ON VERSES OF EMPTINESS:
Mirjana Vrbaski finds her portrait subjects through chance encounters on the street, never photographing people she actually knows. Her practice involves trying, as much as possible, to empty the portrait of any clues to the sitter’s personality or identity as an individual in order to portray a universal state of being and an essential humanity. With this aim, Vrbaski sidesteps a long history of portraiture meant to communicate not only the identity, but even the status and wealth of its subjects, and looks instead to early Christian icons, whose anonymous makers depicted saints in such a generic way as to make them interchangeable, allowing viewers to see beyond the mundane to the divine.
- Transformer Station, http://www.tsguide.org/PAST/UNKNOWN/index.html
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There is something about these portraits.
At first, I think of Rineke Dijkstra; of Dijkstra’s ability to capture something fundamental about her sitter, just like those portrait painters who — by allowing time for the painting process — let their images take shape slowly, reveal themselves gradually.
But there is something else going on here.
I’ve tried it a few times: I enter the exhibition space and suddenly, I am being stared at, followed. I continue walking and again — I am being watched. It feels that way. A woman then turns her face away. A step further, I am looked at again.
It feels uncanny.
The three smaller photographs, Judith, Girl and Irma, remind me of The Returned, the French TV series in which the dead suddenly reclaim their place in life, as though nothing had happened. Similar unreal atmosphere creeps up on me here.
I try to dissect the technical aspects: clothing, color, lighting, posture ... always with one shoulder to me, except for the youngest model. Does the photographer want to tell me something about these people or, what do these people want to tell me? Are they looking at me or through me? Why do two of them turn away?
I can’t escape the impression that they are tired of having to explain. Those that look me in the eye, do so in a way that sometimes strikes me as superior, authoritative, yet also melancholy. Compassionate too. They ask me: “What do you actually want? I’ve looked at you long enough, now you tell me...”
Their integrity intrigues me. No trace of tension. No indication of an emotional state either. No indication of joy, pain, pleasure, suffering. You tell me, they say.
I am not comfortable but I want to keep looking, keep drowning in the beautiful images. They know what I am thinking. They are looking straight through me while I admire them and wonder how they see me.
What is this all about, what am I actually looking at?
Somebody observing me, compassionately seeing me, saying: don’t you understand ... there's nothing to it ...
... we are just there, just looking.
Zjuul Devens, September 25, 2015
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Goodrum, Sarah. A New/old Ethics of the Photographic Portrait: Mirjana Vrbaski’s “Verses of Emptiness”. AfterImage Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Vol. 40
Download AfterImage.pdf (English)
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Interview with Joerg Colberg:
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Brunner, Eva. Mirjana Vrbaski “Verses of Emptiness”. Brennpunkt Magazin für Fotografie.
Download Brennpunkt.pdf (German)
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