History of Underwater Photography in Slovenia
From the beginning to the beginning of the digital era
The birth of Slovenian underwater photography
Forty-five years after the Frenchmen Louis Buotan, a professor of zoology at the French sea-exploring station Arago, created his first underwater photographs in 1893 using an enormous camera loaded with photographic plates closed in a copper barrel, which weighed about 200 kg, Slovenian underwater photography was born (1938).
It happened among an enthusiastic group of natural sciences’ students (Ivan and Dušan Kuščer, Drago Leskovšek and Marko Zalokar, all of them to become University professors) who in the previous year (1937) were the first Slovenians to take a peak underwater in a home-made equipment in the Rača Bay near the village of St. Juraj beneath the Velebit mountain range (in the today’s territory of Croatia, then – Yugoslavia). The equipment consisted of a clumsy helmet, the idea of which came from the book “Beneath the Tropic Seas” by W. Beebe, connected with a long and in the beginning overly thin air tube and an air pump, which was powered by the diver’s buddy on a raft, supplying air to the diver underwater. Two years later, the helmet was replaced by a home-made mask made from an automobile’s tire and the air tube supplied air directly into the diver’s mouth.
After the first year of diving, the group of students wished to bring more from underwater then memories and, mostly, wanted to share the beauties of the underwater world to the wider public. The only answer was underwater photography and in 1938 they fulfilled their dreams. This was also the year when the Austrian Hans Hass made his first underwater photographs in the Adriatic.
"Photographing bell"– (the first Slovenian underwater housing)
The students reached their goal of making underwater photographs with the use of the home-made underwater housing called “photographing bell”, which largely resembled a diving bell. It was a bottomless container, made from brass plates, measuring 7 x 12 x 25 cm. A Tenex small format camera was placed inside the top third of the container, where on one side a glass flat port of a 6 cm diameter was located. On the bottom of the “photographing bell” there were two 25 cm rods with a 1 kg metal plate connected to them. The whole system weighed approximately 2 kg. On the top of it there was a foldable frame made out of wires, which the photographer could use to compose the picture with. The system had a slightly negative buoyancy when filled with air and thanks to the heavy plate on the bottom it could stand autonomously on flat ground.
When descending into depth, the diver had to simultaneously add air into the “photographing bell” to compensate for the rising water surface in it due to the increased outside pressure. In spite of its primitive construction, no accidents ever occurred. The construction allowed for the first underwater black-and-white films to be shot and in 1939 colour films, as well.
No one from the group remembers exactly who was the first photographer, but they claim it to be unimportant, because they were cooperative and not competitive as a group. From their diary notes, one could speculate it to have been Drago Leskovšek, while the first published photography (in the "Jutro" newspaper in 1938) was taken by Marko Zalokar.
The “photographing bell” gave the group positive experiences, but nevertheless, the Kuščer brothers engaged in a new project and Dušan produced the first water-tight housing for the Zeiss Ikon 24 x 24 mm camera, which he used to make the first colour slides. The housing was made from welded 2 mm brass plates. The main cover was from thicker material and used a rubber seal. All controls, made from smooth shafts, used a sealing similar to the water tap. The housing had an additional safety mechanism: it had a bicycle tyre valve, which was used to pump air into the housing, its pressure exceeding the pressure of the diving location with the highest outside pressure. This eliminated any chances of water protruding into the housing.
Later, in 1956, Marjan Richter, a student of the Kuščer brothers and one of the key persons in the development of underwater photography in Slovenia, made his own housing for the Kodak Retina 1a camera. He used it to shoot colour slides, which he then published in the magazines and exhibited in his many lectures. In 1960, he presented his first exhibition of underwater photographs in Piran, which was also a first in Slovenia.
The first underwater film
Contemporarily with the development of the first closed housing, the Kuščer brothers’ group developed the housing for underwater movie cameras. In 1952 Ivan Kuščer borrowed a 16 mm movie camera and some film from the Ministry of Culture and Education. The housing was made from brass plates. The group intended to create a film called “Underwater walks” and trusted the role of camera-man to the young Marjan Richter. In order to be able to film as much material as possible, Ivan Kuščer even reconstructed the camera’s lens, so that it was possible to focus on the nearer objects as well. Filming with the camera was quite a task, the major problem being the spring driving the movie camera, which had to be rewound every 25 seconds.
The same year, another group, led by Mile DeGlerija, engaged in the underwater movie project. They intended to film a documentary about underwater spearfishing.
