Stanko Abadzic: Old School Lyricism
Few photographers have experienced as many dramatic ups and downs as Stanko Abadzic. Born in Vukovar, Croatia in 1952, he worked for 10 years as a photojournalist until forced to immigrate to Germany at the outbreak of the 1991 Croatian War of Independence. Germany proved less than welcoming, however, and four difficult years later he and his family moved to Prague, where Abadzic’s creative instincts were finally able to flourish. Despite all the turmoil and instability in his life, Abadzic hasn’t let it affect his trademark lyrical humanism. His imagery is notable for its formal beauty, elegantly balanced compositions, and unabashed nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent era. Yet there is also a subtle engagement with contemporary issues that layers in a welcome thematic complexity. Abadzic returned to Croatia in 2002, and currently lives in Zagreb.
When did you get your first camera?
I was 15 when my father bought me my first camera, a Russian Smena 8. I took my first photos with this camera and I still cherish it. I subsequently joined the Borovo Photo Club, where I refined my technical knowledge of the medium. Through the club my photographs were exhibited at both collective and individual exhibitions in Vukovar and Borovo.
What kind of photography did you exhibit at the Borovo photo club in Vukovar? Was it similar to your current work?
Those were mostly rural scenes, taken in the surrounding countryside and by the Danube River.
Were your family and friends supportive of your artistic ambition?
Friends, yes. I gladly made friends with people who shared my love of photography. Later on my son Srdjan has been very supportive, but he is also a merciless critic of my work.
When did you start to develop a personal style?
Although I worked as a correspondent and photojournalist for the Zagreb daily newspaper Vjesnik, the urge to explore fine art photography appeared after I moved to Prague in 1995, which as a metropolis had a huge impact on my work. The sensation was very intense, like a volcanic eruption.
After the Double
Which photographers have influenced you?
As I lived in the Czech Republic for eight years, I have to acknowledge Josef Sudek, the classic Czech photographer. I also like Willy Ronis, Rene Burri, Henri Cartier-Bresson and certain Hungarian photographers.
What specific qualities in their work speak to you?
Sudek’s consistency and truthfulness to himself and to photography are fascinating. You can rarely find such truthfulness. Sudek devoted all his life to photography. He was not pretentious and he did not care for fame. But if you photograph all your life with such passion it must eventually be recognized. Ronis persisted for 40 years in photographing Paris. He showed Paris to me. His Paris was authentic and true, compared to the Paris of today with its masses of tourists. Both Cartier-Bresson and Ronis lived and worked in the time when photography was at its peak, with many prominent artists.
The names you mention all reflect in one form or another the social-humanist tradition. Why have you chosen to follow that particular path?
Globalization processes tend to speed up the pace of life and bring inevitable changes in the way of life and society in general. It saddens me to see many pleasant city milieus disappear overnight and be replaced by supermarkets and faceless structures. The faster we live, the less emotion is left in the world. This might be the reason why my photographs do not seem contemporary and why I look back to a time when people were closer to each other. The slower we live, the deeper we feel the world around us. This is my general philosophy. I am not against globalization in general, but I am saddened by its negative impact, such as the physical and spiritual uniformity of towns and people. Towns dominated by multinational corporations tend to look alike, with the same visual symbols. Globalization turns us into passive consumers. It is not interested in our creativity. Ever-larger supermarkets and multi-cinemas cannot bring back lost happiness. We lose our happiness when we lose our identities.
Do you consider your work political in any way?
Certainly not. I have never been a member of any political party, although it was not always an easy choice. I like my individuality too much to join any uniform way of thinking.
There’s a muted strain of surrealism running throughout your work, particularly your self-portrait and images like “Legs, Opatija.” Do you consider yourself a surrealist?
I look at the world around me exclusively through the eye of my camera. The strain of surrealism that you identify is accidental than intentional. It is rather a result of careful observation than an orientation to surrealism.
The people in your photographs are often isolated, with only their shadows for company, which produces a feeling of loneliness or wistful melancholy. Are you generally pessimistic or optimistic about the human condition?
I feel for people, I’m very communicative and like to be among them. However, people are isolated. There are more and more lonely people, especially in big cities. Besides, I like individuality, not the mass. In Prague I used to watch masses of tourists every day wandering along the same routes, and I was never attracted to that scene.
Your photographs don’t feel very contemporary. In fact, many of them look as if they could have been made in the 1930s or 1940s. Is this intentional?
While living in Prague I witnessed numerous and rapid changes in the city’s architecture and visual aesthetic. Some milieus are no longer around, and it has only been about 10 years since I photographed them. For me, they were the sanctuary of the soul, and because they are disappearing so fast I have tried to preserve them, if only in my photographs. Every time I go to Prague I check to see if some of these precious areas are still there.
Robert Doisneau’s photographs were all about capturing a “small second of eternity.” I sense that impulse of many of your pictures, like “Those Who Like the Past.” Would you say your images have the same goal?
Absolutely. When I hold these photographs in my hands again after many years they send me on a new voyage through eternity, and I do not even have to pay for the bus, train or plane tickets.
Bicycles appear frequently in your photos, as do courtyards, old buildings, cobblestones, traditional dress, all of which speak to your love of the past. Do you feel as if you’re living in the wrong era?
