STOJAN KERBLER, MASTER OF PHOTOGRAPHY, THE RECIPIENT OF THE PRESHEREN AWARD IN RECOGNITION OF HIS LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT
Stojan Kerbler became involved in photography while studying electrical engineering in Ljubljana.1 After his photograph of a boy in oversized clothes and a hat (Alone, 1966), taken during the Kurent Festival in Ptuj, was featured prominently in photography exhibitions, Kerbler decided to photograph people in the streets of Ptuj, especially those from the rural Haloze region who came to the town for traditional fairs on St George’s, St Catherine’s, and St Oswald’s Days. Since he was using a telephoto lens (135 mm), his subjects were often unaware of his presence. The figural motif in these photographs was in sharp focus, while the background was blurred. »I was drawn to the relaxed bustle of the fairs, particularly the colourful and vivid faces of individuals. Using the telephoto lens, I practically ripped them from the crowd and photographically isolated them... in order to capture the countless nuances of character and spirit of a person in the crowd.«2
His photography series Portraits from the Streets of Ptuj, presented at a solo exhibition in Ptuj in 1971, was related to the contemporaneous activities of the Fotoklub Maribor, which staged an exhibition entitled »Maribor Circle” at the Rotovzh Exhibition Salon in February of the same year. The photographers of the so-called Maribor Circle were characterised by the sombre content and form of their work, and their attention to the themes of social marginality. They also eschewed darkroom manipulation; for instance, they printed the whole frame of the negative without cropping it, leaving a prominent black border line, a technique they adopted from the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004). The only darkroom manipulation that they used was increasing the exposure to darken distracting details and direct the observer to the central motif. The leading representatives of the Maribor Circle were Ivan Dvorshak, Janko Andrej Jelnikar, Zmago Jeraj, Branko Jerneić and Stojan Kerbler. Due to the themes and the prevalent black surfaces, the terms »black realism” or »black photography” were also used to define their work. Unlike most of the others, who focused on disquieting urban and suburban motifs with ecological or social undertones, Kerbler foregrounded the human figure.
In 1972, he bought a car and began photographing the people of Haloze in their home environment. He used a wide-angle lens that required photographing from up close, and thus needed to establish a direct rapport with is subjects. A wide-angle lens produces an even focus across the foreground and background of the shot, thus closely connecting the figure to the scene and allowing a greater field of view than that of the human eye. While his central motif was the portrait or group portrait, his compositions allowed the inclusion of other figures, details of their homes, or the hilly landscape that marks and defines the people of Haloze. Since he always photographed using natural light, the photographs taken in the interiors carry a sombre undertone. In creating photographs for exhibitions, he consistently used black and white analogue photography. He preserved the black border line in the process of developing photographs as a mark of authenticity of the individual scene.
The central subject, that is, the portrayed human figure, is often flanked by background figures at the edges of the composition that are assembled to form the genre scene, as well as other signifying elements. »Above all, Stojan Kerbler is a storyteller,” wrote art historian Cene Avgushtin. »His figures are essentially ripped from life and directly tied to their environment, which furthers our understanding of the represented subject. Kerbler’s compositional method is original and characterises his view of photography. In his masterly compositions, the central figure is foregrounded or highlighted by a beam of light. Other figures refer to the dominant figure as if unaffected by it, even while they substantively complement its central role in the compositional play.«3
Due to Kerbler’s use of the wide-angle lens (28 mm), his photographs are mainly in a horizontally elongated format, with the human figure frequently occupying the centre and gazing into the camera. In Haloze, Kerbler photographed people working in vineyards, fields and grasslands, tending to livestock, or inside their humble dwellings. Portraits of children at play are also common. One of the first works in this series was a photograph of a girl going down a slope with three piglets in tow (Girl from Haloze, 1972), for which Kerbler was awarded first prize at the Pentacon-Orwo International Competition (1973), out of more than 35,000 entries. The success of this photograph motivated his decision to continue photographing the people of Haloze using a 28-mm lens.