In the next year (1953), there was an accident: seawater entered the housing, flooded Marjan’s camera and completely destroyed it. That was the sad end of the “Underwater walks” filming project. Mile DeGlerija’s group also had a similar accident and the public had to wait several years to see the first Slovenian underwater film.
The first single lens reflex cameras
Arkadij Popovič, the second key person for the development of underwater photography in Slovenia after Marjan Richter, soon after obtaining his diving license in 1962 constructed a housing for his 2 x 8 mm movie camera, but refrained from using it very early due to high film prices. Soon he turned to photography and bought an Exa-1a SLR camera. He obtained a housing cast from his brother in Germany, which he redesigned, finished and first used in 1964 with his Exa, which was the first SLR used for underwater photography in Slovenia.
Arkadij later "discovered" the Ivanoff corrector in a Russian book on underwater optics. The corrector is a two-lens optical system for the correction of aberrations in the wide-angle underwater photography. He had the corrector's lenses made at the Ljubljana-based optical manufacturer Vega in 1967. This was happening in a time when the nowadays so popular dome ports were only starting to enter the market.
In those times the general opinion was that the smallest suitable photographs for publishing were those of the 6 x 6 format and smaller formats were only suitable for amateur photography, which was partly true due to the coarse grain films of those times. So, Arkadij and Miro Žlajpah, his colleague, got both a Pentacon Six cameras and built the housings for them. They became the first (and the only) Slovenians to use medium-format cameras underwater.
The underwater photography in the sixties and early seventies
In the beginning of the sixties, the Society for underwater photography and film was established in Ljubljana. The members were very innovative in their housing building, using among other materials even kitchen pots. The society was autonomous for only 6 months, when it joined other similar diving societies in the Society for Marine Research of Slovenia (DRM) in 1961. This was the operative Society for almost all Slovenian underwater photographers and filmmakers of the time.
The seventies saw a large-scale development of photography in DRM, especially due to technical improvements. The work of the members was based mostly on Do-It-Yourself. The group consisted of members with various skills, but operated homogeneously according to the principle of complementary knowledge.
They manufactured their own electronic strobes, some of which are still in use today. It was also a general opinion that the use of electronic strobes was too dangerous for underwater use because of the high voltage in the synchronisation cord, which is why underwater photographers used vacuum bulbs for single usage with a low voltage battery source. Instead, the photographers at DRM developed their own thyristor electronic circuit, which fires the strobe at a low voltage (Popovič, Vrščaj, 1973). This firing mechanism is now used by all strobe manufacturers all over the world.
In 1976, DRM published an underwater photography manual, which included DRM photographers’ papers with practical building instructions, as well as photocopies of articles from foreign magazines.
In this period several new names appeared in the field of underwater photography in Slovenia, including Milan Orožen Adamič, Ciril Mlinar - Cic, Marjan Trobec, Janez Vidrih, Jože Hanc, Blaž Konec....
Fish photo hunting
In the seventies, when underwater spearfishing was already widely practised among divers, the Slovenian underwater photographers, members of DRM, first conceived the idea of hunting fish with a photographic camera instead of a spear gun. The new competing event, created by Marjan Richter and Tine Valentinčič, a biology professor, was named fish photo hunting. Unfortunately, the new sport didn’t appeal to the hunters and remained in the photographers’ domain.
The rules of fish photo hunting were quite simple and remained unchanged for the most part until the decline of this competition category at the end of the 90’s. The photographer must, with a limited amount of air (usually 4,000 litres) in a limited time (4 – 5 hours) in a limited aquatorium (a few hundred meters and 20 m of depth), shoot as many photographs as possible of different kinds of fishes onto one roll of film (36 shots). The fishes are divided into three categories, according to the difficulty level. The fishes on the photographs must be adequately large and correctly framed. Additionally, the technical and aesthetic criteria apply. The winner is the photographer, who scores the largest number of points.
The first fish photo hunting competition was organised in the autumn of 1973 in Piran, the competition taking place at the Cape Savudrija (today, located in Croatia). There were six Slovenians and one Italian competitor. Soon, fish photo hunting competitions began to bring Italian (esp. Trieste-based) and Slovenian photographers together, who exchanged the organisation of the competitions in Slovenia (in Piran or Fiesa) and Italy (at the Miramare underwater park near Trieste), alternately.
