Photo Loka: Creating Škofja Loka's Photographic History

Miha Colner

Photo Loka: Creating Škofja Loka s Photographic History

The photographic legacy of a certain, geographically limited space is one of the fundamental things that bear witness to the life, events, atmosphere and a general social climate in the modern age. We have been living in an inevitably visual world for decades and photography has played a key role in transferring images to the sphere of mass culture. As a medium that has left an indelible mark on the modern industrial age, photography has documented the ever-increasing changes in the world, both in the cultural landscape and the people who define it. Photography can and does document all sorts of moments that are part of personal or collective histories and also creates and determines the visual culture of a certain space. It can be used in a myriad of ways and for countless purposes, i.e. to document the intimate or collective reality, as a tool for visual communication of various kinds, as evidence or as an artistic medium in its own right. For decades, photography has been the medium that is accessible, simple and widespread enough for people to use en masse in their daily lives. Few photographers, however, have produced a photographic oeuvre that is consistent and continuous, and one that provides viewers with a deeper message or visual experience.

The main focus of the curators, who researched and prepared the Photo Loka exhibition, were those photographers who practiced – or still do – photography long-term, creating a consistent body of work, and who also left an unmistakable imprint on a wider local area, regardless of whether their reasons for photography were (or are) professional or a completely intimate creative impulse. Škofja Loka has a long and rich history of photography, as many distinguished Slovenian photographers came from this area or lived and worked here. For instance, Avgust Berthold, one of the most prominent photographers and artists of the first two decades of the 20th century in Slovenia, embarked on his creative path here in the early 20th century and many others followed in his footsteps later. The subject of the presented art history research was the production of various artists, photography studios, amateur photographers, photo journalists, artists and professional photographers, who documented their space and time in different ways. Many of the presented artists fall into several of the listed categories as photography is becoming an increasingly fluid practice and photographers can master multiple skills and areas simultaneously.

The Photo Loka project explores the attitude of photographers towards their own environment. This, however, does not mean that the exhibition focuses only on the motifs and scenes of Škofja Loka, but rather on the world as perceived and created by the photographers who lived and worked here at some point. It is the very environment one lives and works in that leaves a fundamental imprint on individuals and undoubtedly influences their creativity. This is how it all started and was the reason for the in-depth ‘historicisation’ of local photography in Škofja Loka, both in terms of art and in terms of photography as a fundamental element of contemporary historiography – in fact, photography is a means of providing an insight into both official history and intimate microhistories that may not be part of the dominant collective memory. The exhibition thus features the photographs that are consciously eclectic, as their meanings and effects have always been dictated by the context in which and for which they were created, be it newspapers, advertisements, exhibitions or personal photo albums.

The photographic production of Škofja Loka is, of course, much larger and extensive than the one presented in the exhibition. The selected and presented photographers are the ones whose works marked a moment in time for one reason or another, and seemed important in retrospect, regardless of whether they go back 100 years or a mere few months. In his seminal work Camera Lucida, philosopher Roland Barthes wrote that, by its very nature, photography is the past, part of history – as soon as a photographer presses the shutter button, the photo bears witness to something that belongs to the past. As it can faithfully document reality, photography is a medium that often serves to preserve memory, even while often distorting it.

Throughout its centuries-long history, Škofja Loka has always been an important town and therefore it did not take long for photographers and their studios to appear here during the Industrial Revolution. However, it was not until the early 20th century that the photographic industry in the area of today's Slovenia flourished to such an extent that people started using photography in everyday life and that it was no longer the sole domain of the upper classes. When the need to take their own photographs and preserve memories became accessible to the emerging middle and bourgeois class, this resulted in a great boom in the photographic industry and scene.

In the early 20th century, Avgust Berthold (1880–1919) started working at the Puštal Castle and immediately became part of the lively art and literary scene of Škofja Loka, where Slovenian Impressionist painters, among others, had also found their own ‘Barbizon’. Berthold received schooling in Munich and Vienna, and after returning home, settled in Ljubljana, where he opened a state-of-the-art photography studio in 1905. Škofja Loka and the wider area of the Gorenjska region, however, remained an important part of his artistic creation. Berthold was the first local photographer to be actively involved in the art scene and often exhibited alongside painters, printmakers and sculptors. During this time, most of the exhibitions featured one particular photography style – pictorialism, which brought along a number of restrictions and rules. In the spirit of the times, Berthold's works of art – mainly manually developed photographs – depicted pastoral scenes of untouched nature, the countryside, farm chores and magnificent landscapes. He often looked for scenes to depict in the vicinity of Škofja Loka, where he took a photo of the iconic Sower (1907), which later became one of the basic motifs of Slovenian national mythology, the countryside that stubbornly defies its original culture and language, in Ivan Grohar's painting of the same name. Berthold was also a master of portraiture – he created some of the most iconic portraits of local men of note, such as Ivan Cankar, Ivan Tavčar and Ivan Grohar. He also took photos of unfamiliar people and documented important moments of his own life. 