Kerbler established a warm relationship with the locals, who posed casually and confidently, disclosing their intimate feelings and their humble living conditions to the photographer. »In a home environment, one feels safe and opens up more. I came close to my subjects, talked to them, asked them questions, and while they were thinking about the answer, I took photos. Yes, very straightforward, very direct.”4
Kerbler’s series The People of Haloze includes different narrative, emotional and social connotations. One of the reasons he decided to photograph in Haloze was the 1969 book Siti in lachni Slovenci (Well-fed and Hungry Slovenes), which revealed what life was like in the poorest parts of Slovenia. Nonetheless, since Kerbler’s photographs do not foreground the social condition of the subjects, they cannot be categorised as reportage or social documentary photography. He was not interested in pursuing a journalistic approach that would expose the social misery in remote Haloze. »This was one of my few conscious decisions about photography: I decided to present my Haloze subjects in a different way – that is, exactly as they really are. I didn’t want to look for excesses like journalistic photography did. I never looked for people who were exceptionally poor, ill, or heavy drinkers, but the people of Haloze as they crossed my path daily.”5
Despite their simple, hard, and impoverished lives, the people in the photographs are happy, gentle, kind, occasionally mischievous, always connected to the reality of living and the primal processes of life, the everyday peasant existence, the work that accompanies them from cradle to grave, and to the festive, ritual customs. The photographer’s emotional commitment is evident. What stands out are the humane dimensions of the series that Kerbler first presented in 1974 at solo exhibitions in Ptuj and at the City Gallery in Ljubljana. The photographs he chooses to exhibit and publish in catalogues and monographs are only part of the extensive body of work created in Haloze.
In parallel to The People of Haloze, Kerbler created the series Pig Slaughter (first exhibited at the Rotovzh Exhibition Salon in Maribor in 1982). Here, rather than intervening in the event, Kerbler carefully documented the traditional practice in Haloze and Dravsko Polje: from the early-morning preparation of animals for slaughter, the act itself, the cutting of animal carcasses, to the making of sausages. In some aspects, Kerbler’s photographs of pig slaughter evoke pagan sacrificial rites. Since this custom has almost disappeared today, Kerbler’s photographs represent a valuable resource for ethnologists and other researchers of rural life.
Kerbler has continuously and persistently cultivated various approaches to photography. He has been an active participant in exhibitions at home and abroad. He stopped visiting Haloze regularly when he noticed that the way of life and landscape had changed dramatically there as well. Another subject he photographed extensively was the aluminium factory in Kidrichevo (production processes, workers during work and rest, factory events, visually striking spaces and structures). His photographs were published in the factory newspaper. Later, he also photographed abandoned alumina production sites. Kerbler rarely decided to exhibit the factory motifs, and only prepared the first solo exhibition of these works in 2012. From 1966 to 2005, he photographed kurents during the Shrovetide carnival, also using colour film from the 1980s onwards. He took photographs of his colleagues (the Portraits of Photographers series). He created two smaller photography series during the visit of a travelling circus and while on a trip to Lisbon.
In 2008, Kerbler started photographing the Ptuj courtyards. Due to the new equipment Kerbler uses, these photographs are in square format, which emphasises the symmetry of the compositions, and are devoid of people. Nonetheless, empty courtyards tell stories of the former owners who built the grand houses and the new tenants who adapted them to their needs. Continuing the Courtyards series are the series Spaces, focused on the interiors of buildings in Ptuj and Ptujska Gora and Ptuj’s streets and squares, and Transience.
1 Taken mainly from: Marjeta Ciglenechki, »Fotografije Stojana Kerblerja”, Zbornik za umetnostno zgodovino 39, 2003, pp. 226–259.
2 Interview with S. Kerbler by Zmago Jeraj in Ptuj, September 1974: catalogue to the exhibition The People of Haloze, Kidrichevo, 1974, p. 4.
3 Cene Avgushtin, »Fotografije, vredne, da bi obshle svet”, Gorenjski glas, 6 September 1983, No. 68.
4 Kerbler’s statement in a profile by Ingrid Mager, »Majhne slike, ki pripovedujejo”, Objektiv, 25 January 2020, p. 14.
5 Kerbler’s statement, June 2006, quoted from: M. Skochir, Vpogled v slovensko socialnodokumentarno fotografijo poznih shestdesetih let (thesis), Ljubljana, 2006, p. 84.