• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Photo-publishing in Slovenia

Photo-publishing in Slovenia

Photo-publishing in Slovenia

The article was originally published in the publication Collective Practices and Photography by Fotodokumenti (Belgrade, 2018); Editors: Sladjana Petrovic Varagic, Miroslav Karić / Authors: Iva Prosoli, Miha Colner, Dejan Sretenović, Andrea Palašti, Milica Lapčević.

In the past couple of years there has been a surge of interest in photobooks in Slovenia; writing about this art form, however, is a difficult and uncertain venture. One reason for this is that it can only be based on empirical knowledge, as there are few reference materials available. Another is that this venture, the attempt of systematising the phenomenon of photobooks, photozines and other forms of photo-publishing, is inevitably doomed to simplifications. Photo-publishing, it shall be pointed out, is closely related to the wider artists’ books scene in which boundaries between different visual media are less relevant than in other art forms. This presents difficulties for the writer attempting to categorise the variety of photo-publishing activity, a task that is compounded further by the fact that all the aforementioned forms of publishing-as-art often coexist within the same conditions of production and theoretical frameworks.

Collective Practices and Photography, publication (Fotodokumenti, 2018)

Nowadays the artist book, zine, photobook or any form of publishing-as-art is a more or less institutionalised discipline within the world of contemporary art, complete with its own theoretical apparatus, historiography as well as an infrastructure for production and presentation. This increasingly popular phenomenon among artists and photographers can be understood in the context of the constant quest for affordable forms of art and in the context of the recurrence to materiality at a time when digital media prevails in mainstream culture. There is an enormous diversity of artworks that could be defined as books. Therefore, definitions and classifications of artists’ books, including photobooks, are mostly inaccurate, tendentious and even absurd at times.

The intentions of the creators and producers of artists’ books are likewise diverse, the most divergent being at the opposite ends of the spectrum of production: on one side, there is the desire for the widest possible accessibility, which was made possible by advanced technology of print and book binding, and on the other side, there is the idea of exclusivity, which is reflected in unique or limited-edition products.

Photography managed to successfully exploit the features and possibilities offered by the book format, as an autonomous medium, almost as soon as it was invented. Early in photography’s development, the book had already become a common and widely used carrier for presentation and distribution of the photographic image, which has been steadily assuming primacy within visual culture– on account of its unlimited reproduction and wide reach – ever since. But, photography followed a long and complex path towards establishing a creative environment and adequate conditions that enabled the rise of production and consumption of photobooks.
A book is above all a medium which is portable and intimate, and therefore images, released in a book, could trigger different reactions and experiences than the ones that are installed in a space (in a gallery or on a street). Moreover, books are predominantly created for linear reading (of images or words) and so their authors are able to predictably guide a spectator or a reader through the content. The context of an image published in a book can be substantially changed if an artist manages to utilise (at least some of) the creative possibilities of book format.

Probably the most groundbreaking period for production of photobooks was the beginning of the 20th century when new possibilities of visual communications had been applied, with the occurrence of avant-garde movements and development of popular culture. Nowadays photo-publishing is getting ever more popular and institutionalised as spaces, festivals, institutions, producers, theory and market that support the practice are emerging and developing around the globe. However, on the margins of artistic and economic power the situation is often left to inconsistent theoretical discourses and self-initiative of artists, publishers and other enthusiasts.

Bojan Radovič, Bitterns Boom, 1982

The history of photobooks in Slovenia is thus largely disproportional in relation to global tendencies and discourses. In the early periods, especially, production of photobooks was practically non-existent. The first photography books appeared in the early part of the 20th century but they applied photography variously to illustrate topics of local studies, to promote tourism or political activities, to document exhibitions or publish manuals and monographs. Furthermore, the intention and context of those books was far from the idea of the book as autonomous work of art.

Photobooks in Slovenia, as well as in the broader region, developed relatively late in a more consistent way, maybe a decade ago, when a small and boutique scene that successfully functions locally and internationally had been created. Photobooks are intended for distribution among a wider interested public and, what is not unimportant, for sale; the latter is an attempt to establish a micro-market for affordable artworks. The photobook – similar to artists’ book or artists’ multiple – is a work of art, usually appearing in small print run which is – because of its low production costs – accessible to wider circles of potential users. In some cases it even becomes a sought after collector’s item. At the same time, because of their accessibility, there has been an increase in self-published books which, however, often exist outside conventional channels of production and distribution.

The first photobooks that hint at the idea of an independent presentation of a completed photographic work started appearing throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 1982, photographer Bojan Radovič released the book/zine Bitterns Boom with the intention of presenting a completed series of photographs. In a similar fashion Antonio Živkovič self-published the book Black Valley in 1999. Both works were also showcased as gallery exhibits, however, these books were not mere exhibition catalogues but rather independent publications where the artists had a crucial role in their creation.

DK, The War (from the book Passages to Modern Concerns, StripCore, 2008)

After 2000, several photography books were published in Slovenia, among them was Tomaž Gregorič’s Peripheries (2003), Branko Cvetkovič’s En Fas (2006), and DK’s Passages to Modern Concerns (2008); however, these are not photobooks in a sense as we define them now but rather quality photo monographs. More innovative approaches of producing photo-based artists’ books started appearing in the 2000s, but they were often limited to small print runs, and were closer to exhibition artefacts than serious book editions. Nevertheless, a few among these releases managed to break through the barrier of locality and anonymity to find a place in relevant international circles.

