The series captures women from The Hague, Berlin and Belgrade in a new book, titled Odd Time
“Portraiture fascinates me because it implies the impossible: to capture somebody,” says Serbian photographer Mirjana Vrbaški. “A human being is so complex that you can never fully understand someone in real life, let alone through an image. But maybe an image can reveal part of that complexity, and that is what drives my work.” She is discussing the impulses behind her new photobook Odd Time – a tender and tension-filled exploration of the relationships we have with ourselves, and the world around us.
Published with Kerber Verlag, Odd Time began in 2009, with a series of simple and affective portraits of women shot across The Hague, Berlin and Belgrade. Although the project deals with universal themes, Vrbaški chose to photograph women, she says, because they are “the best messengers” for her perspectives and emotions as a female photographer. Later, in 2017, she began merging images of dense and haunting forest scenes together with these pictures, adding another dimension to the visual dissonance she was looking to create. “The portraits focus on our relationship with ourselves, while the forests focus on our somewhat paradoxical alliance with the world that surrounds us,” she explains. “Together, they are the inside and outside of the same experience.”
Odd Time takes its name from the ‘odd time meter’ – a musical rhythm native to the Southern European folk traditions Vrbaški grew up with. Odd time meters are irregular and asymmetrical, and Vrbaški uses this idea of discord and nuance to edit the publication, punctuating her photographs with white spaces and moments of silence, just as a composer might.
Born in 1978, Vrbaški spent her formative years in Belgrade before moving to Yugoslavia with her family. At 16 years old, amidst the Yugoslav wars, she emigrated to Canada along with older brother. Her parents stayed behind, so she learned the meaning of independence quickly. “Growing up in Yugoslavia was a tremendous gift to me, and while it showed me the deep contradictions of life, it also introduced me to the richness of human experience,” she says. “My history, my family, the Yugoslav mentality… all of these are entangled webs filled with vicissitudes that continue to shape me.” It’s no surprise that those entanglements have influenced the contemplative way she sees the world, and the subjects she approaches through her lens.
In the end, Vrbaški concludes, what links Odd Time to the rest of her work is a consistent search for what she calls “places of quiet tension” and she’s now working on a new series of images in the forests of the Georgian Caucasus, further unearthing the seeds of this concept. Working with large print sizes, she says, “I’ve always liked being enveloped by a work of art, and I like the idea of a photograph as a space or environment I can immerse myself in.” Deceptively simple at first, she uses scale and detail to lure us into precarious image-worlds.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London