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Project RastkoHistory of Serb culture
TIA Janus

Zoran Glusevic

A century and a half of photography in Serbia

Chapter from the book
"The history of Serbian Culture"
The history of Serbian culture  


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The invention of photography (1839) came upon Serbian society when the middle class was just beginning to develop. After the Second Uprising against the Turks in 1815, Serbia was given an autonomy which was more formal than real. It was not until a hatiserif (sultan's edict which was to be immediately and irrevocably executed) was issued which abolished the Turkish feudal system (landed estates), and withdrew the Turks into towns and introduced a free market, that material and cultural progress was made possible. Therefore, Serbia had to "import" all the achievements of civilisation from its western neighbours, primarily Austria. The speed with which the new Serbian society (almost entirely peasant) began to show openness toward European civilization was surprising. It made efforts to get in step with Europe and make up for everything which had been lost during centuries of slavery under Turks. The exponents of that progress were distinguished individuals who were educated abroad.

That which Serbia, thanks to talented and far-sighted individuals, achieved in the field of photography during the nineteenth century can be considered a real cultural miracle. However, there was still not a powerful and cultivated social class which would be a large-scale base for the growth and propagation of photography as a cultural necessity. Even so, a series of people appeared, whose work in photography proved to be up to the European standard. The first was Anastas Jovanovic (1817-1899), the first Serbian photographer, who studied lithography and graphics in Vienna, where he bought a model 3 Pecval-Voigtländer's photo-camera, the most modern one of the time. He was the author of the first photographic pantheon of the most significant Serbs of his time. His portraits of Serbian great men, as well as ordinary, anonymous people, represent the highest artistic synthesis of professional skill, erudition, power of observation and visual skill, the ability to express not only characterological peculiarity, but also the existential drama of a portrayed person by means of detail (which was most frequently the eye, according to the unwritten rule that eye is the "mirror of the soul"). He presented the great men of the Serbian past with such meticulous inventiveness that those persons are often remembered far more from those portraits than anything which their contemporaries wrote about them. His portrait studies of the eminent politician Toma Vucic Perisic, Serbian ruler prince Mihailo Obrenovic, the greatest Serbian poet Njegos, Romanticist Branko Radicevic and the language reformer Vuk Karadzic were the culmination of not just Serbian, but of the European portrait art in the nineteenth century.

The portrait tradition of Anastas Jovanovic was continued by Milan Jovanovic (1863-1944), the brother of painter Paja Jovanovic. He obtained his education in photography in Vienna and Paris. He achieved an aesthetically high photo-visual quality in his portraits. He did portraits of famous Serbian authors, actors and writers from the end of the last century and the beginning of this century (Milos Cvetic, Pera Dobrinovic, Ilija Stanojevic, Milorad Gavrilovic, Ljuba Nenadovic, Milovan Glisic, and others).

Serbian photography undertook its next ascent during the Liberation Wars of 1912-1918. The drama of war which was experienced not only by the Serbian army, but by the Serbian people as well, gave the impetus to documentary photography of the highest rank. The Balkan Wars 1912- 1913, along with World War I, 1914-1918, tested the professionalism, skills and talent of a number of photo-amateurs who demonstrated their art at the exhibitions on the eve of the war. The Supreme Command of Serbian army introduced a photographic department into the Serbian army, from the regiments to higher units, in order to document everything which happened in the war, and to preserve it for future generations. Thanks to the devotion of Serbian war photographers, authentic documentation was created, showing the sufferings and agony of the Serbian nation and its enormous vitality, which was crowned by victory. Among the outstanding war photographers (the painters Dragisa Glisic and Vladimir Becic, Dragisa Stojadinovic, the chaplain Sukovic, Ljubisa Valic and others), the most distinguished was Rista Marjanovic.

Rista Marjanovic, a professional newspaper photographer, studied journalism in Paris. His war photographs were published during the war in foreign newspapers and were presented together with the allies' photographs at exhibitions in the Louvre, Paris, in 1917, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, as well as in many cities all over America in 1917.

