Underwater photography,

film and TV in Slovenia from prehistoric times to independence

Ciril Mlinar Cic

The year 2002 marks the 65 anniversary of the first black and white film shot by the Slovenian divers under the sea. 100 years have passed since the first attempts of underwater photography in the world.

Once upon a time …

Since Louis Boutan and Joseph David made their first underwater photos at the French coast in 1893, underwater photography has seen great changes. Huge cameras, thousand kilograms of weight, have been replaced by small, easy to handle cameras in light watertight housings or even without them, large glass photographic plates have been reduced to sensitive fine grain films (being successfully ousted by high performance electronic chip), and lighting devices have been replaced by small electronic flash lights. Diving equipment developed simultaneously and the development of a modern aqualung pushed the heavy skafander into a museum for ever.

The First Slovenian Underwater Camera

But before all this happened, the Slovenian underwater photography was born at Rača under Velebit in 1938 (even before the famous Cousteau and in the same year when Hans Hass made his first underwater photos in the Adriatic). It started in Ljubljana with a group of Slovenian students, lovers of nature and submarine world, led by Ivan Kuščer – Janez who guided the group for seven summers (from 1935 onwards) to exploratory missions of the underwater world. They made the diving equipment and housings for their underwater cameras by themselves.


Diving raft, helmet, bags of gravel and air pump. Diving at Rača in 1937 (Archive: Ciril Mlinar Cic). The Kuščer brothers in action: Ivan by the pump, Dušan setting off to the dive (photos from the book Walks under the Sea)


People of Rača at the time of the first underwater photos with the “diving bell”. Left photo is a picture post card, date of seal 26 July 1938. Right photo: Drago Leskovšek and Ivan Kuščer; Ivan holding the lever of the new “two-leg” pump constructed by Drago (Archive: Ciril Mlinar Cic)


Poveznik, a kind of “diving bell”, a bell-shaped device was an upright box made of tinned metal, the camera filling only the upper third of the box. A ground glass window was inserted in the front side at the level of the lens. The bottom side was open so that the water level raised according to the increasing depth. Therefore the photographer had to blow air into it every few meters by means of a tube in order to oust the incoming water. At the bottom the device was extended by two 25 cm legs and a 1 kg metal plate which provided stability and prevented it from turning over.


Diving bell” of 1938 and one of the first underwater photos taken by it (Photo from the book Walks under the Sea) and the remains of the “diving bell” from 1992 (Photo Ciril Mlinar Cic)


In 1938 the first black and white photos were taken by means of the “diving bell” (Marko Zalokar, Dušan Kuščer, Ivan Kuščer, and Drago Leskovšek) and the first colour photos only a year later. In an old diary of Rača from 1938 I found the inscription: “the first undersea photography, photo Dragi” (Drago Leskovšek). It is hard to say who the author of the first Slovenian underwater photo really was, but we do know that the author of the first one published in the newspaper Jutro in 1938 was Marko Zalokar, the constructor of the “diving bell”.


Diaries of DL (Drugo Leto - Next Year, as the Rača divers jokingly called themselves), the society that was never officially registered (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)

In 2001 in an interview Marko Zalokar said: “…. at that time I had and Exacta, a good camera, but my father said “You are not going to take it under water!” I also had an old bellows camera and I made a metal box to put it in. It was open at the bottom so that one could reach inside with one’s hand an operate the camera by means of a metal stick and a wire trigger. At the top there was a square viewfinder so that one could see the motive one was taking the picture of. This is how we took photos at that time. As far as lighting was concerned – it was all done by instinct: it may succeed or not succeed. There was no way to measure the light.”


Ivan and Dušan Kuščer in 1997 at the Island of Krk and Marko Zalokar in 2002 at the spring of the Soča River (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)


Drago Leskovšek around 2000 and a diver with the diving equipment and technique from 1939: a pump, a tube, a mask cut from automobile pneumatic and a weight bag filled with gravel (Photo: family archive Leskovšek)


If handled cautiously by the diver the camera was quite safe under water and no accident ever happened. Nevertheless, a few years later the Rača divers switched to hermetically closed underwater housings (Dušan Kuščer, 1952)

Underwater Film

Reinforced by new fans acquired at the diving courses, the Rača divers wished to make a movie about their “walks under the sea” and diving with a pump. In 1952 they borrowed a 16 mm camera from the Ministry of Culture and Education, and according to the plans drawn by Ivan and Dušan Kuščer they made a waterproof brass housing. “Ivan sealed the spring winding axles and trigger with flax, at plumber’s principle. It was quite embarrassing as the spring had to be rewound every 25 seconds of recording. It was difficult and it scared the fish away” said Marjan Richter, who, as a young freshman was entrusted with the role of the underwater cameraman.

