• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Interview with Ivan Petrović: Photographer, Archivist and Artist

Interview with Ivan Petrović: Photographer, Archivist and Artist

Interview with Ivan Petrović: Photographer, Archivist and Artist

Interview with Ivan Petrović

The interview was initially published in the Membrana Magazine No. 3 and Revija Fotografija 76/77 [in Slovene language], a thematic issue entitled Cabinet where contributors looked at archives and uses of vernacular photography in the art making.

Ivan Petrović (1973) has been working in the fields of photography and art for twenty years as a researcher, creator and collector. Since 1997, he has been creating and publishing photographic projects that reflect the spirit of space and time in which they are created, while in his works he uses both documentary approaches as well as research principles. In 2011, together with photographer Mihailo Vasiljević, he founded a para-institution, the Centre for Photography (CEF). Despite lacking its own premises, infrastructure or funds for performing its activities, the institution deals with the search, preservation, collection and analysis of local photographic materials from recent history. In the past ten years, Petrović also moved his artistic practice beyond mere artistic expression, since he addresses the phenomena of photography from an analytical-theoretical point of view. His interest lies in the nature of the photographic image and its role in society and historiography. In this spirit, long-term projects such as Documents (1997–2008), Images – The Book of Found Negatives and Slides (2002–), Belgrade Portfolio (2015–) and the latest film production were created. The interview with Ivan Petrović took place on 1 September 2017 in Belgrade. The main themes were the role of photography in the dominant history, the boundary between one’s own practice and archival work, photography as an art and the likes.

Ivan Petrović, Documents, from the Portraits series [Municipal Inspector], 2001

As an artist in the field of visual culture and art, you are used to applying different strategies; you are not only a photographer, but also a collector, archivist and curator. Are the lines separating these fields slowly becoming blurred?

Photography represents a kind of appropriation, as well as viewing and understanding of images. This is what determines their meaning and authorship. The boundary between observing your own photographs and those you collect is exceptionally thin. With this I mean the materials that I use as a source of work at the CEF, as those I collect as part of my artistic practice. Perhaps the key to understanding this complex relationship lies in the fact that I approach my formed and constituted works as an open archive; I can look at my photos as if they are not mine and vice versa. It’s not surprising that the archive has been recognised as an author’s alter ego. Therefore, this line of work is affected inevitable ways – the strategies of my artistic activity influence the approach to work at the CEF, and vice versa, as the experience of working at the CEF is reflected in my artistic practice.

The interest in collecting other photographers’ materials arises from the fact that I am interested in photography as a social phenomenon. This approach largely defines the very functioning of the CEF. On the other hand, it is the central topic that I address in my work, the phenomenon of discontinuity in local cultural, and social and political space. Perhaps it is wrong to label this as a topic, but it is certainly the main source from which I draw inspiration – spiritus movens. But if this discontinuity were subject to a particular topic, it would surely touch upon the questions of succession and history, for example, the personal history of an individual. When I talk about discontinuity as part of my artistic projects as something moving, I’m hinting towards the fact that I use it as a means of exploration. For a long time, for example, I’ve been working on the Pictures project, where I collect the negatives or slides that I stumbled upon on the street. As part of the CEF, I see this same discontinuity as the subject of research. All this is derived from the local characteristics of this area, since discontinuity represents a unique paradigm in the development of the modern Serbian state.

Photostudio Krčmarević, Vrnjačka Banja, Serbia, May 1975 / collection of CEF

How was the Photo Centre (CEF) founded? Were you and your colleague Mihail Vasiljević collecting separate archives, or did you begin by collecting materials intentionally?

CEF was established in 2011, accompanied by a promotion in the Legate of Milica Zorić and Rodoljub Čolaković in Belgrade. The idea of founding the centre was much older and was partly conceived in FotoForum, the cycle of conversations that I led at Studentski grad Cultural Centre (2010–2011). But the initial idea behind it appeared earlier when Mihailo Vasiljević and I were flirting with various possibilities and strategies for improving the situation of photography in Serbia.

CEF should be a platform for the realisation of a new cultural history of photography in Serbia. This primarily includes the collection of material and to protect it from ruin, collection and systematisation, and then evaluating through various discursive activities. When I found works from some of the already closed photo workshops, such as the Studio Revija from Kruševac and the Studio Krčmarević from Vrnjačka Banja, the centre had not yet been founded. On the other hand, Mihailo, for example, already had a number of historical photos that he bought at a flea market in Belgrade. At this point it is important to be aware of the fact that photography was subject to two discoveries in history: one was technical and technological in nature, the other occurred when photography began to be evaluated within broader society. The CEF activity thus includes a great deal of engagement – a new discovery of photography and the establishment of a new cultural history on the territory of Serbia and its wider region.

