I’m stood outside my hostel on in the suburbs of Ljubljana. It’s mid April and there’s snow on the ground after a freak dip in temperature. I am - funnily enough - cold. A white Land Rover rocks up and I hop in, desperate to warm up. It leaks. There is water coming through the door and it is as freezing inside as it is out.
But photographer Borut Peterlin’s infectious laughter ‘ahaha, careful you don’t get wet, this is a classic car!’ and his endlessly positive spirit warms things up immediately. Five minutes into the journey, I’ve stopped shivering and I’m engrossed by his tales; his personality; his charisma.
I’m in Slovenia to spend a few days learning about 19th century photography and Borut is my guide. He’s well-built with a striking face, workman’s hands and long flowing locks that he occasionally throws over his shoulder - oblivious of his resemblance to a L’Oreal ad. He’s also a gifted photographer who is passionate about his craft.
Borut grew up in the spa town of Doplinske Toplice in deepest darkest Slovenia. He was, and still is, the black sheep of the community. People from Doplinske Toplice don’t tend to study photography, turn old buildings into studios, or spend days camping in the forest with the express purpose of taking photographs. “His family…they are not considered normal” Borut’s assistant Andre whispers to me one day in hushed tones. It seems a house full of colour, of life, photos covering every inch of wall, a darkroom in the garage, rescuing a dog from its abusive owner, following your passion; turns heads in Doplinske Toplice. The majority of people here are farmers, Catholics, conservatives.
But Borut doesn’t care. He can’t not be a photographer. I get the impression he’s the sort of person who without his craft, would be a shadow of himself. Lost, without a purpose.
Borut’s charm has allowed him access to Studio Pelikan - a perfectly preserved 19th century photographer’s studio that usually functions as a ‘hands-off’ museum. It’s here that we begin our workshop, and what a way to start. Everything is as it was in the 19th century - old bottles of chemicals line the darkroom walls, and ancient stopwatches that have long since stopped ticking sit on the table. With hand painted backdrops and at least three concertina cameras at our disposal, Borut gets to work - setting the tableau, preparing the plates.
With subjects in position (fellow participants Peter and Dhror) it’s my task to expose the plate. There’s no button to click - just remove the lens cap, pause, and replace. With my head under a black cloth, I feel like I’ve really gone back to the 19th century. The practical nature of analog photography - analog V0 - is infectious and engrossing.
We take the plate to the dark room and gather round as the image appears on the glass, the emulsion slightly peeling at the edges threatening to take the picture with it as it goes into the stop bath. It’s carefully wrapped and stored for printing back at Borut’s studio.
Borut is a predominately self-taught photographer. With no prior study in art, he won a place at the FAMU academy in Prague. His BA was followed by a year at London College of Printing and further tutelage under Oliviero Toscani and Mark Osterman, where he learned 19th century techniques and became part of the ‘Antiquarian Avant-Gard’ movement. This love of photography is both a blessing and a curse. He has chosen to live in his native Slovenia, a beautiful and small country with a total population of just over 2 million, away from the creative metropoles of Berlin, London, Paris and New York.
But his unfaltering commitment to his art has found him a way of making a career out of his passion in his own backyard - quite literally. He’s made Slovenia a destination for amateur and professional photographers who want to learn more about 19th century techniques from an expert in a stunning setting, which is as much about spending time in the wilds of Slovenia as it is about taking photographs.
On our first night, we’re invited for dinner at Borut’s parents’ house. By this point I’ve heard a lot about his dad Branko and the legendary ‘Chapel of Pork’ - a self-built outdoor oven where he exercises his culinary skills. Borut’s graduate artwork lines the stairwell down to the larder where further evidence of Branko’s culinary passion lies. The shelves are stacked full of preserves, smoked fish, sausage, hams hanging to dry, home-brew, apple juice, pear juice, cherries. We are given a tour of the family’s orchard, the greenhouse, and the homebuilt sauna and steam room before sitting down to a feast cooked in the legendary ‘Chapel of Pork’ - a perfectly cooked octopus and fish stew, washed down with homemade schnapps and a choice of no less than 3 homemade beers. Each of us is sent home with a homemade saucisson. Passion is obviously a family trait. Their subjects might be different but it's the same fuel that keeps Branko and Borut going, that makes them live, breath, smile, that keeps them practising their craft with unbounded enthusiasm. Neither of them can stop creating.
Borut is a family man at heart, and there is no doubt that this has driven his work and decision to remain in Slovenia. His intense portraits of his family cover every inch of their home’s walls, and they clearly inspire him - it was a desire to get his children out of the house and into the countryside that led to the idea for the photography course. “I just decided I had to find a way to get them out of the house, to enjoy the outdoors’ he explains, as he demonstrates to his daughter how to use a flint to start a fire. ‘bringing along their cousins helped - and from there, I thought, why not build my workshop around this experience too?’
The family is a team - Borut’s daughters, wife, brother, sister in law and nephews join us for our day of photography in the mountains and virgin forest surrounding Dopliske Toplice. Armed with plate and film cameras we trek through the forest, our kit carried by a determined, probably close to retirement, donkey, led gleefully by the children. We pass abandoned villages and an old field hospital where partisans hid during WW2. The colours are intense - it’s a sunny day, there’s still snow on the ground, and the light is beautiful. As we all scatter to find our shots and you can’t help but listen to the silence, the occasional sound of a drop of melting snow bringing you back to reality.
This is Borut’s playground. He knows it like the back of his hand, it energises him. Whilst his brother cooks lunch over a campfire, he sets up the portable darkroom and starts making the chemistry to fix the plates and process our films.
We spend the night in a simple mountain cabin - a wood burner to keep us warm, delicious homemade soup for dinner, and more schnapps - Swedish this time - to wash it down, courtesy of Peter - a Swedish artist, and official alcohol and pickled herring supplier for the duration of the trip.
The following day we process our plates and films in Borut’s own studio. Slap-bang in the centre of Dopliske Toplice, the half abandoned building has become his second home, complete with sofa, fridge and music system. I wonder how much time he spends here. Photography is an addiction - once you’re locked in a darkroom or armed with a camera - time has no meaning - it’s so easy to spend a whole day creating, perfecting, experimenting. The mind has no space for anything other than being in that very moment. No wonder its so addictive.
On our final day - spent in the well-equipped darkrooms at Ljubljana’s photography school - we each make a large format print from our favourite plate. On the drive to the airport, print in hand, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time learning from such a passionate, knowledgeable craftsman, admiring of his devotion, and his drive to make his passion work for him. And I can’t wait to get back in the darkroom.
You can see Borut’s photography and forthcoming workshops here: http://www.topshitphotography.com/