• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

A Woman with a Photo Camera [Breda Beban]

A Woman with a Photo Camera [Breda Beban]

A Woman with a Photo Camera [Breda Beban]

Transcript of the lecture given by Miha Colner at Studio Tommaseo / Trieste Contemporanea, in Trieste, on 21 April 2017 / originally published in a publication Breda’s Lesson.

In the following talk I will present and analyse some of the most distinctive and significant photographic works of Breda Beban. Her photographs may not be as widely known and acclaimed as her other works because the public knows her, primarily, as a filmmaker who created and/or produced a number of films and videos. Some of them became, undoubtedly, iconic. However, Beban was actually an extremely versatile artist who worked across different visual media and genres. Trained as a painter at Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb she quit her painterly practice in the mid 1980s when she met her partner, Hrvoje Horvatić, and decided to shift her artistic career in order to try something completely new. Together they became one of the most prominent and active video artists of their time, first in Yugoslavia (1986-1991) and later in the wider international context (1991-1997). After Horvatić’s tragic and unexpected death in 1997 Beban gradually continued her artistic career, on her own, and at that point she also started using photography extensively.

Breda Beban & Hrvoje Horvatić, Jason’s Dream, 1997-1998 (film still)

Beban was not, however, a typical photographer. She did not own professional equipment or large format cameras. Instead, she always carried a small portable digital camera to capture situations that she found appealing and interesting. She once told me that she had been taking photographs for a while but hadn’t considered them as elements of her/their artistic practice, simply because that was not something what was expected from her/them. However, following Horvatić’s death, she was suddenly liberated from all expectations of the art world and the public, which had perceived her as a filmmaker, and hence she purposely started building a body of work based on photography.

Breda Beban, The Miracle of Death, 2000

The first series of photographs that she published and showcased was closely related to her personal tragedy. These photographs appeared almost as a form of therapy–painfully straightforward and exceptionally intimate. The Miracle of Death (2000) series is the direct manifestation of her grief; a glimpse of the time when she tried to put her life back together after the loss and shock. Moreover, it was her observation on life and death. The work was an instant success and soon afterwards it was also included in an influential book about the new photography, Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton, side by side with some of the most acclaimed contemporary photographers. Cotton wrote:

“The photographer’s emotional state is touchingly conveyed in the Breda Beban’s series The Miracle of Death. These images capture the profound sense of the loss that Beban experienced after the death of her partner and artistic collaborator. The box containing the ashes is photographed in their home, in a room still containing his personal belongings and signs of their cohabitation. The series documents Beban moving the box, unable to give it a fixed place.”

Breda Beban, I Lay on the Bed Waiting for his Heart to Stop Beating, 2000

Another very intimate piece, created around the same time and with similar intentions, is I Lay on the Bed Waiting for His Heart to Stop Beating (2000), a series of four-part composite photographs where she focused on the places where she and her partner lived or stayed together after they took refuge from war-torn Yugoslavia (more specifically, they fled widespread and dangerous nationalism in Croatia, which had just declared its independence in 1991). These pictures, especially, are very important examples of her practice as they clearly show that the pictures were conceived long before they were arranged into an artwork and displayed publicly. The series has a central piece from which it got the title–the picture taken at Homerton University Hospital in London, where Horvatić died. The composed photographs follow a certain protocol: first there is an image of a bed in an interior; then there is an image as from a gaze out of the window; and finally there are two close-ups of the outside world. In a way, the work shows the outside world where life goes on undisturbed and uninterrupted despite her personal drama.

The principle of an inside-out perception of society or of the individual is actually very common in her work. Beban often combined intimate and socio-political issues in the same work, pointing out the relatedness of personal and collective aspects of life. Furthermore, the series clearly shows the flow of her work as she carefully archived materials in order to (re)use them later, when the time and the context were appropriate. Besides these completed and presentable works she often took simple snapshots that sometimes served as sketches and outlines for further development. However, many of these pictures were never upgraded to the status of artworks and therefore it is impossible to predict what would have become of them had she managed to process them. Like many artists, Beban’s working process was very unpredictable and often reversible because she would most often use material which had been stored for years.

Breda Beban, Airport Chappels, 2003

But there were also several smaller, ongoing projects that never received proper exposure. For instance, there is a series of photographs entitled An Exile Encounters Baby Jesus (1991-2003) where she documented her traumatic experience of becoming a refugee stationed in the countryside of Tuscany, in Italy. There is also an untitled series in which she continuously documented little paths people make in urban environments in order to create shortcuts. There is the work entitled Airport Chapels (2003) where she depicted the absurdity and banality of the representation of religion within the generic architecture of airports, which are the ultimate visual manifestations of globalisation. In a similar way Beban planned but never managed to create a series of imprints / photographs of drain covers found in the streets of cities she visited, showing the visual and historical characteristics of particular places and, at the same time, the universality of their appearance. She believed that the cultural milieu of every single place on the planet is somewhat reflected in the visual appearance and design of its cultural landscape.

Breda Beban, Arte Vivo, 2008-2011

And of course, there is one of the most acclaimed among her series of photographs entitled Arte Vivo (2008-2011) that was still in the process of creation up until her death. In it, she referred to Argentinian conceptual artist Alberto Greco who, back in the 1960s, installed a man in the middle of a circle and through that gesture declared him/her a piece of art. She was more specific in her approach, only photographing couples kissing in a circle, which was drawn by her with a piece of white chalk in order to celebrate moments of tenderness and love in the very places that were chosen by the protagonists in the pictures.

Breda Beban, The Most Beautiful Woman in Gucha, 2006 (film still)

All these works that I have here described reflect the very same issues Beban was addressing throughout her career. She was always concerned about and sensitive to topical socio-political circumstances such as migration, economic injustice and war in the world, but, always from the perspective of an individual, an ordinary human being like herself. At the same time, she closely observed and visualised manifestations of interpersonal relationships and love, issues that sometimes cannot be separated from political reality. The war in Yugoslavia, which broke apart many relationships and families based upon differences in nationality and religion, is a perfect example of that.

But I will now conclude in a more cohesive way. Even though I was talking about Beban’s photography, these works cannot be separated from her other practices such as film, text or installation. Like so many great artists she would only use the medium that was most appropriate for a particular piece of work.

© Miha Colner, April 2017 / proof reading: Ana Cavic