The CEF is therefore also opening up to the possibility of this apparently neglected and unbridled type of photography. How do you process the collected material? How much time do you need for digitising, scanning, editing and other archival processes?

It’s a very slow process, because only two of us are involved. I believe that more than half of the material is still left unscanned. The primary and most important task is to store the discovered material and to protect it from ruin. The next step is digitisation, followed by the systematisation of data. Systematisation is the most complex of these processes, as it also includes the evaluation method, which determines the importance of the material. In the past, we have prepared a thematic exhibition dedicated to a representative portrait and to include photographs of amateurs, professional photographers and artists. This was a very interesting historical cross-section.

Ivan Petrović, Images – The Book of Found Negatives and Slides (work in progress), 2002-

So what is therefore the interpretation? I imagine that due to the lack of knowledge of the context of most of the collected photographs, it is not possible to create a reliable interpretation?

This is perhaps the most intriguing part of our work and at the same time the most difficult one. There is a huge amount of material in the archive where the names of the authors are not known. You can determine which one is which, depending on the details; an image’s year can also be established. However, the interpretation involves certain research and interests of a wider scope, which requires an almost scientific approach. At this point, allow me to quote David Campany, who says that the meaning of any image is in its destination. And interpretation itself makes understanding possible. At present, there is a lack of such interpretations and systematic structuring of archives in Serbia. This is one of the key problems.

And how do historians view this? Photography raises the issue of particular history, which is often left out of history books. Could it be said that the work of the CEF creates confusion in the profession, as it lists small histories that are far from a complete (and non-existent) meta-history that would include everything?

So far, we haven’t managed to establish contact with the profession, but it’s true that we only tried to do so once when we were recruiting the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade, suggesting possible cooperation (regarding interesting material), but we were left answerless. To be honest, I don’t know which institution could have a sufficient measure of interest in the material that CEF has at its disposal. In any case, there are individuals, art historians, museums employees who have an understanding of such phenomena and from whom we could expect a certain amount of support, at least at some level. However, I think that the current state of affairs is mainly due to the lack of concrete strategies for the evaluation and contextualisation of photographic material. “Historical” and “artistic” photography simply aren’t being exhibited together with the aim to tackle a particular topic. But these very small and distinctive histories are inevitable for creating a continuity that is missing in the history of Serbian photography.

Ivan Petrović, Documents, from the Portraits series, 2005

It is interdisciplinary that is needed in all aspects of the treatment of history.

Photography is a discipline with its own continuity. It is not possible to deal with photography in a serious manner, for example in the context of contemporary art, without knowing its history and ways of development in local circumstances. Photography doesn’t develop through styles. It is perhaps (even too much of) a democratic medium that evolves through genres. At the same time, the ways of dealing with photography talk about how modern a certain society is; this means that a leap into modernity occurs when we are no longer afraid of foreign types of viewing that arise from a perhaps completely alien cultural environment.

Your artistic practice, on the other hand, is an interesting bridge between the CEF, where you collect the archive, and your own work, where you create an archive. A good example of this is the work Documents, where people are always the focal point. How did you design and implement this project?

Documents was published in 2008 and consists of twelve series that originated in the period between 1997 and 2008. It is in some ways a generic work with the features of an auto-curatorial approach and the revaluation of personal archives. Interest in human being has always been dominant in my practice, and it is the correct conclusion that photographs of people are a dominant element in this particular work. However, these are not genre-defined as portrait photography. What I was interested in in the process of photographing people was recording a situation and by no means an analysis of their behaviour. I think this difference is important. What further separates this work from the previous ones is the fact that each of its gallery layouts is created as an entirely new work. Therefore, the exhibition is becoming a medium and thus also a work of art in itself. This is perhaps the most important feature of this ongoing project.

And yet visual culture is always such that the image cannot accurately and unambiguously represent things, while its context can change from decade to decade.

In the case of photography, this fact is emphasised in particular. Since I’m mainly interested in documentary photography, this complicates the whole approach and its relating issues. However, my documentarism is not a photojournalistic – I don’t create images of events, but some type of staging. The ambivalent value of photography as a document was always a kind of postulate in the contemplations regarding my own work. In trying to understand this project, artist Zoran Popović once asked me: “What kind of photos are these? They look like some kind of documents.” And I replied, “Yes, it’s true, these are in fact documents!” That is how the title of this work came about.

Ivan Petrović, Documents, from the Vitak series, 1999

Interestingly, there are no rules in Documents; for example, the Vitak series is an intimate story about your (involuntary) stay in Kosovo during the war, and on the other hand, the series Students is reminiscent of photojournalism, in which you get closer to, live together with and document a group of people.