Mile de Gleria with an underwater camera and a team of underwater fishermen in 1952 (Photos: archive of Mile de Gleria)


Equipment used by Mile shooting his first film, 1952 (Photos: archive of Mile de Gleria)


A scene from Mile de Gleria’s first film, 1952 (Archive of Mile de Gleria)


In the same year, the team led by Mile de Gleria got its own underwater camera. The idea of scenario for their film was basically different. They were making a movie on underwater fishermen and spear-fishing. Unfortunately, due to technical problems, none of the teams was able to finish the first film.


Marjan Richter with his Kodak Retina 1a in an underwater housing (Photo: from the book Walks Under the Sea) and at home in Ljubljana in 2001 (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)


At the same time (1952), along with his film camera armour, Dušan Kuščer created the first water tight housing for his Zeis Ikon photo camera, 24x24 format to successfully produce the first colour slides. Richter was so impressed that he himself made a housing for his Kodak Retina 1a and dedicated his entire life to underwater photography. He recalls those days: “The lighting under the sea in those days was done only by means of magnesium lamps. I carried them under my swimsuit. Sometimes, when changing them, some of them floated away to the surface and I never saw them again”.

Underwater television

Later, in the television period Richter started to make films for the emerging Slovenian television. He recorded a number of underwater shows on a 16 mm film and furnished some Slovenian films with underwater recordings.

In 1958 the first completely home made underwater TV system was tested during the diving expedition Bios in the Kvarner Bay, organised by the Society for Scientific Exploration of the Sea and Underwater Engineering (predecessor of the Marine Research Society). It was constructed by the engineers of the Electrical Engineering Institute (IEV) Stojan Flajs, Vlado Jezovšek, Martin Sever, Jože Štok and colleagues, and it worked perfectly. Marjan Richter, who was in charge of film recording and underwater photography, recalls today: “After the successful test of the camera the expedition was cancelled due to extremely bad weather, and to my regret, never undertaken again. Later the restored camera was presented to the President of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito so that he could observe the life in the sea from his yacht”.

Two years later, owing to Richter, the Slovenian TV audience first saw the underwater world of the tropical sea in black and white, recorded on a colour film during the scientific research expedition to the Red Sea in 1960.

Salty Books

Undoubtedly some books dealing with life under the sea surface influenced the further development of underwater photography in our country, especially The World of Silence (JY Cousteau, F. Dumas) translated into Slovenian in 1957, Under the Sea Surface (M.Nikolić), translated in 1958 and finally, our most important book Walks under the Sea, published in 1963, a collection of texts by various local authors, arranged by Ivan Kuščer. A year later Hass’s book We Descend from the Sea was also translated. Much later, in 1991 Mate Dolenc collected the texts of fourteen authors and published the book Submarine World and Us, which represents a kind of continuation of Kuščer’s Walks.



Single Lens Reflex Camera

In 1964 Arkadij Popovič-Dadi (after his experience with a 2x8 mm camera and his own water tight housing) started to independently develop the first local single lens reflex camera. The following year Milan Orožen Adamič, an amateur photographer, joined in, and his creative attitude towards photography significantly influenced the artistic side of underwater photography. By the end of the sixties Popovič placed Ivan’s corrector, a two lense system (it was made in Vega) in front of the wide angle lens to reduce the optical errors under water. After the initial experiments with Exo he continued to improve the medium format camera Pentakon Six.


Arkadij Popovič-Dadi with his Pentakon Six camera at Žurkovo in 1975 (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)

Later Popovič and Vinko Vrščaj remodelled the electronic flash light for underwater use. Soon after Miro Žlajpah, Janez Vidrih-Vani and Popovič developed and produced a series of underwater flash lights. To sharpen the view of swimming fishes Popovič and Žlajpah constructed a special mechanism to provide rapid movement of the lens – a kind of trombone. Dadi passed his experience in making the underwater housings and underwater photography techniques to all the following generations of Slovenian underwater photographers.