One of the most important members of Slovenia's first post-war generation of photographers was Vladimir Vlastja Simončič (1911–2000), who moved to the village of Gorenja vas in the Poljane Valley in 1975, after having previously worked mainly in Ljubljana. After the end of World War II, during which he had been part of the resistance movement, he collaborated with several Ljubljana-based theatres and built up an extensive photographic archive, as well as worked for various newspapers, such as Delo and Tovariš. After 1957, however, he specialised in medical photography and film. Throughout this period, he was also very active as an artist, systematically creating artworks for exhibitions and art publications. His artistic practice was focused on experimenting with photography based on classical modernist postulates. On the one hand, he created enigmatic documentary photographs that represented a reflection of the modern city, and on the other hand, he manipulated the photographic images by means of multiple exposure, solarization, and high-contrast shading. He left nothing to chance – the history of Slovenian photography is slow and deficient, so he made sure he was included in the history of photography himself and became the curator of his own work. He set up a museum in the old rectory in Gorenja vas, where he presented his most important works and all the important milestones in his career. The exhibition features a part of Simončič's museum, which can be viewed as the artist's visual-textual autobiography.

Edi Šelhaus (1919–2011), who was born into a family of photographers, took to photography even earlier than Simončič. His mother was in charge of the Atelje Šelhaus photography studio in Škofja Loka, where he was trained to become a photographer in the late 1930s. In 1943, he took his camera along when he joined the partisan resistance movement and created an extensive and important photographic oeuvre. After the war, he worked as a photojournalist for some of the most important Slovenian newspapers, such as Delo, Slovenski poročevalec and Tovariš. He remained active throughout his life and his photographic career is considered one of the longest and most distinguished ones. His rich legacy includes a large amount of photographs, most of which are kept by the National Museum of Contemporary History. The exhibition, however, features only Šelhaus's photographs taken in Škofja Loka and the surrounding area: photos of important local events and his street and landscape photography. As a devoted photojournalist, he documented an important part of the local history.

The photography of Tone Mlakar (1921–2020), an architect by profession, has been inspired by entirely personal motives. His photographs of the town of Škofja Loka and the surrounding area are characterised by classic black-and-white photographic aesthetics and most often depict monumental landscapes based on the tradition of pictorialism and modernism. Even though he followed these postulates, his visual language is extremely unconstrained – after all, photography was not his profession, but merely a tool for creating a personal and collective history. In spite of this – or maybe precisely because of this – his photographs are extremely important when it comes to depicting picturesque vignettes and discovering the microhistories of Škofja Loka. The photographs, which are part of his creative oeuvre spanning more than fifty years, are presented in the form of photo albums and were for the most part taken to be included in these albums in the first place. Due to its multifaceted importance, the photographic archive of Tone Mlakar will soon be added to the collection of the Škofja Loka Museum. 

Peter Pokorn Sr. (1939–2016), who was one of the most prominent members and long-time president of the Anton Ažbe Camera Club, is known for his technically perfect photographs. He practiced various photography genres and styles, however, the genre that deserves a special mention is his landscape photography, which became an important part of Škofja Loka's visual code. His photos have been featured on postcards, books, travel brochures and art exhibitions. In terms of depicted motives and scenes, he is a successor of pictorialism, in his art photography, however, he used modern technical means and depicted the cultural landscape here and now.

Another photographer that documented Škofja Loka in much the same way was Janez Misson (1963–2019), who worked as a photographer and cameraman for Slovenia's national broadcaster RTV Slovenia, while also creating his own art photography. His most common photographic subject and his main source of inspiration had always been his immediate environment, i.e. the town of Škofja Loka and the surrounding area. His aim was to capture special, visually appealing moments that became very popular and were often reproduced, such as on a postcard from the 1980s, which showed the statue of St. John of Nepomuk trapped in spider webs, or his bird's eye view photo of the town taken in the 1990s, which became one of the most emblematic images of Škofja Loka.