Tanja Lažetić, Whore (MGLC – International Centre of Graphic Arts, 2010)

In the late 2000s things changed. One of the first photobooks in Slovenia to find its way into the global history of photography was the zine-like publication Whore (MGLC, 2010) by Tanja Lažetić. The book that was included in the third part of influential trilogy Photobook: A History I-III (by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr) is a straight appropriation of Sanja Iveković’s piece Tragedy of a Venus (1975) where images of Marilyn Monroe are confronted by the artist’s self-portraits in order to question the influence of Hollywood stars on the lives of ordinary people. Beside the prolific artist’s book production of Lažetić there are a number of artists and photographers who self-published their books. A substantial part of photobook production, however, relates to handful of small publishers: The Angry Bat, Rostfrei Publishing and ArtZine Editions. They all publish artists’ books and photobooks exclusively and, for the most part, their process of conceiving, editing and printing develops in close collaboration between publishers and artists (sometimes they are one and the same person). They all have pretty effective local and international distribution. However, none of them is professional in the sense of generating revenues big enough to sustain the production costs and staff while they rarely resort to raising public funds. In this respect, they undoubtedly established alternative models of production.

Goran Bertok, Requiem (The Angry Bat, 2014)

The Angry Bat from Maribor is the project of enthusiast, photographer and publisher Matej Sitar who is, with great self-initiative and for several years already, overcoming boundaries of the local scene. The releases of The Angry Bat strike a balance between the international scene (Karolina Paatos) and the locally based artists (Matej Sitar, Goran Bertok, Andrej Lamut). Beside publishing books, the publisher also contributed to the popularity of photobooks in Slovenia by founding the international Maribor Photobook Award where local production is brought face to face with the international photo-publishing scene.

Ljubljana-based Rostfrei Publishing, on the other hand, is based on mainly collective principles. Its founders, Jaka Babnik and Boštjan Pavletič, are exploring the functions of photobooks and artists’ books, which they see as a completely autonomous and independent artistic form with its own characteristics and legitimacies and, therefore, when it comes to the production of books, they focus mainly on the dialogue between form and content. Their interest lies in unconventional and underground practices within photography and the visual arts, be it street art, alternative topography or anthropological research. Beside working with local artists from Ljubljana and Slovenia (Jaka Babnik, Emina Djukić, Neja Tomšič, Tadej Vaukman), Rostfrei Publishing concentrates on the territory of the so called Western Balkans (Belgrade Raw, Emir Šehanović Esh).

Tadej Vaukman, Dick Skinners (Rostfrei Publishing, 2015)

The ArtZine Editions publishing house, on the other hand, has a much more limited scope. It is actually a DIY initiative of photographer Bojan Radovič who has published number of his own photobooks under the canopy of this platform as well as the books of artists and photographers such as Jane Štravs and Phillipe Bordas.

All these para-institutional initiatives have one thing in common: the idea that books and printing are still a relevant and very special form of art. Some of their releases, therefore, are daring experiments with the printed medium. The Morning Sun (The Angry Bat, 2015) photobook of Matej Sitar, a lyrical reflection of the intimate fragments of the artist’s every day life, places the very form and opulent visual equipment at the forefront. The photobook Dick Skinners (Rostfrei Publishing, 2015) of Tadej Vaukman showcases the artist’s explicit and obsessive documenting of his own immediate surroundings, including friends and colleagues who excessively distance themselves from the conventions of society; the book thus appropriates rough, zine-like printed aesthetics. With the Yu & Me (ArtZine Editions, 2014) photobook Bojan Radovič conducted a revision of his long-term project (1986-1990) where he aimed to build an intimate topography of Yugoslavia just before its violent break-up. Despite the relevance of the topic, only 30 books were ever printed on the subject. In a similar retrospective spirit Jože Suhadolnik published the book Balkan Punk (Akina Books, 2013) that contains an overview of his iconic as well as lesser known photographs from the early period of the Yugoslav punk scene. In both cases, the book format enabled a completely fresh reading of the photographs inevitably changing their contexts and meanings in a different space and time.

Peter Rauch, More Objects (City Art Gallery of Nova Gorica, 2014)

As already mentioned, the largest part of the Slovenian photo-publishing scene is left to self-published books in small editions. Among the most influential from the past few years are Peter Rauch‘s More Objects (2014), a conceptual exploration of casual man-made objects; an acclaimed book The Most Beautiful City (2015) by Matjaž Rušt and Robert Marin who, with a great sense of humour, address the urban pulse of city of Ljubljana; and the overall book and zine production of prolific tandem LeaLudvik. There are, however, many – especially young – artists who frequently use this medium.

LeaLudvik, Four Eyed Monster I (selfpublished, 2017)

The interesting and unlikely seeming fact of the current increased interest in photobooks is that this phenomenon began its massive manifestation in the period of digitalisation and dematerialisation of photography; it, therefore, appears to be some kind of antipode to the rapid and instant publishing and spreading of images through internet channels. The photobook may be said to be positioned in between the elitism of unique or limited-edition artworks with huge symbolic value and lucrative market potential, and the ungrudging massiveness and saturation of free visual materials in the virtual space of the internet as well as in physical public space. Photobook makers believe in print, materiality and physicality; however, because of favourable and financially non-demanding production their photobooks are accessible to the wider public. In this way almost everybody (in the privileged parts of the world) can own it. Undoubtedly photo-publishing became a scene within a scene (of artists’ books), which constantly questions its reason of existence and its mission, and in doing so it also seeks out and builds theoretical apparatus and participates in the process of history writing.

© Miha Colner, October 2018 / proof reading Ana Cavic

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