Vladimir Simončič Vlastja (1911–2000) is renowned for his masterful skills in theatre photography, which left a significant trait in the context of Slovene theatre history. His photographs are still of vital importance in reconstructing and attaining a clear impression of the artistic and stylistic perfection of numerous theatre performances in the period between 1946 and 1989.
According to historical sources (published while he was still alive), Simončič recorded 54.500 theatre photographs that witness and capture the memories of 774 performances, that were staged in the 40 years of his activity.
In 1969–1970 and later on, he donated his theatre legacy to the National Theatre Museum of Slovenia (now the Slovenian Theatre Institute/Slovenski gledališki inštitut SLOGI). Iconotheque of SLOGI – Theatre Museum owns the photographs of theatre performances by Simončič, as well as his records of various other events, associated with theatre, such as openings of theatre exhibitions, the unveiling of sculptures of theatre artists, actors' funerals and their posthumous masks, renovations of theatre houses… Simončič also photographed theatre buildings and took portraits of actors in their roles, as well as their personal portraits.
In 1992, National Theatre and Film Museum of Slovenia organized an exhibition in his honour, titled Slovensko gledališče skozi objektiv mojstra Vlastje Simončiča (Slovenian Theatre Through the Lens of Master Vlastja Simončič); it was curated by Francka Slivnik, MA, in collaboration with the photographer, while its video record is the work of Janez Meglič.
From 1946 to 1956, Vladimir Simončič worked as a photograph reporter. Most of his photo reportages were published in the magazine Tovariš (Comrade), and some also by Tedenska tribuna (Weekly Tribune), Naša žena (Our Woman), Kmečka žena (A Peasant Woman), etc.
It is noteworthy that Simončič devoted his first photo reportage, published in October 1946 in the 7th edition of Tovariš, to the theatre: he introduced an amateur theatre group, formed by the members of Četrtni ljudski odbor Moste (a neighborhood committee in one of Ljubljana's districts), which performed a play Raztrganci (Ragged People), written by a renowned Slovene poet, translator, playwright and journalist Vladimir Pavšič alias Matej Bor. He included photographs from the performance and rehearsals as well as of some amateur actors – he introduced each one with two photographs, one showing his theatre role and the other one his private life or his daily job routine. At that time, Simončič already used to sign the photographs with his pseudonym and nickname »Vlastja« (this was how his mother combined parts of her sons’ names: Vladimir, Stane, Joža).
In the following years he published other similar photo reportages in Tovariš, taking record of the work by a Soviet writer Nikolaj Yakovlevich Shestakov Veliko potovanje (The Distant Way; 1947), performed by Slovenian National Theatre Drama Ljubljana (SNT Drama Ljubljana); Za kulisami ljubljanske Drame: prizori z vaj za otvoritveno predstavo nove sezone (In the Backstage of SNT Drama Ljubljana: Scenes from Rehearsals for the Opening Performance of the New Season), »Tugomer«; (by Fran Levstik and adapted by Bratko Kreft, 1947), The Way to Crime: s kerosene predstave drame M. Kranjca v ljubljanski Drami (1947) (The Premiere of the Play “The Way to Crime” by Miško Kranjec on Stage of SNT Drama Ljubljana); Tartuffe (a photo reportage from the performance at SNT Drama Ljubljana; 1947), Za kulisami Narodnega gledališča v Ljubljani (In the Backstage of SNT Drama Ljubljana and SNT Opera and Ballet Ljubljana, 1948).
Following the question why Vlastja chose theatre as his central interest, his reply (in 1994) was: »I always liked theatre. For me, working in a theatre was like entering a pretty oasis. Theatre was my love. I never had any difficulties working there. I felt as a member of a team. It was all about precious contacts with artists… As far as I could tell, especially during final rehearsals in a theatre, it was always a matter of fair play, and I became really good friends with some of the actors. My work was voluntary, a hobby. I was never paid for my work by a theatre. Theatres needed photographs for promotion in the media, for display at their showcases, then there were commercials, some were published in newspapers. /…/«
Vladimir Simončič Vlastja photographed performances by professional theatres as well as some of the first experimental theatre productions that were not staged in the institutions, the ones at Eksperimentalno gledališče v Ljubljani (The Experimental Theatre Ljubljana), Oder 57 (Stage 57), Gledališče Ad Hoc (Ad Hoc Theatre) and amateur theatre groups Šentjakobsko gledališče (Šentjakob Theatre), Delavski oder (Worker's Stage), Obrtniški oder (Craftsman's Stage).
He covered drama, opera, ballet and dance performances, but also theatre for children and sometimes even puppet shows. He followed the events in Ljubljana the most frequently, he recorded some performances at theatres in Kranj, Celje, Maribor and Trieste only in the first years of his activity. The most regular was his visual recording of performances at central theatre institutions: at SNT Drama Ljubljana and at SNT Opera and Ballet Ljubljana (for 17 years: 1947–1964) and at Mestno gledališče ljubljansko (Ljubljana City Theatre; 1951–1983), while occasionally also taking photographs at Mladinsko gledališče (Mladinsko Theatre) and at Lutkovno gledališče (The Puppet Theatre Ljubljana) in Ljubljana. He took his last theatre photography in 1989 at Šentjakobsko gledališče (Šentjakob Theatre) in Ljubljana.
At first, Vlastja photographed theatre performances using a camera stand but he soon realized that, in order to find adequate angles, the stage dynamics require a mobile camera. During photoshoots at SNT Drama Ljubljana, which usually took place during final rehearsals he had a theatre box at his disposal, so he could access the stage quickly if needed. He always looked for different perspectives and angles to take photographs from. During ballet performances, he sometimes climbed the ropes to take bird's-eye view photographs of dancers, while in the absence of a prompter, he climbed into his box (which was usually placed in the front part of the theatre cellar) and took photographs from a frog's-eye view.
As a theatre photographer, Vladimir Simončič Vlastja was able to combine the two most important functions of theatre photography, its documentary, as well as its artistic value. His photographs manage to capture the broader context of a performance, as well as crucial dramaturgical twists, the actors' dynamics, and the atmosphere of individual acts in a play, while his close-ups of actors and details display an insight into their emotions and their interpretation of the enacted role. This is the reason why, 110 years after his birth, the Slovene theatre community still considers him “the Master of theatre photography«.
Tea Rogelj, MA
Iconotheque of SLOGI – Theatre Museum
Produced by: Slovenian Theatre Institute (Slovenski gledališki inštitut – SLOGI), 2021
Exhibition Curator, Author of the Introduction, Input of data, Translation of photo captions: Tea Rogelj, MA, Senior Curator (SLOGI)
Digitization: Andrej Ovsec (SLOGI)
Translation of the Introduction: Barbara Hribar
English language editor: Primož Jesenko, MA (SLOGI)
Acknowledgement to Henrik Neubauer, PhD, for his help at identifying photographs.
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