Yes, in a way. All the things you mention symbolize closeness among people, when there was more emotion and less coldness. My father had a bicycle early on when it was almost a status symbol. He never let my brother and me ride it, but we could not resist it and used to take it when he was not at home. All these symbols trace back in my childhood. The circle is now closing in.
Those Who Like the Past
Do you ever have a preconceived idea of the kind of image you want to capture when you photograph? And is the camera an extension of your head or your heart?
The camera is certainly an extension of both my head and my heart. I have many images stored in my head. These are the images I have seen in life or in movies, and they form layers in my head and create a new image. In some cases I make a record of some architecturally or graphically interesting milieu. I study it and keep coming back to see what happens there. I used to watch for hours people’s reaction to underwear ads on Prague billboards. It was very interesting because the Czechs living in the communist era were not used to such ‘bold’ images.
Do you still work as a photojournalist?
Not any more. I worked as a photojournalist for 10 years. Now I am a freelance photographer and I hope that what I do can be called fine art.
Why did you live in Prague for so many years, and what is about the city that inspires you visually?
It was the war in the former Yugoslavia that changed my life and took me to Prague. When the war broke out in 1991 I moved with my family to Germany, where we stayed there for four years. After Germany refused to renew our residence permit we had to look for a new country to move to since we could not go back to Croatia at that time. I remember when we first came to Prague. It was a warm, sunny day in August. I felt the positive energy of the city and was very much attracted to it. The more I explored and discovered about the city the more I loved it. I found myself in an atmosphere of creativity. I met photography students, visited exhibitions, exchanged views and ... matured.
I was never interested in the tourist’s Prague. From the very first day in this beautiful city I sought my own Prague. It took time. I slowly discovered the city, peeked behind the curtain, entered old backyards overgrown with ivy where time had stopped. I met people who remained original and authentic, people in no hurry, who refused to take part in globalization processes, people left to themselves going about their own lives and troubles. Being a foreigner was my advantage over local artists, who were used to all this beauty and passed without noticing it.
In Front of the Mirror
During the four years you spent in Germany, how did you support yourself, and what kind of photography were you doing?
I moved with my family to Germany thinking things would settle down shortly and we would be able to go back to Vukovar. But it did not happen that way. It was a very difficult period for me. We did not have any means; we left everything in Vukovar and ran for our lives. In Germany I worked as a shipping agent, a waiter, a teacher of German. I accepted any job because I felt responsible for my family. The hardest thing was going to the immigration police every three months to extend our visas. Our motto was: think of today, only now exists. That’s how we survived. Four years later we had to leave Germany because they did not want us getting any nearer to the possibility of acquiring German citizenship, which you are eligible for after spending five years there. Because of all that pressure I was not able to take photographs except for a few family pictures.
With so many images coming at us today, do you find it harder to move people emotionally?
Mass media literally bomb us with moving and still images. I do not react to the images of blood, gunpowder or tears, since we have been overexposed to such images in mass media. This is the reason why I no longer visit the World Press Photo exhibitions. I know exactly what to expect there. It is high time we started showing interest in good news, in beauty and aesthetics, not only in wars and catastrophes. I still believe we can move the viewers emotionally. I believe we can provoke feelings of satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, for that matter. The point is that we can touch people emotionally.
Bicycle Art on Wall
When you photograph, do you tend to work spontaneously, or do you focus on a particular scene and wait for someone to come along and complete the image?
Both scenarios are possible.
Your images are beautifully printed. Do you do your own darkroom work?
I have my photographs printed in Prague. They have known me for years and they know exactly what I expect of them. I want to concentrate on photographing because I am now in my fifties and I have a feeling that I have missed a lot.
What do you feel you have missed?
I started fine art photography in Prague when I was 40. I studied in Berlin in 1974, when the Berlin Wall was still standing, when the tensions between East and West were still strong. If I regret anything, it’s that I did not photograph Berlin at that time. I was preoccupied with my studies and with going out. Berlin is now the fastest-changing European city. It is a completely different city from the one I knew as a student.
In addition to your fine art work, I understand that you also do portraits, advertising and magazine assignments.
I mostly do pictures for book covers. Since I formed a large stock of photographs over the past 10 years I do not work on orders from publishers. I simply offer them a huge number of photographs to choose from according to the theme and the contents of a particular book.
A Jumping Boy
It seems that you incorporate your fine art aesthetic and philosophy in your commercial work. Do your clients encourage this?
Clients definitely encourage it, especially the publishing house Meandar. They were the first publishing house I worked with on my return to Croatia. They publish my photographs on their covers without any interventions or changes.
How often do you go out photographing, and do you always go by yourself?
Almost every day. Anywhere I go I have my camera with me because it happened so many times that I was sorry I didn’t have camera in my hand. Those missed photographs are still in my head. I used to go with colleagues, but I prefer going out by myself. Photography is an interior process that requires stimulation of the inner eye in order to see the world more clearly. It takes preparation, calm and waiting for the right moment and an impulse to take a photo.
What do you consider to be the most valuable function of photography in today’s world?
To be a testimony and a document of its time, to call upon us to talk to each other and make a better world.
(Stanko Abadzic has published two books of his work and had numerous solo and group exhibitions. You can view more of his unique images at www.sabadzic.net.amis.hr.)