects, show surprising similarities – they were both lawyers by profession and both passionate lovers of photography. In the case of the two Radomir Vasiljevices, their life stories are interwoven, while their names become the means for crossing the borders between life and death, and between past and future. According to some anthropological research, names can fix identities, but it is contrary to their potential to be distanced from those identities and, as such, become independent. “Names seem ubiquitous and infinitely changeable in their meaning.”[1] The same can be asserted of the photographic medium, which has the potential to fix a phenomenon or an identity, but also to acquire various meanings in relation to the context and to the discursive processes that generate it.

We are witnessing the collapse of the barrier between amateur and professional photographic production, simultaneously with that of the division between private and public photographic discourse. Photography has become an autonomous reality analogous to identity, memory and history; as a direct reference, it can literally be called both a machine for archiving and the a priori archive object itself.[2] Having in mind the way in which memory works, photography can be seen to have established 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 a personal framework, the existence of family photographs and our constant reinspection of them becomes particularly important in the historical circumstances of a society permeated by discontinuities, frequent breakdowns and intentional forgetting.[3]

Mihailo Vasiljevic acquired the photographic heritage of his great uncle Radomir Vasiljevic, along with other objects he inherited from his closest family. Acting as a researcher, well acquainted with the history of the photographic medium, Vasiljevic reveals to us the photographs from that period. We have had very little information as regards the production and reception of photography in Serbia at the time, regardless of whether they were taken by professional or amateur photographers, between whom there used to be a huge distinction. By examining the discovered photographic archive in the context of its creator, a highly educated intellectual and left-wing activist, Mihailo Vasiljevic recognizes an approach to the photographic medium that singles out this batch of photographs from the usual category of family photography. He elaborated on this subject in his graduation thesis, noting that to Radomir Vasiljevic, “a young communist and critically inclined man, the idea of picturesque photography was in all probability unacceptable” and that such a kind of “photographic decadence represented the antithesis of the ideal of the new communist society” for which he advocated. Generally speaking, and in keeping with the spirit of the times, that new ideal assumed a different perspective from one burdened with tradition, and a search for new solutions and viewpoints. This is exactly what characterizes the selected photographs: from the fresh, unpretentious simplicity, and the almost conceptual framing and composition of certain subjects, to the fictionalization and staging of the photographed scenes, but unlike the avant-garde photographic experiments of Serbian surrealists of the time. The appropriation and exhibition of this material in the art context points to the new potential of family photography archives and a new understanding of the artistic heritage in the attempt to disclose important information that would complement the research on the history of Serbian photography.

With the exhibition R. V. Knows Best, Mihailo Vasiljevic delineates his preoccupation and professional attention to photography with additional research on the passionate photographic activity of his father, which stretches from the 1950s to the present day. During the modernization of Western culture, personal and family photography developed as a medium through which individuals confirm and explore their identity. The body of work from the project Father Knows Best, focuses on the one hand on the practice of family photography as a means of continual construction of memory, but on the other points in this selection by Mihailo Vasiljevic’s to a noticeable departure form the usual redundancy of private snapshots. They also represent glimpses of information about the closest members of the family when they are away from home, or about their ancestral origins, and hence about our own origins. “These photographic images seem to be coming into view slightly before or after the important images of memory, as if connecting with them and establishing the contextual layers of the personal history, thanks to which the more predictable photographs can be read. 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.[4] We are again faced with the importance of exploring family photographic archives and become aware of a possible different understanding of amateur photography, because in the case of the photographic activities of both Radomir Vasiljevices, the initial issues of family amateurism were resolved in a similar way.

By appropriating, selecting, and exhibiting photographs from his family collection in the context of the institutional art system, Mihailo Vasiljevic is opening up the possibility of a far broader analysis of the medium of photography, which surpasses the narrowly construed notion of photography as an aesthetic phenomenon intended for study in strictly artistic terms. Beyond the total identification of private and personal photography with family photography, the possibility opens of unravelling the narrative, i.e. the crystallization of the two life stories that could not be told by means of regular family photography. First and foremost, the mere act of specific curatorial choice conducted by Mihailo Vasiljevic is essential in this endeavor and it corresponds to the characteristics of the process of making each photograph. It is the choice the photographer makes looking at the world around him and into the horizon of ideas while taking a picture. The specific constellation of photography generates a powerful field of shifting vision, which is beyond the exclusively factual, and which, on the one hand, enables the reflection on historical and social experience, and on the other hand, offers a means of psychological introspection and the establishment of secret liaisons, which is the fundamental capacity of any family photographic heritage. The practice of appropriation that Mihailo Vasiljevic has applied in his exhibition R. V. Knows Best can be traced way back in history, although in the domain of the art photography practice, it started becoming influential in the 1980s. By questioning the concepts of authorship, the functioning of the art system, and the ambiguity of the photographic medium, the act of appropriation has enabled the artists to comment and reflect upon different aspects of culture and society through an understanding of the photographic artwork and its numerous repetitions and representations not as a final phenomenon, but as a vital progressive force. Such vitality is also reflected in Mihailo Vasiljevic’s enterprise, which is carried out as what at first glance appears to be a simple, reproductive and accurate procedure, similar to the photographic medium itself that the author uses in his work; but which is also imbued with valuable insights and questions that branch out and are greatly to be valued in the present circumstances.


[1] Gabriele vom Bruck and Barbara Bodenhorn, “Entangled in Histories: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Names and Naming”, in The Anthropology of Name and Naming, Gabriele vom Bruck, Barbara Bodenhorn (eds.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, 1.

[2] Okwui Enwezor, “Archive Fever, Photography between History and Monument”, in Enwezor, Archive Fever – Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art, Steidl, International Center of Photography, Gottingen, New York, 2008, 12.

[3] Maida Gruden, “Otac najbolje zna”, exhibition catalogue, Galerija Doma kulture Studentski grad, Beograd, 2011, 3.

[4] Ibid., 3.


Maida Gruden, “R. V. najbolje zna”, in catalogue for the exhibition “R. V. najbolje zna”, Galerija Doma omladine, Beograd, 2012; 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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