Review by Steve Harp •
In considering Miro Kuzmanovic’s Signs by the Roadside, one would do well to keep in mind the title while moving through the book. For what does a road sign do but orient the traveler to where one is and where one may be headed? The traveler depends on signs for guidance and direction, to get one’s bearings, to understand where one is.
The difficulties in understanding one’s surroundings – where one is and the meaning of what one is seeing – are central to Kuzmanovic’s monograph. In a brief introductory statement (printed, along with two essays and an afterward in a separate softcover booklet), Kuzmanovic describes his photographs as those of one “who sets off on a dangerous journey, marking his path with signs in order to not lose his way.” With these sign-photographs, Kuzmanovic aims to navigate a personal journey through traumatic memory – through “fragments of my reality” – in order to more fully understand not so much the why, but the how of the collapse and devastating conflicts in what had been known as Yugoslavia (now Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia) and the consequences of these conflicts. He eloquently concludes his brief written introduction by describing “the attempt of a no longer young man to conclude this part of his history in the form of a personal reflection and to arrive at the present.”
So, we should be wary of considering this substantial work (approximately 270 photographs and accompanying textual material in 336 pages over two volumes) as traditional documentary. According to historian R.G. Collingwood:
a document is a thing existing here and now, of such a kind that the historian, by thinking about it, can get answers to the questions he asks about past events.
To a greater or lesser degree, we might, then, consider all photographs documents (thus, “documentary”). But Signs by the Roadside – according to its creator – is something else again. We may well use these documents to try to get answers to questions asked about past events, but those answers remain elusive. Kuzmanovic describes it as an ”exploration” organized by “associations”:
. . . fragments of my reality. [That] follow no chronological sequence nor . . . claim to be complete. Occurrences with positive and negative connotations alternate, collide and merge. Planes of partially incomplete photographic thoughts are joined together.
While it is always risky to accept an artist’s statements about their own work at face value, Kuzmanovic’s framing of this work confirmed my own experience in engaging with these photographs and reading these signs as I traveled the road Kuzmanovic offers. These images, organized in “three picture cycles” – according to Kuzmanovic – covering a period of almost 30 years, are in the aggregate, overwhelming. All black and white, the photographs are presented as full double-page bleeds, double-page spreads with a thin app. 1/4” border, some single page, bordered images, half-page diptychs across facing pages and, beginning about halfway through the book, four double-page foldouts. Within the foldouts are grids presenting 21 smaller images of: crowds; faces of pedestrians; uniformed parade marchers; and parade viewers. The overall sense is of a deliberateness and precision of organization and presentation.
The images Kuzmanovic gives us are of television screens, crowds, deserted landscapes, individuals, graffiti, paintings and posters, billboards, roadsigns, religious figures, figures in military and police uniforms, what appear to be figures in courtrooms, buildings . . . and I could continue. Photographically beautiful and visually compelling, the significance and chronology of these images is cryptic. At no point are we given a list of specifics as to who or what we are looking at, or where, specifically, the road has taken us. The experience is an unrelenting and overwhelming flow of visual impressions. What we are given, though, interspersed throughout the images, are 29 separate text fragments, themselves functioning as road signs for the viewer to read while proceeding through this visual landscape. Taken together, these 29 lines compose a kind of prose poem, moving and eloquent, expressing the need to both search out the signs around us on this “dangerous and uncertain road” as well as stating the importance of “leav[ing] some trace behind us.” The road is unclear, but we read the signs as best we can and, in turn, leave our own for subsequent travelers.
As a physical object, this book is substantial and formidable. As mentioned, it consists of two volumes. There is a hardback book of photographs, 9” x 12” and 1 1/2” thick. Its clothbound black covers feature lithographed portraits faintly peering out of a dark abyss. “Bound” to the back cover by a thick, black rubber band is a less weighty volume, a softcover, staple-bound booklet, again featuring on front and back covers faint portraits peering from the darkness. This volume contains Kuzmanovic’s introduction and the other written texts mentioned at the start of this review.
There are two essays: “Brotherhood in Unity,” which is a report on the Scheveningen detention center in the Netherlands where accused war criminals – Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks – await trial while living together in “brotherhood and unity.” The second essay, “After the War,” is a report on sociological research into the effects of “reduction to ethnicity” in the former Yugoslavia, the process of identity construction through essentializing of identity. The booklet concludes with an Afterward by Valentin Inzko, former Austrian ambassador in Sarajevo.
Inzko praises the documentation offered by the 30 years of Kuzmanovic’s photography in the former Yugoslavia. But I thought again of Collingwood’s definition and wondered what has been documented? What answers to questions about past events do these “thing[s] existing here and now” provide us? A massive amount of visual information is present, but, as Kuzmanovic acknowledges, these photographs are but signs, traces that point down a “dangerous and uncertain road” but can only gesture at any resolution. (For a quite different photographic approach to the same conflicts, one might consider The Graves, 1998, by Gilles Peress and Eric Stover which investigates the excavation and forensic examination of mass graves found in Srebenica and Vukovar in an attempt to document the atrocities. As Peress has said, “I am gathering evidence for history.”)
This tension between the desire for documentary and evidential coherence and Kuzmanovic’s embrace of the inherent uncertainty of and difficulty in navigating historical trauma, reminded me of an essay by Adam Phillips, in which he writes:
. . . there is something valuable . . . in not being impressively coherent, something about not being wholly plausible, or in a conventional sense, intelligible, that [we] might ignore to [our] cost . . . asking us to wonder what we are doing when we are making sense . . . as though we might be at our most defensive when we are at our most plausible.
The signs by the roadside Kuzmanovic offers us document less a path to somewhere certain, than gestures into the darkness, markers of lostness and loss.
Steve Harp is a Contributing Editor and Associate Professor, The Art School, DePaul University
Signs by the Roadside – Miro Kuzmanovic
Photographer: Miro Kuzmanovic, born in Austria (raised in the former Yugoslavia), resides in Austria
Publisher: Self-published; © 2022
Introduction: Miro Kuzmanovic; Essays: Slavenka Drakulic, Ana Mijic; Afterword: Valentin
Text: English (separate editions have text in German and Bosnian)
Book description: Two volumes – hardcover (linen) with softcover booklet (containing written matter), staple-bound. Tri-tone offset printing. Printed and bound: Jos Morree Fine Books, Weesp, Netherlands. ISBN-13: 978-3200080478
Photobook designer: – SYB –
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are under copyright by the authors and publishers.
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