Miroslav Zdovc: Contextualising the Archive

*Pričujoči članek je urejen transkript prispevka o ustvarjalni praksi fotografa Miroslava Zdovca, ki ga je pripravil Miha Colner v sklopu mednarodne konference ‘Bringing Down the Archive Fever’ v Zagrebu (21.-22. oktober 2021). Članek je v angleškem jeziku.

The article by Miha Colner is based on edited transcript of the talk on artistic practice of photographer Miroslav Zdovc which took place in frames of the international conference ‘Bringing Down the Archive Fever – Opening and Collaborating on the Photography Archives and Collections’ on 21-22 October 2021 in Zagreb.

The aim of this presentation is to showcase and analyse one particular example of constructing a photographic archive in a museum context, and the ways of contextualising diverse, seemingly marginal and insignificant photographic material.

The focal point is personal photographic archive of Miroslav Zdovc (1929-2009), prominent but nowadays rather forgotten Slovenian professional photographer as well as artist using photography, that was donated to Božidar Jakac Art Museum, Kostanjevica na Krki by his heirs. The extensive archive is comprised of diverse materials: personal imagery, documentary photographs, documents of artworks, and (his own) photographic artworks.

Miroslav Zdovc, Exhibition opening, Ljubljana, 1970s

All that has made the work on the archive difficult, especially as Božidar Jakac Art Museum, as most of art museums in Slovenia, hasn’t had extensive experience in archiving, evaluating and cataloguing such photographic materials. Furthermore, for its relative obscurity the body of work of Zdovc has to be additionally contextualised in order to be properly written in history of art. And in order to contextualise his practice, we are now in the process of preparing a retrospective exhibition which will take place in 2023.

First of all, Miroslav Zdovc was professional photographer but who often showcased his works in art context. His artistic practice was thriving the most in the 1960s and 1970s when his photographs were widely exhibited and reflected in Slovenia and Yugoslavia. The article about his work, for instance, was published in the iconic Spot magazine; amazing and influential art and photography magazine that was being published in Zagreb in the period 1972-1978 under the editorial conduct of the curator Radoslav Putar.

Miroslav Zdovc, From My Valley, 1965

In the magazine number 2 (1973), Aleksander Bassin wrote about close connections between photographer Zdovc and painter Rudi Španzel. They were both representatives of the new artistic tendencies that appeared in the 1970s, when Zdovc started experimenting with staged photography and Španzel started painting in the style of photo-realism. Their collaboration was very direct, as Španzel purposely used photographs that were made by Zdovc; however, they were both part of the process of photo shooting for that purpose.

Miroslav Zdovc, Pure Woman, 1974

But the story of Miroslav Zdovc goes way back in the past. Born in 1929, he was active since the late 1940s and until the early 1990s when he gradually disappeared from the scene; he stopped doing professional work as well as he nearly completely stopped exhibiting.

He started his career very young, in 1943, amidst the World War 2, in the photographic studio of Josip Pelikan in Celje, Slovenia who was a classic professional and studio photographer. In 1947 Zdovc finished his apprenticeship and started working on his own. Also he made the first steps in so called art photography, at first in a distinctive documentary style of social realism, with echoes of pictorialism (especially in the selection of motifs).

Miroslav Zdovc, Sisters, 1949

In 1954 he started working as a photographer in the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana which enabled him to be closely connected to the world of visual arts. In 1969, he became a photographer at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Ljubljana where he was a documentarian as well as a photographer of reproductions. Due to his professional engagement he made many friends among prominent artists, as well as young and emerging artists who were still studying at the academy, and he would often visit their studios and document the process of creating art works.

In 1979, however, he became an independent artist and photographer doing commercial work, mostly for fast developing marketing industry in Slovenia, and dedicating ever more time to his artistic practice. In the mid-1970s he started using colour photography for artistic purposes which was, at that time, commonly seen as blasphemy in the world of so called ‘art photography’; in the 1970s photographers were still typically making a distinction between commercial and artistic use of photography: colour photography was widely considered as appropriate for commercial purposes, while black and white photography was considered as a medium for so called ‘art photography’.

Miroslav Zdovc, Gabrijel Stupica in his studio, 1970s

However, Zdovc didn’t follow tendencies that started simultaneously appearing among less orthodox photographers in the US, such as Stephen Shore or William Eagleston, but was using it in a rather traditional manner, based on elements of both, ‘straight’ modernist photography and pictorialism. His pictures were mostly about solitude, decay, passing and archetypal images of archaic landscapes. The element of colour was not here to follow the trends but to experiment with different possibilities of the medium.

