In the bars at night, it is hard not to empathize with the locals as they grumble about the approaching tourist season. Wistfully they recall glossy memories of life before the cruise ships; where small family businesses outnumbered the overpriced souvenir sprawl and life in general was simpler. With these golden memories of the past in mind, the Modern Art Gallery of Dubrovnik has put on a show by Croatian Photographer Tošo Dabac to give form to nostalgia. Dating from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, the gallery presents a retrospective of Dabac's work through photos taken in both Zagreb and Dubrovnik.
Aside from his successful lifelong career in a variety of commercial art, Dabac's photos, taken on the clock and off, speak to the soul of Croatia. He is best know for a series called "Street People", where his documentation of Zagreb's poverty would come to represent the hopeless attitude of Eastern Europe after the first world war.
Spanning all four floors of the gallery, the show guides the audience from his most well known pieces to those more obscure. We are first introduced to the portraits from his famous "Street people" series, which face photos of Dubrovnik from 30 years later. Connecting these two walls are larger prints of commercial work from the years between, along with a stairway leading to upper floors that return to Zagreb and give more attention to Dabac's social awareness. Through some softer more tonal prints, these upper levels further reveal his compassion for the people and the times. Yet quickly after scanning the entire show I found myself walking back to the entrance, attracted to the contrasts of the first two walls. Aside from adequately displaying the artist’s interests and range, the show takes the opportunity to make an interesting comparison of Zagreb and Dubrovnik. Although taken at very different periods in history and in Dabac's life, they clearly express different attitudes in the locations themselves.
Zagreb is described through bold, boxy silhouettes. While industrious men plow forward, long cast shadows allude to a foreboding and uncertain future. Dubrovnik on the other hand appears casual and bright; we find children leaning out of trolley cars and idly feeding fish without any sense of purpose or direction. Bathing suits and strolling summer dresses join together in the hum of lazy summer. Yet interestingly enough, it is in Dubrovnik where a clear separation of class is expressed. One image displays sporting young men looking down from the city walls as older women carry their groceries in shadow below. Although bleak, the photos of Zagreb show a people united by struggle, my favorite being an image of men, women and children crowding around a hunched woman playing an accordion on the ground, her children surrounding her. The busy streets of Zagreb contrast with Dubrovnik’s empty marketplace, although ironically Dabac’s image of the beach is covered with people who swarm on top of each other like crabs.
More than an accumulative retrospective, the images selected for this show make an interesting statement about the impact of tourism, as well as the deep-rooted history of it within the region. The vacation-seeking summer flocks are not new after all. Right up the coast, Split has grown entirely from tourism; the city overflowing from the wall’s of a Roman emperor’s retirement home dating over 2300 years ago. Yet how does seasonal luxury influence the attitudes of people who must make ends meet year round?
With generations of change in between, Dabac’s photos capture relationships between spaces and culture that are still potent today. Similar to the New York City photographer Weegee, he managed to balance his social sensitivity while maintaining an outsider’s perspective even to subjects familiar to him. His images are also a reminder that over the years the cultural identity of a people may paint over portions of the collective memory.
With a refreshed perspective, I reenter Dubrovnik’s streets and make my way through chattering high school students and puttering clouds of tourists. I take a seat on the adjacent stairs overlooking the beach and catch wisps of disconnected foreign conversations. A few boys wrestle in the stones while a leash-less dog circles and instigates. Neither here nor there, I can again appreciate the subtle sparks of native life while somewhere beyond, the listless beach yawns and awaits the swollen cruise ships of summer to arrive.