Miro Žlajpah with his Pentakon Six camera housing at Premantura in 2011 and two of the underwater flash lights (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)

In 1961 the Underwater Photography and Film Society was established. Fedor Kovačič and Bogo Eržen were among its founders, and Zvone Kralj joined in later. The society members produced their underwater housings in a very unique way – for example a high pressure cooker was transformed into an underwater housing. The society operated independently only for six months, as later all similar societies fused into the Marine Research Society of Slovenia. In 1963, at the opening of the Aquarium, Richter held his first solo exhibition of underwater photography in the Piran Gallery. In 1968 the Marine Research Society of Slovenia was reorganized and a Underwater Photography and Film Section was established. New members were joining the Section, in 1968 Ciril Mlinar Cic as the youngest underwater photographer and constructor,

1972, Ciril Mlinar Cic with UW housing for camera Werra-1, (Photo: Jože Hanc - Joc), Jože Hanc - Joc with wooden UW housing (Foto: Ciril Mlinar Cic) and Zvone Kutin - Kut with UW housing for box camera (Foto: Ciril Mlinar Cic).


Marjan Trobec in 1973 – he was remarkable for the simplicity of his underwater housings construction – for him elastics and plastic gears from children’s toys were the law, Janez Vidrih-Vani (an innovator, capable to produce the impossible), Franc Brecelj, Zvone Kutin – Kut, Jože Hanc-Joc (who made a wooden underwater housing), always optimistic Blaž Konec – Pinki (who once managed to win the photo fishing competition with a Nikonos), Janez Bregar (excellent in fish photography techniques) and Igor Mauser, who sloughed from a spear fisherman into a photo fisherman. Some were coming from more distant places, for example Vincenc Švab – Cene and Franc Goltez from Gorenjska region, an excellent “fresh water” photographer and organizer of the fish photography competition at Bled. They all attended the weekly meetings of the Society and also held meetings within a narrower circle of underwater photographers. At these meetings they exchanged all sorts of underwater photographic experience and ideas, mostly regarding the construction of underwater housings of all kinds and underwater photography techniques. Thus in the next decade a true rush in underwater housings construction took place, so that soon there were more unique housings than underwater photographers.

Occasionally, Richter’s contemporary Jože Mušič – Muško joined the meetings. He was a diving veteran who made the first cave photos behind a siphon that he swam through. “We were diving with a skafander that needed to be pumped manually. Štirn and I crawled through a narrow crack into a siphon and reached the air after ten meters. We were enthusiastic. I made several shots in the cave with a Zorki camera that I brought with me under my skafander.


Two Jožes at Veselova cave behind the siphon of the Žerovniščica spring, Mušič and Štirn in 1959 (Photo: Jože Mušič)

There were also individuals who did not join the group and operated rather independently – for example Borut Furlan – Furi, an excellent underwater fish photo hunter, technically knowledgeable and very precise in housing construction.

At the beginning the activities mostly developed within the Marine Research Society, while later some photographers joined other clubs (such as Skat in Ljubljana) and a growing competition among them emerged.

Photo fishing

At the beginning of the seventies a unique idea of Slovenian underwater photographers (Marjan Richter, Tine Valentinčič) gradually developed within the Underwater Photography Section of the Marine Research Society of Slovenia, the so-called photo fishing – a competition in taking pictures of fishes under water. The main motive of this novelty was to arise the awareness of the underwater fishermen and interest in fishing with a camera – fishes would be shot with a camera instead with a spear. Unfortunately the underwater fishermen never converted, so the photographers remained the only participants of the competition.

The first photo fishing contest – being the first one in the world as well - was organized by the members of the Photo Section of the Marine Research Society of Slovenia on 6th October 1973 in Piran and the contest took place in the shallow waters of Gobo at Savudrija. Each participant received one slide film and also the flesh bulbs (two participants used 6x6 format camera). Six Slovenian underwater photographers participated in the contest (Milan Orožen Adamič, Tomaž Bekš, Ciril Mlinar, Arkadij Popovič, Marjan Richter and Tine Valentinčič) as well as one from Italy (Gianni Mangiagli). This is what the first competition looked like. The rules of the competition have been slightly changed and upgraded since then, but the essence remains the same: to take as good pictures as possible of as many fishes as possible.