One of his most comprehensive exhibitions took place at Božidar Jakac Art Museum in 1986 where he showcased an overview of his work in the field of art. From the selection of the works, presented at the show, it became clear that his perception of what is considered an art work was very diverse and subjective. The exhibition was a stylised mixture of his documentary works, taken out of the wider context, and his experimental attempts in photography. In a way, his approach was (unwittingly) very open: he didn’t work in series but he would combine older and newer works in a coherent entirety.

Miroslav Zdovc, Countess of Štanjel, 1968

One of the most intriguing works from his oeuvre is a photograph entitled Countess of Štanjel (1968) where he depicted anonymous beggar in the village of Štanjel in western Slovenia. It is so called ‘photograph with a context’; the viewer can recognise certain clues on the picture, and with the help of datation also the wider socio-political context of the motif. The face of the women hides an entire geography of meanings and memories, the ones that we may never know, but given her age, one can figure out that she probably went through both world wars that were brutally ravaging through this area. But the picture also brings out pressing questions: Why is she called countess? Why is she living on the margins? What did she see? Why is she poor in the period of legalised equality?

This particular work shows the diversity of his practice and his unorthodox perception of what he considers a gallery piece. Countess of Štanjel is a classic documentarian photograph that could easily, in an appropriate context, be published in a newspaper or a picture magazine, independently or accompanied by a text. And that very doubt is always present in the process of archiving his oeuvre: what was the initial intention of his work?

Miroslav Zdovc, Drying, 1970s

These are bits and pieces of the photographer’s creative practices that we wanted to write in the history of art by exhibiting the selection of his oeuvre and by contextualising these materials through comparisons with other artists. In order to view his work in the wider historical and social context we are in the process of curating a group exhibition where his works will be juxtaposed with works of artists and photographers that influenced him, or were influenced by him; these are his former teachers, collaborators, apprentices, friends, colleagues or simply interlocutors.

The interesting thing is that Zdovc has come from a very traditional background when it comes to photography. He started in a photographic studio and later worked in probably every possible aspect of photography. His artistic practice was consequently rather traditional and classic as he was seeking for specific aesthetic of so called ‘art photography’, or ‘authorial photography’, at that time very much related to the activities of widespread network of camera clubs. However, his legacy is much different; younger photographers whom he may influenced in some way were very much oriented in the fields of neoavantgarde photography or what is now often called ‘contemporary photography’.

Miroslav Zdovc, Duba Sambolec with her statue, 1970s

But beside conceiving an exhibition we also have a task to include Zdovc’s work in our museum collection and our archive. Here, things can become slightly more complicated. We have been faced with very diverse materials in terms of genre and function, as well as in terms of technique and carrier of photographs. There are negatives, prints, framed and mounted works from exhibitions.

Moreover, we came upon very diverse materials which we have to organise; there are several types of work: art works that can easily enter the art museum collection, documentary photography which is amazing archival and referential material, reproductions of art works which were made for publications or archives, and other ephemera.

Miroslav Zdovc, Božidar Jakac, 1980s

In a way an entire life of a photographer came with these boxes of materials and the curators at Božidar Jakac Art Museum had to examine them while having yet to classify them which inevitably brought to certain ethical and conceptual questions: What to do with personal photographs that were clearly not intended to be ever published? What to do with his photographs and art works that never made it to be published? Are we entitled to “rediscover” and publish the works that the artist didn’t finish? What to do with the documentary images that he didn’t manage to select for publications and to develop in the darkroom?

These are some of the fundamental questions that we are faced with in our process of organising, analysing, interpreting and archiving his body of work. According to different views of different museums we have several options on disposal. After investigating how this issue of classification is solved in other museums I came to conclusion that there are no clear rules.

Miroslav Zdovc, Sleeping Sphynx, 1978

Predominantly there are two different views. Art museums, such as Božidar Jakac Art Museum, make difference between works of art and documentary photographs, while, for instance, history museums would advise a different approach, that is to treat all the materials equally as museum artefacts.

Following the principle of an art museum will eventually bring us to a very difficult task; we would have to determine which of his photographs are works of art and which ones are not. But, I guess, we don’t have much choice.

Miha Colner (21 October 2021)

Miroslav Zdovc, Mixal, 1984

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