Tomaž Lunder (1955–2016), who worked as a photographer from the mid-1970s and later also as a graphic designer, devoted himself to socially conditioned topics – always from his own subjective point of view. Throughout his diverse artistic career, he portrayed both familiar people and strangers in his immediate surroundings, thus depicting the reality of his generation. He viewed photography as a recognisable and representative imprint of a cultural code that testifies to its motifs, be it portraits of people or a cultural landscape. He enriched the Slovenian world of art with his view of a perfectly ordinary life, which testifies to the state of mind of both space and time. He travelled a lot, which resulted in a diverse range of photography subjects, but he always looked for the recurrent typology that connects them all. His now forgotten series of portraits of local craftsmen from 1991 and the photos depicting American and Slovenian suburbs in a series of photographs titled Friends thus make for an exceptional visual record of space and time.

Igor Pustovrh (1961–2011), who worked as a professional photographer, was also a prolific art photographer. His artistic body of work, which earned him a permanent place in the annals of Slovenian photography, included various genres, such as landscape, portrait and still life photography. In his first acclaimed series on the subject of the human body from the early 1990s, he staged female and male nudes in unusual interactions with the environment, thus achieving almost surrealistic effects. He also introduced the Slovenian public to a new style of photography, adopting a film-like approach and combining it with his unique photographic storytelling. 

Janez Pelko (1968) understands and uses photography as a means of expressing his own experiences and dealing with the fundamental issues of life. In his creative practice, he often explores the naked human body in its various distorted forms and unusual situations on the one hand, and focuses on documenting musical events and musicians on the other. As an obsessive lover of music, Pelko became an associate member of Ensemble Ankaran and is now its integral part, appearing on (and below the) stage during the ensemble's performances. He has also created the entire visual concept for the song titled Terezijanska by the Same Babe band, where the music video and the photographs serve as complementary interpretations of this ironic and humorous song, which deals with the existential issues of Everyman caught in banal, ever-repeating patterns of everyday life. 

Another versatile and tireless chronicler of Škofja Loka and the surrounding area is Tone Štamcar (1960), whose photographs capture the urban pulse of life, as well as the softness and slowness of the rural area. His photographs often depict a rapidly changing cultural landscape that has been increasingly urbanised. His consistent photographic documentation of various parts of Sorško polje spanning many years has resulted in an unembellished depiction of a hybrid area where industrial and pastoral landscapes and the modern and the traditional life are brought together and intertwined. 

Sašo Kočevar (1981) is a tireless chronicler of everyday spaces and situations, and uses a variety of the genre’s stalwarts, from street photography to landscape photography, following photography’s classic postulates. In his mostly black-and-white photographs, he always seeks ideal proportions and canonised formal effects, such as light playing on the surfaces, reflections, contrasts, the artistry of man-made structures, and natural forms. Despite his eclectic approach, the way he goes about photography is often almost impressionist. He is mainly interested in places he knows well enough to be able to predict changes in light and weather conditions, which makes his personal archive an important photographic chronicle of Škofja Loka.

Urban Babnik (1975) is another informal chronicler of everyday life and the banalities of his immediate environment. His photographs are often humorous and ironic and thus typical of contemporary street photography. By capturing banal and absurd situations in public spaces, the photographer holds up a critical mirror to the social and political aspects of everyday life, the spaces and situations that dominate the public sphere and represent the core of modern existence, such as shop windows, restaurants and pubs, the pulse of town streets, public toilets, mannequins and advertising posters. Babnik is bound by no conventions of photography genres and his photographic artwork is consequently distinctly eclectic. His photos capture the essence of urban and rural environments alike – in fact, Škofja Loka has always belonged to both of these worlds.

Mito Gegič (1982), who is first and foremost a painter, uses photography in various ways – it serves as his sketchbook and aid to creating a visual diary. While his painting focuses mainly on the transfer of digital images onto the material canvas, as a photographer he pursues analogue photography. On the one hand, he uses photography as part of his artistic practice, creating dark mise-en-scène and metaphorical images. On the other hand, photography is his tool for documenting the pulse of Škofja Loka's streets, by means of which he keeps a diary of getting to know and visually analysing his adopted town. 

Jana Jocif (1982) is a contemporary chronicler of local cultural events, a versatile photographer who pursues all sorts of photography genres and styles. As a professional photographer and an architect, she specialises in the portraiture of various artists, food photography and, above all, architectural photography. In addition to this, she works on her own projects, many of which are conceived entirely by chance while she is curiously exploring her surroundings either to casually document her walks or create various photo stories on purpose.