In the following years photo fishing was the main activity of the Photo Section and it brought together the Slovenian and Italian underwater photographers. Championships were organized alternately in Slovenia, at Piran or Fiesa and in Italy, at the Miramare marine park. The competitions soon revealed that Slovenian participants were very good competitors and, as a rule, were awarded the highest prizes (Arkadij Popovič, Janez Vidrih and Marjan Trobec, and later Janez Bregar, Borut Furlan and Ciril Mlinar). Over the years photo fishing developed further, from competitions among clubs to competitions on the level of the ex- Yugoslav republics and to the state level, and later, organized by CMAS, into the World Championship.

General Underwater Photography

Competing in the principal activity of the Section, general underwater photography (for some time also called creative photography) started later than competing in photo fishing. It was considered a kind of cultural and artistic activity (while photo fishing was merely a sports activity), and was initially focused on photographic exhibitions and competitions (Marjan Richter was the first to exhibit his underwater photos in Piran in 1960). The photographers of the Marine Research Society had an opportunity to verify the quality of their general underwater photography skills for the first time abroad in 1977 at the International Festival of Underwater Photography at Juan les Pins, France. The winner was to be awarded a rich prize – the latest model of the Nikonos underwater photo camera, proudly shown to the participants by the organizer before the start of the competition.


Juan les Pins, 1977: Marjan Trobec, Arkadij Popovič - Dadi, Janez Vidrih – Vani (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)


Juan les Pins, Marjan Trobec and Arkadij Popovič - Dadi preparing their underwater cameras. V sredini, Janez Vidrih - Vani pred tekmovanjem. In the middle: Janez Vidrih - Vani before the competition. Zmagovalec v kategoriji 6x6 Dadi se odpravlja pod morje (Foto: Ciril Mlinar Cic). 6x6 category winner Dadi setting out under the sea (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)

The competition took place on a rocky ridge in front of Antibes, and Trobec recalls:

In my diving-photographic career this was “already” my fourth competition and I somehow knew already how to “catch” fishes. This is what I also did in the Mediterranean and it paid off nicely as I saw later. We handed our films over to the organizers and got them back very late at night when they were developed. We started sorting and framing the photos, and then we had to leave for Ljubljana. Before we bid good-bye to the organizer he ensured us that the best competitors would be invited to the Monaco TV as guests of honour within a week. But we received no invitation and no reply. Later an acquaintance of mine, who happened to visit the Cote d’Azur noticed a number of photos with the names of Arkadij Popovič and Marjan Trobec in the local newspaper. This was the reason for Slovenia to request the official results. After six months we received our prizes by mail – and what prizes! Little bottles of perfume and a few other little things. Who “appropriated” the underwater camera remains the French secret.”

Marjan Trobec with his camera with which he defeated the French at the Cote d’Azur; Nice Matin newspaper with Dadi’s photographs of shell; Dadi’s photographs of fish (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)

In 1979 a team of the Photo Section (Vincenc Švab – Cene and Miro Žlajpah), headed by Arkadij Popovič attended the First World Championship in Underwater Photography in Sicily. The experience acquired at this competition resulted in new perspective of creativity among the Slovenian underwater photographers.

Miro Žlajpah and Vincenc Švab – Cene at the First World Championship in Underwater Photography in Sicily in 1979 (Photo: Arkadij Popovič – Dadi). Popovič at his exhibition of underwater photos at the Jožef Stefan Institute in 2002 (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)

Dadi, still under a very strong influence of the competition, liked to talk about foreign competitors: “It was our fault not to know what was going on in the world. The English, for example, blew up a big octopus under water, winding its tentacles around a beautiful young girl who was trying to rescue herself with a knife. Everything was in such style. Of course our little fishes in this context counted less than zero. The idea of creative photography stroke us with all its power and we felt absolutely helpless. I am not saying that what we saw was beautiful, but from this moment on we more often discussed creative photography also at home”. It replaced the nature themes for some time.

Some award-winning photographs from the First World Championship in Underwater Photography (Photo: Derek Berwin, United Kingdom; Remy Lafon, France; Mario Zucchi, Italy)


World Championship in Cadacques, Spain, Ciril Mlinar Cic, model Urša Vrhunc and Jože Hanc (Photo: Karmen Zupanc). World Championship in Milazzo, Sicily; Arkadij Popovič – Dadi and models Alenka Popovič and Karmen Zupanc who also acted as team leader (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)

Thus the two teams tried to realize their creativity under the sea at the Second (Mlinar, Hanc, 1987) and the Third (Mlinar, Popovič, 1989) World Championships. In the following years the underwater photography made an enormous technical progress due to better and better quality of equipment. The self-made housings were replaced by modern industrially produced housings.