The club competitions soon evolved into regional and soon Yugoslav national competitions, being accepted by the Croats, Bosnians and Serbs as well. The Slovenian underwater photographers usually took the highest places in these competitions. Some of the divers were so infected by this new event that they focused only on fish photo hunting, totally neglecting all other underwater photography.
The fish photo hunting competition, slightly modified, was also adopted by the CMAS World Underwater Federation, the organiser of World Championship Competitions. The main difference in the CMAS rules is that all photographs have to be taken while breath-hold diving.
The late seventies and eighties
Although Marjan Richter was the first Slovenian photographer to receive a foreign underwater photography award for an algae photograph in 1964 by the Italian Mondo Sommerso magazine, the first encounter of Slovenian DRM underwater photographers with their colleagues abroad happened in 1978 at the International Festival of Underwater Photography in Juan les Pins, France. As they submitted their photographs to the jury, they had to return home and never received the results of the competition. All they were able to find out was that among the winning photographs, published in a local magazine, the highest positions were taken by works of Popovič and Trobec.
In 1979, Calampis in Sicily (Italy) featured the first World Championship in Underwater Photography, organised by the Mondo Sommerso magazine. Based on previously submitted photographs, the organiser chose Miro Žlajpah and Vinko Švab, joining them as the team leader was Arkadij Popovič. The competition was a cold shower for our photographers: they were so used to fish photo hunting that they were surprised by the sheer difference in photographic approach by the other competitors, who were equipped with wide-angle lenses and several other gadgets. Some of the Slovenian photographers realised that they had lost contact with world underwater photography trends, led astray by fish photo hunting. They stated radical changes were needed in Slovenian underwater photography.
Despite the bad news from Sicily, most photographers remained faithful to fish photo hunting. Some were enthusiastic of creative photography at first, but only cultivated the idea for a limited period of time. A true creative photography was undertaken in the early eighties by Arkadij Popovič. Soon we were able to observe his underwater nudes, surrounded by starfish, divers in light beams, items in red light etc. We can honestly say that Arkadij was a pioneer of creative underwater photography in Slovenia.
In the early eighties Arkadij Popovič was undoubtedly the best underwater photographer in the country (then Yugoslavia) and that was the times when he, according to his own words, created his best works. He was first to host multivision slide shows, where two slides projected from two separate projectors were shown in a dissolving transition on a music background. His slide shows were shown over all of Yugoslavia.
Later in the eighties, a series of domestic and international competitions and contests awards made Ciril Mlinar stand out as well, who, apart from being an underwater photographer, was also a filmmaker. One of his films, “Cave Diving”, won him the Hans Hass Award in 1986 in Lienz (Austria).
In the times of Yugoslavia, two more World Championships were organised: in 1987 in Spain and in 1990 in Sicily (Italy). Both were attended by our photographers, who tried to express creativity of ideas. They never knew their placements, since both times the organisers published only the first three places.
At the end of the 70's newcomers joined underwater photographers: Janez Bregar, Borut Furlan, Franc Goltez and Igor Mauser. In the 80's some new names surfaced, Tom Turk, a professor of Biology, who became active first of all in biological underwater photography. At the end of the 80's Smiljan Zavrtanik made his appearance, and soon showed his organising capability.
Underwater photography after 1990 (in independent Slovenia)
The last important underwater photography event taking place in the times of the old Yugoslavia was the participation in the International Fish Photo Hunting Competition in June 1991 in Sardegna, featuring photographers Ciril Mlinar and Borut Furlan and Aleksander Adamec from Rijeka, now Croatia, as captain. They were awarded the third prize in the team competition among six national teams. They returned home one day prior to the Yugoslav Army occupying our borders, which was the start of the Slovenian 10-day war for independence, and their trophy is still somewhere in Rijeka, in the former Yugoslav Diving Federation headquarters.
The beginning of the nineties saw Slovenian underwater photography proceeding along the traditional lines from Yugoslav times, where the main event was fish photo hunting. There were contests in general underwater photography, somewhat erroneously called “creative photography”. In those times, photography wasn’t divided into categories and authors used to autonomously submit their work into appraisal to juries, composed of renown land photographers, painters and biologists. Such juries proved to be rather inadequate, often producing unexpected and surprising results.
