Tag Archives: Dragan Novakovic

The Vanishing Photograph

I recently made the acquaintance of a neighbor, an elderly housebound woman who had been a professor in the art department of a local university. We meet over a lost dog, got to talking, she invited me inside her home. Apparently, she taught photography – traditional film photography – and is herself a photographer of some note. I was struck by the sheer physicality of her photography – walls full of framed prints, rooms full of boxed and cataloged prints, loose prints of various sizes and configurations on tables and desks. This, I thought, is “photography,” and she is a “photographer.” And then it dawned on me that most people who currently consider themselves a “photographer” probably wouldn’t have anything in common with her and really couldn’t have an informed discussion with her about the craft of “photography” because, in effect, they would be talking about two different things. Two completely different disciplines.

Traditionally, “photography” culminated in a tangible print that I’d send to a friend, put in a scrapbook, hang on the wall. That was its purpose, the end result of the process of “photography.” The good ones, the ones with some aesthetic sense, got printed, matted, framed, shown in galleries or coffee houses. The not-so-good got pasted in albums, filed in drawers, or tossed.

Today, the photo is no longer a thing, it is about something. Photos have evolved from physical things to vectors of data in a diffused, virtual “information network.” The photo has been subsumed into an information web that is the source of its reality. No web, no “photo.”

Today’s “photograph” is an abstraction – actually a bundle of layered abstractions. What matters is inserting that abstraction into the virtual networks that propagate it outward. Creative decisions? Really not necessary. Leave that to the relevant app. Just as easy to have it randomly choose the “filter” to produce what would previously have been the result of the vision of the individual creator. It’s all good, as the kids say while they upload their duck-faced selfies and food snaps to the ether. In any event, what creative decisions there remain are secondary to the systems of dissemination – Instagram, Facebook, whatever. Likewise, the camera you use is significant only to the extent that it allows streamlined access to the dissemination networks. Camera’s without wifi linkage? Like a car with a carburetor – obsolete.

Justin E. H. Smith, professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot—Paris VII wrote recently about a photojournalist who back in the day tracked down Pol Pot, the psychotic Cambodian mega mass-murderer, spoke with him, took pictures of him with his film camera, then shopped the photos around in the traditional analogue way. This journalist contrasted his experience with that of his teenage niece, apparently a Social Network “Star” of some note, who, with her selfies and lunch photos, racks up more views on Instagram in a day than his own laborously procured pictures of Pol Pot have ever gotten, anywhere. She even receives corporate sponsorship, not because anyone deems her photos good or significant, insightful or formally compelling, but because their “metrics” signal potential for monetization. Him, well, you know.

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Photos – physical things – the creation of  Dragan Novakovic. These exist as individual, tangible artistic creations. I’m framing them and hanging them on my walls.

A few of us – those still conversant with the traditional analogue paradigm – are attempting to save a space for that paradigm. I’m increasingly convinced that the battle going forward is between the the tangible and the intangible. Advocating film photography as opposed to digital is ultimately about that. Traditional analogue processes, the kind that constituted photography as a craft, aimed at a physical thing – the print – as the final result. There’s a beauty to a finely crafted photographic print, a print that’s been matted, framed, hung on a wall, one among like others. The best – viewed as physical manifestations of the photographer’s vision – can send shivers down your spine.

With the advent of digital processes, the aim of the endeavor is the flow of information in visual form. Creative considerations exist only to the extent they aid in allowing the propagation of the information. Yes, you can print digital capture – but who does? Other than holdovers from the analogue era who still operate under the assumptions of the old paradigm, nobody. The upcoming generation – the “photographers” of the future – not a chance.

My international student – Nicki – watching me unbox my new printer, asked why I needed it. Because I want to print my photos, I replied. I like to have a physical thing, a photo, as the end product of my work, if for no other reason than once it’s printed out I’m certain to have at least one permanent copy. Plus, I can matt it, frame it, hang it on the wall. She looked at me quizzically, as if I’d suggested she remove her earbuds and go listen to some Tommy Dorsey on the Victrola. Why, she replied, would you do that when you can keep them in “the cloud” ?