Competitions and Festivals

Besides the championships, which are of a more operational nature as the photographs need to be taken within a limited period of time, some of the photographers occasionally participated in competitions and festivals of underwater photography. The first Slovenian to receive a prize in underwater photography was Marjan Richter in 1964. He was awarded the prize Premio Mauricio Sarre by the Mondo Sommerso for the colour photography of seaweed. The first published artistic photograph, remembers Richter, was the photograph of an underwater fisherman taken by Milan Pogačar in the early fifties of the 20th century.

Film and Video in Karst Caves

Along with the intensive exploration of karst caves and siphons Ciril Mlinar and Marko Krašovec started to make films in aquatic caves. Cave diving and proteus, recorded in its natural environment for the first time, were the themes they recorded on 8mm film by Eumig Nautica camera in 1982 and 1983. The film received several festival awards and was also awarded the Gold Medal at the International Underwater Film Festival, the Hans Hass Medaille 86 and personal congratulations from the Austrian underwater film pioneer after whom the festival has been named. Later Mlinar made several other 16 mm format documentary underwater films and was also involved in several Slovenian feature films with his underwater shots.

Cic making his first film (Photo: Marko Krašovec); Marko and Cic (second and third from the left) during the award ceremony in Linz (Photo: Rainer Hamedinger); Gold Hans Hass Medaille film award (Photo: Ciril Mlinar Cic)

Andrej Natlačen was very active in underwater video recording from 1988, when he constructed a self-made housing for his VHS camera. He later switched to an SVHS camera and continued with a digital camera. His films, mostly shot in the tropical sees, were shown on TV.

Ideas and Creativity in Underwater Photography

The underwater photo technology was much improved from the times of the “diving bell” used by the Rača team in 1938. The times, when the underwater photographer was happy when the photo was at least a little bit sharp and at least acceptably well illuminated, were long gone. The pictures were gradually becoming brilliant, sharp as a razor’s blade, saturated with colours … wonderful to the eye. But lately it seems to me that something is not right.

Not long ago I was buying a divers magazine. I found it, actually I found them. More than by the number of nowadays marine magazines I was surprised by their cover pages. All three were very much alike, a red gorgonian on a submerged wall and a floating diver with a lighted lamp in the background. Just as if they were made one after the other on the same film by the same photographer. But I was wrong! As unbelievably as it may seem, the pictures were taken by three photographers on three different locations. And not by accident. The shots were designed and the authors used trained models, while the theme and the idea of the photos was the same, old, well known to everybody. It has been known for at least twenty years, if not more. I remember it from foreign magazines, world championships, domestic competitions … and it is still here – a gorgonian and a diver with a lamp!

A few weeks later I received an e-mail with the results of the last world championship in underwater photography. I was surprised! Among the top ten photographers half of the published photographs showed a gorgonian and a diver with a lamp. Others, “more original” showed a sponge or a rock. But, all of them were very much alike, conceptually the same, with minor differences in composition and lighting. A lot of photographers – contestants follow the wishes of the jury and the audience, as it is generally known that a well realized simple theme is preferable to a new idea with errors. This is why the majority resort to the old, tested method.

However, a photograph may be good or bad. It may be balanced or it is “hanging”. It may be average or it may be excellent. It may be original or a copy of those seen before. But the original will always be original, and a copy, no matter how brilliant it is, will always remain just a copy. Of course, the gorgonian and the diver with a lamp is not plagiarism as the trace of the original was lost a long time ago. However, anxiousness remains. Is it here by chance or has it become a metaphor for the lack of ideas and creativity of the underwater photographers?

Translation: Alenka Mihailovski

From the making of a documentary on the history of underwater photography by TV Slovenia, Premantura 2011. From left to right: Marjan Trobec, Vincenc Švab – Cene, Janez Vidrih – Vani, Ciril Mlinar Cic, Arkadij Popovič – Dadi, and Miro Žlajpah (Photo: Thomas Aymard)

The article was published in 2002 in the Proceedings of the 50th Anniversary of the Marine Research Society, Ljubljana and in the Mladina magazine, No. 22, 2 June 2003, supplemented in 2011.

Data from this article have been used in the documentary series TV Slovenia in five episodes:

1. Lovci teme, 1937 - 1949

2. Pionirska leta, 1949 - 1959

3. Leta raziskav, 1958 - 1963

4. Leta tehnike, 1963 - 1978

5. Zrcalo morja, 1978 - 2012