In 1994, after participating in the internal competition of the German UWF Magazine in Spain, Borut Furlan came up with the idea of segmenting general underwater photography into different categories, as it was done in world-wide competitions. In the years following, various themes developed into what they are today: macro (photographing of small marine organisms or small details of larger organisms), fish (photographing fish, but unlike fish photo hunting, here the emphasis is on the aesthetic value of the photography – this theme has only been acknowledged since 1998, from the Vodan contest in Nova Gorica, previously fish photography was included in the macro theme), ambient or wide-angle photography (photographing the underwater scenery with or without divers using wide-angle lenses) and creation (photography using special techniques or expressing special ideas – the most free and most demanding technique).
In the second half of the nineties new names joined the ranks of Slovenian underwater photographers. Among others, there was Milan Tomažin – Tyson, a Special force police officer with his official Nikonos RS, who soon started achieving good results. After him there were others, mainly with the Ljubljana DRM branch, namely Boris Pihlar, performing surprisingly well very soon in several competitions, Irena Čok, the most enthusiastic and tenacious underwater female photographer in Slovenia, who became Furlan's assistant and Andrej Voje. All newcomers started their careers with industrially manufactured housings, since the era of Do-It-Yourself was forever gone.
In the second half of the nineties the quality of competitions soared. This is especially true of the years following 1998, when the organisation of contests was taken over by Smiljan Zavrtanik from Nova Gorica. His contests named Vodan are becoming festivals of underwater photography and video films, with an increasing international attendance. The initial three themes (macro, fish and ambient) have later expanded into seven. The materials are evaluated by an expert jury, composed of acknowledged underwater photographers from Slovenia, Italy and Switzerland (also World Champions in underwater photography)
This was also the time of Slovenian photographers becoming increasingly internationally oriented. The photographers have become regular participants at World Championship Competitions and have started sending their work to several international contests abroad. Thus in 1995 a Slovenian team attended the first (and the last) CMAS World Cup in Underwater Photography at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, and later nearly all CMAS World Championships in Underwater Photography that followed. In all the competitions they attended, Slovenian photographers achieved at least one placement among the top ten in individual themes and, lately, also among top ten overall individual rankings.
The nineties were also the period of bloom of underwater movies and video films. Amid underwater filmmakers the place of the most active convincingly goes to Ciril Mlinar - Cic, who has mostly specialised in movies. Among his works the most reknown is the film about the Proteus, the Carst caves diving film and the first Slovenian 35 mm film called “Faces of the green river” about the river Ljubljanica in different seasons.
At the same time as the above-mentioned photographers, there is also another world-known Slovenian photographer Arne Hodalič, who is more a photo reporter but uses underwater photography as an addition to his reportages. He is exceptionally skilled in underwater photography, although he never worked with other underwater photographers and has never been a member of the group or attended their meetings.
The beginning of digital underwater photography in Slovenia
In accordance with the development of photographic technology, more and more digital technology emerged in Slovenian photography. Older photographers, used to film cameras, were more conservative at the digital migration. They would not exchange high quality film photos for new and expensive digital "toys", even when this "toys" offered significantly greater alternatives in taking photos (especially more autonomy and immediate analyses of results, combined with the possibility of correcting mistakes). In this first era (2002 – 2006), mostly "novice" photographers, who never used film cameras, embraced the new digital technology. Most of them used cheaper compact cameras in plastic housings, only a few were "brave" (in financial sense) to buy a DSLR cameras, which give them much more photographic opportunities. In this way Slovenian underwater photography acquired much needed "fresh blood", which was missing almost all of the time.
After 2006, older underwater photographers began to migrate to digital world. With the new generation of digital cameras (Nikon D2x, Nikon D200, Nikon D80, Canon Eos 1Ds II, Canon 5D, Canon 30D...) they finally exceeded photo quality of their beloved film cameras (Čok, Furlan, Hodalič, Pihlar, Tomažin...).
International and national contests quickly adapted to digital photography. Vodan contest equally treated digital and film slides in 2006, but in 2007 accepted only digital photos and scanned slides. The same rules were in effect in Slovenian national contests. In the year 2006 the photographers equally used film and digital cameras in the national contests. The majority of older photographers (many of them guests from Italy) still used film cameras, and they even outmatched the novices with digital cameras. But next year, 2007, all the participants had digital cameras, because all the photographers already switched to digital technology.
In 2007 Borut Furlan organised and performed the first 2-weeks course in underwater photography for photographers with single lens reflex cameras. The course was intended for film and digital camera owners, but all of the 14 participants had digital cameras.
At the end of 2006, Slovenian underwater photographers community was shocked by the news that they lost Smiljan Zavrtanik, the founder, leader and organiser of the international Vodan contest.