Dragan Novakovic

Manchester, 1970, Dragan Novakovic

I’ve been lucky to have met a bunch of interesting, talented people via the blog. I’m repeatedly reminded that there are photographers out there doing exceptional work in anonymity, doing it not for the recognition or acclaim but rather simply for the love of what they’re doing.

The beauty of the internet is that it’s radically democratized photography as a practice. Anyone can exhibit their work to a worldwide audience; just post it to your flickr account or any number of other internet venues where your work can potentially be seen. No more gate-keepers i.e. self-appointed experts and curators and gallery owners in positions of power who determine what get’s seen and what doesn’t, often without reference to the strength of the work itself, too often determined by who knows who and who’s seeking to curry favor with whom.

As an American living in Paris, I was often amused by the cliched work of famous photographers who’d spend a week there and then push out a book. William Eggleston’s Paris monograph comes to mind, the work weak and uninspired, nothing but the standard romanticized take on the city, done in a weekend. It got published because it was William Eggleston. Not fair, but who said life would be.

The flip-side of the problem is now there are no gate-keepers. We’re awash in images with little or no means to differentiate the original from the cliched and derivative, the excellent from the mundane, but our own judgment in determining what’s good and what’s not. That’s why it’s more critical now than ever to have some sense of the broader history of photography as an art form and as a documentary vehicle, to have educated your eye to what constitutes an arresting visual image, to what works as a series of images that tell a story and give some sense of the reality that inspired them.

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So, at least insofar as Leicaphilia is concerned, I’ve become the gate-keeper for what gets exhibited here. Frankly, having had looked at, read about, and immersed myself in photography for as long as I have, I’m as competent as anyone to identify excellent work, and the work shown here, England in the 70’s, sent to me by Dragan Novakovic, a Serbian photographer from Belgrade, is exceptional. Superb work borne of a great eye, a stimulated intellect, a mechanical film camera and some Tri-X, the sort of stuff you’re capable of when your obsessions are the subtleties of light, tone, composition, subject and emotion. I have no idea what equipment he used, beyond knowing its 35mm Tri-X; I didn’t ask and it doesn’t matter, but it certainly does have the unmistakable look of what we call traditional “Leica photography.”

 

I hesitate to add any explanation to the work, to put a label on it or characterize it in a given way. Like all good art, it stands on its own. It’s simple and beautiful and thought-provoking. Each photo gives a profound sense of place and time, its own self-contained universe, yet the film aesthetic, the subject matter, the compositional and editorial choices all work together to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Go to Mr. Novakovic’s website below to see the full series. Photographs like this are why I fell in love with photography. It’s also why I find doing the blog so rewarding; Dragan is just some guy who reads the blog and thought I might be interested in some old photos, those old photos being as good as anything I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I’ve got the ability to disseminate them to a wider audience, something Dragan Novakovic richly deserves. According to him:

I wish I could tell you that these photos are the fruit of a well-thought-out project and expatiate upon it (projects and concepts seem to be all the rage these days), but the truth is, they are all completely random shots. Still, some background information will help to explain why and how I came to find myself there in the first place. While in secondary school, I came upon Friedrich Engels’s book The Condition of the Working Class in England and my imagination was fired by his descriptions of Manchester. Later I read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and, after I had arrived in London in the autumn of 1968, I bought Bill Brandt’s Shadow of Light and was blown away, particularly by his northern towns photos. From then on visiting and photographing the area became an obsession with me and I finally made several brief trips to it, mostly over weekends. In short, I was overwhelmed and awed by the surreal look of the place; there was so much to see and so little time that I often found myself moving at a trot, not always pausing long enough to explore the subject and frame carefully; and I took mostly single photos of individual subjects because I could ill afford to buy film and carried on average only two to five rolls of Tri-X.


Dragan Novakovic lives in Belgrade, Serbia. You can see more of his work at http://dragannovakovicphotography.com/