The war photographs of Rista Marjanovic present the horrors of the whirlwind of war, which rushed down on the Serbian nation in 1914 like an avalanche: the dying typhus patients who were following the retreating army like shadows of death; the ruined villages and towns, human settlements burned to ashes, households destroyed, scattered hearths, hanged civilians, disfigured corpses, and the sufferings and horrors experienced by the army and the people in the gorges of Albania. Yet, they also showed the triumph of suffering and persistence: the resurrection of the Serbian army, the victorious advances and marches, the defeated enemy...All that was caught by his camera, together with countless characteristic and unrepeatable details, showing the inspiration of a documentarist who was led by the power of compositional visualisation. Although this could not be accomplished in every scene, he attempted to build compositional structure (an element of subjective imagination, which is aesthetically codified) into the scene, thus achieving lasting visual and aesthetic effects. He achieved a visual and expressive synthesis of authenticity and natural stylisation, elevating documentation to the point of becoming a motif. A master of mass scenes, he was the predecessor of directors who used mass scenes in films: he knew how to photograph a military column from a perspective which made it look like a living monster. In this Expressionist manner, he transformed a military column into a symbol of war as an antediluvian behemoth. The documentary was raised to the level of artistic expression by the visual strength of his specific photographic expressiveness.

Between the two world wars, both amateur and professional activity took on a new elan, which was made possible by the development of photographic technique, since it considerably simplified the procedure of taking photographs. Innovations in photography still did not require large financial resources, therefore a group of amateur photographers, Surrealists by artistic choice, revealed their talent not only in the field of verbal art, but in the field of photography as well. The most distinguished name was Nikola Vuco, who added wealth to surrealistic photography with his innovations. They were in accordance with the theory of Surrealism, and were based on the application of purely photographic medium. It enriched the history of photography with evidence that photography has a specific visual expressiveness and technique, which became completely independent from painting.

The communist regime, which came to power in Yugoslavia and Serbia in 1945, destroyed the private sector and market economy, causing the decay of trades as well. Photography was deprived of its professional basis, being replaced by amateurism. Anyone could be easily and quickly trained for photographic work, by which a large-scale but dilettante basis was created. The absence of large professional studios, which everywhere in the world follow powerful technical and technological progress, reduced the possibilities for the further development of photography as a medium in Serbia to a minimum, especially in the area of experimentation and innovation. Although a mass average was achieved, the professionals lagged behind the world, and this became apparent. Therefore, some time had to pass before several generations of professional photographers, who were educated according to the highest technological standards, singled themselves out from the dilettante-amateur level. They gathered in the professional branch association USUF (the Association of Independent Artistic Photographers), whose founder and leader was Nikola Radosevic (1926). He was educated in Paris, as a student of Claude Anger, and he simultaneously graduated from the Famous Photographers School (USA). He finished his post-graduate studies in the same school in Munich. He obtained the diploma of a master of photography in Hamburg in 1973, and in Chalon-sur-Saone, the birthplace of Nicéphore Niepce who was the inventor of photography, he got a diploma as a Maître de Photographie.

Two influences were decisive in shaping his artistic physiognomy: Giulietta Massina and the Byzantine Mother of God, the neo-realistic movie and Byzantine art. In fostering all photographic disciplines, he accomplished the highest artistic achievements in two disciplines: portrait and symbolic photography, for which he has been granted the greatest international awards and prizes, against the heaviest possible competition of professional photographers of the world. As a portraitist, Nikola Radosevic has continued the tradition of Anastas Jovanovic and Milan Jovanovic. He has done portraits of the most significant Serbian writers of our time. Those portraits are characterized by their deep characterology, revealing something unknown and indicating a kind of unsolved mystery, which is highlighted by the context of the work, an exceptional treatment of background in accordance with the secrets of the personality, the stylistic procedure and the specificities of photographic medium. In the sphere of free artistic imagination, his photographs have achieved the highest symbolic sublimation and modern symbolic photographic expression, in which the essential problems of man and the times we live in are fixed. The deepest possible symbiosis of tradition and innovation create symbolic visions, which do honour not only to Serbian culture, but to the visual arts of our time in general.

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