If You Look Closely Enough, You May Or May Not Spot The Billboards!

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Whatever way you set off by car throughout Croatia, you’ll inevitably be bombarded with constant, one might even say a rhythmic “symphony” of repetitive billboards set on the side of the road, even amid field roads. Locations where these billboards of various proportions are placed have long since left urbanity and are ultimately unsubtle and aggressive in terms of the natural environment they increasingly keep on popping up in.

It’s fairly common that one can’t enjoy the view of all the beautiful landscapes and vistas in Croatia, i.e. “Our Beautiful Homeland,” without the inevitable slogans of mobile carriers, poorly packaged beer brands, and/or the inescapable and inevitable bodies of models on increasingly large and dominant billboards.

“A world without ads – it would be a fantasy land!” – to quote Rick Poynor from my interview with him during the Zgraf, which sounds a bit Utopian, bordering on the impossible, in terms of the reality we live in.

In his project entitled “Billboards” photographer Neven Petrović managed to capture and portray what the world (or just the extra-urban area) would really look like without any ads, more precisely, without these same huge billboards that aggressively usurp every spare corner spanning the whole length and breadth of motorways and roads.

His series of photographs documents, that is, negates those same structures, placed in natural environments. Petrović skillfully captures them sideways, annihilating their broadness, dimension and very function, thus those broad structures are now reduced to gauzy elements, centrally framed. Their role of dominant elements that carry (or scream) the message is completely “turned off,” broad structures are reduced to a mere twig-form stripped of any meaning, that seemingly distort the captured landscape. The landscape now becomes the object of interest, fractioned by that unclear element in the center, while the shadow thrown on the floor on either side of the mysterious element unobtrusively reveals the fact that it’s a billboard.

The simplicity of the author’s approach is impressive as he manages to capture a handful of similar billboards that “decorate” the roads we drive and move along through “mere” sideways photography in order to achieve a contemplative effect of viewing nature and pondering on spaces to whose increasing and constant usurpation we’ve capitulated a long time ago.

Read on to find out what the author himself, Neven Petrović, has to say about the whole project, its beginnings, meaning, and advertising and/or photographing. He’s a freshman graduate student, majoring in photography at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb.

Where did the series begin, at which locations did you shoot and how long did the whole process last?

The series kicked off in Požega and its surrounding area, the city I was born in. Precisely these trips Požega – Zagreb are the source of my idea and inspiration for these photos. Požega is a small town, traffic-wise isolated, and the transition from urban to rural environment is instantaneous. To come to the highway leading to Zagreb, it’s necessary to travel 26 kilometers through local roads to Nova Gradiška. The road goes through various villages, but for the majority of the way, the space is uninhabited and you have a view of fields, meadows and forests. And these billboards have been placed smack dab in the middle of this environment, thus making them a strong visual element in terms of environmental pollution. Namely, they’re placed in that zone just before one enters an inhabited place, thus announcing a village/city even before its official signpost.

I’ve traveled this stretch of the way over a hundred times and after so many repetitive instances, you stop looking at what’s unchangeable, that which overlaps with your memory of that space. But what I did notice were the billboards, as their content changes on a monthly basis.

Thus, an area of approximately 12m² overpowered thousands of square meters around it. By “annihilating” them in this series, I wanted to remind myself to see that space behind and around them. The series is a work-in-progress, while past photos came about between March and June this year.

Your project in a way critically addresses the consumerist culture, that is, the hyper-activation of advertising and its aggressive entrance into (our life) spaces and the natural environment we live in. On the other hand, the campaigns portrayed on those same billboards are often created (or “phoned in”) by your fellow colleague photographers. What’s your take on this?

Whenever you come to any larger town, every surface along the main road, every façade at a frequented location, even means of public transportation are plastered with ads and billboards. People who live in large cities, unwittingly learn to filter this imposed information over time, primarily due to the large density of elements within the urban environment that disables us from paying close attention to everything around us.

Within my photographic series, one could say that I tend to primarily focus on the criticism of individuals out of their depth making the wrong “decision” even if you juxtapose only two elements before them – the rural environment and a billboard. Anyhow, the urban environment is contaminated with a string of other visual pollutions – problematic architecture, traffic infrastructure inclined towards cars, so in such a context billboards are hard-pressed to impose themselves as the primary focus of a potential consumer.

It’s Utopian to envision cities without billboards. With the emergence of new technology, there’ll probably be an even more intense invasion of our senses within the urban space we move in on a daily basis. Billboards are an effective, but rather primitive form of advertising. This series bears witness to that, with its simple “sideways” placement, emphasizing their two-dimensionality and partial consistency.

Likewise, it’s Utopian to expect from myself and my colleagues from the Academy to not put in the work for these types of commercial jobs whose final product is a billboard.  To even have a chance to work on such a photo-series (like this one), a production (financial) prerequisite is necessary, so getting jobs and attracting any kind of work is a matter of existential necessity – in any context. Any type of ethical questioning and second-guessing is unacceptable in this sense.

Can art alone, in this case photography with its critical stance and constant questioning, “fight” everything “capitalist” that’s unfortunately unavoidable in contemporary society, and what Billboards represent in reality?

Art today is massively implemented in this same capitalist system and we can decreasingly view it as the antidote to capitalism. Let’s take Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst as examples. Today more and more artists do targeted art, i.e. that which they know is currently sought-after in galleries and that is bound to reach high prices.  Art is just another entry on the market. It’s consummated in the same way we consume a new car or sneakers.

The decision lies within each artist to determine whether they’ll completely enter the space where all the rules are clear-cut or whether they’ll create directly from within. In questioning themselves, artists can motivate others to do the same. I got highly interesting comments from numerous people in regard to this series. A large number didn’t recognize this mysterious element in the frame. They saw a post or column. Even the shadow, which obviously reveals this third dimension of the billboard wasn’t of any help to them. And that’s exactly why this series is a complete success, as I managed to create an inversion of the situation – they just saw the landscape, and not the disturbance within it. We can say that Billboards distinguished the significant from the insignificant and helped the spectator catch a glimpse of the former.

What’s your view of the contemporary Croatian photographic scene and how do you envision your professional future, seeing as you’re at the end of your studies?

Contemporary photography in Croatia is experiencing its qualitative and quantitative take-off. I’m the second generation of students at the Photography graduate study program at the Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Arts and I consider this study program, as the only one of its kind in Croatia that teaches photographers to think outside the box, as having great potential to create a respectable contemporary photography scene, one that will have significance on an international playing field.

There’s a lot of work to be done as we’re lacking in mentors, the importance of this manner of educating young people is not recognized, thus art is being pushed to the margins of society.

And we’ll be producing billboards in the meantime.