One of the visitors of the premiere presentation of Documents in the MSU Salon in Belgrade (The Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade) in 2009 asked me if all the photos are mine. This seemed to me an extremely interesting observation and, at the same time, a compliment. In all twelve series, the same strategy is present, but due to the different circumstances and the time differences of creation of photographs, there are obvious differences. It’s something completely natural. Portraits of my colleagues in Kosovo were created in response to the state of uncertainty and disagreement with the situation in which we found ourselves. Therefore, I wanted to record them as civilians and not as soldiers. I only perceived wearing uniforms as an incidental situation.

On the other hand, the Students series was created during my search for a flat in Belgrade in 2005. For a short period of time I lived with my friend and documented the way of life of this residential commune, which in many respects was different from the one I experienced during my studies. That’s what led me to start the series. In Documents, however, there are often series on which dwelled for a very short time; the result was only a few selected photos; sometimes two were enough to finish the series.

Ivan Petrović, Documents, from the Students series, 2006

In the Belgrade Portfolio project, you do not photograph people, but things that people have created.

In these photographs, the presence of people appears in some other form. These are the consequent states of certain processes and changes. I have already mentioned my interest in the phenomenon of discontinuity and the ways in which I introduce it into my work. We like to say that Belgrade is a paradigm of Serbian modernity; that it’s like a Dadaist film; that it’s a toy factory on which a bomb had been dropped; that it’s the ugliest city on the most beautiful location; that it’s an unphotogenic, black city. The consequences of the changes in Belgrade and Serbia are not only the image of local chaos. All of this is inevitably the consequences of global change. In my work, I am primarily interested in the phenomenon of being. In Belgrade, public physical space is often regarded as a mental space of privacy, so many cities perceive it as (their own private) territory. But in spite of its great chaos, Belgrade has kept its life impulse, which does not fade.

Ivan Petrović, Belgrade Portfolio, 2015

It seems that Belgrade has created part of this chaos in every period of its existence.

That’s right. In one of his stories from the 1930s, Ivo Andrić mentions illogicality in certain architectural solutions and general urban chaos. In her book Kaldrma and Asphalt (Kaldrma i asfalt), Dubravka Stojanović also explored the problems of the modernisation of Belgrade. At the beginning of my work on this series, I was thinking a lot about all of this. Nevertheless, a completely different interest won me over.

Recently, the exhibition Everything is Good took place, where the exhibition was used as a medium of expression; as if it is no longer important for you to create a new work and disassemble it, but rather combine different materials in an exhibition that is never the same. What is this exhibition based on?

The Everything is Good exhibition is comprised of the Nighttime Promenading and Documents series. These two parts were already exhibited in Photon in Ljubljana in 2015. What actually encourages this approach? Probably that – as mentioned – I perceive my works as an open archive. I’m interested in the unstable field of the importance of photography as a medium and the unstable place that photography occupies as data in the local environment. These two circumstances are important for understanding my strategy. The exhibition thus unites one completed project and one emerging cycle. Therefore, it does not represent an individual project or a series of photographs, which in the classical sense carries the characteristics of the completed whole in itself, but through the auto-curatorial process of revalorising the existing work brings a completely new formulation of a topic. Yet the exhibition Everything is Good does not represent the end of a certain period of operation, but if anything a look into the past. At the same time, it clearly indicates new interests and milestones, especially in the direction of increasing engagement in the medium of film.

Ivan Petrović, Nighttime Promenading, 2012

When mentioning an open archive, you already mentioned a long time ago that you are working on a new long-term project, where you record things you encounter on an almost daily basis. This video archive is obviously still growing, I suppose?

These are some kind of veristic video fragments about my everyday life, something that I could label as video diaries. This material is produced on an almost amateur level, stripped of any obligations, something I very much appreciate. Working in a way that I am completely free of rules that often pressure me when I work on photographic projects; it’s completely new and liberating feeling. I use a portable digital pocket camera with low video resolution for shooting. This process has been going on for a long time, since 2011. Among the recordings are numerous statements by artists and protagonists of the scene, certain spontaneous talks or lectures. Unfortunately, I still haven’t been able to view the vast majority of recorded material. In addition, I also have material for three documentary films I’ve been working on for some time, but still haven’t been able to finish.

So, the film is definitely the medium you are currently turning to?

We’ll see, but I think I’m leaning towards documentary film. I see this as a great challenge and an unknown field that I want to explore and express my art through it. There are many reasons why I want to get into shooting films. One of the central ones is the question of time which I’m interested in within the context of art. It seems to me that my attitude to time, which was usually subordinate to photography, has largely changed; I think that the temporality of photography does not possess integrity. This is time other than personal time, as it is too fragmented and decaying; the time to which the viewer enters comfortably becomes his time. It’s hard to explain this. In fact, I perceived all my photographic works as some kind of cracked films. And yes, Cracked Films may not be a bad title for any of my upcoming films.

Ivan Petrović, 1 On 1, film stills, B/W, sound, 09:45, 2016



Miha Colner, September 2017; translated by Tom Smith