Antonija (Tonka) Kulčar-Vajda

The photo was taken by "Foto Tonka" for an album of photos of children brought from Ustasha camps in Stara Gradiška, Jasenovac (Mlaka, Uštica, Jablanac), Sisak, Gornja Rijeka, Lobor grad. Photo courtesy of the Croatian History Museum - HPM / MRNH-A-11734/1

10.6.1887 – 24.11.1971

Antonija Kulčar-Vajda, better known as Tonka, is one of the most significant Croatian (women) photographers, who made a name for herself particularly as a portraitist and a theater photographer. She was the main chronicler of Zageb’s social and cultural life in the interwar period, and her clients included the royal family. Her studio was one of the main social hubs for intellectuals and artists in Zagreb at the time.

Born in Varaždin in 1887 in a working-class family, she attended a vocational school like many other members of the petite bourgeoisie. Having expressed an interest in photography from an early age, she took her first steps as a professional photographer under the tutelage of Rudolf Mosinger and Artur Kulčar. She continued her education in Munich, attending a Photography Masterclass there in 1912. She further perfected her craft in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, where she gained experience and had the opportunity to work with some cutting-edge technologies. 

Upon returning to Zagreb, she began collaborating with her future husband Artur Kulčar, from whom she purchased the photo studio “Olga” in 1917 (located in today’s King Tomislav Square), where she first established “Foto Tonka”. The studio gave her financial and professional independence. Soon she became the most sought-after photographer among the bourgeoise. Her entrepreneurial success was a reflection of the period when traditional gender roles were starting to be redefined as women entered the public sphere.

In the interwar period, Tonka kept up with global photography trends. She worked in Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia, and her photographs regularly appeared in the most popular magazines of the day, such as Svijet, Kulisa, Cinema, Ženski list, etc. She photographed some of the most prominent figures of the Croatian cultural, social, and political life (Marija Jurić Zagorka, Bela Krleža, Branko Gavella, etc.). Her photos reflected the social position and personality of her subjects, putting her work on a par with the most highly regarded European portrait photographers. 

For more than two decades, she collaborated with the National Theatre in Zagreb, which resulted in numerous portraits of actors and dancers (Vika Podgorska, Maja Strozzi Pečić, Mia Čorak Slavenska, and others). She was the first artist in Croatia to take photos of the cast of a play during a performance, with the original lighting and using state-of-the-art techniques. Her skills at framing, encompassing the entirety of the scene in her photographs, and conveying the atmosphere made her work stand out among her contemporaries.

In the mid-1920s, she created some well-received nude photographs that affirmed the classical beauty of the body and the repressed/hidden sexuality. She is also the author of some of the earliest documentary photographs in the Croatian illustrated press. In 1931, she became the official photographer of the Karađorđević royal family.

Her studio remained open for the duration of the Second World War, but since her second husband Jaša was of Jewish origin, it was a time of constant fear for the family. Despite this, “Foto Tonka” was one of the first to join the effort to photograph the children rescued from the Ustaša concentration camps, which was an action coordinated by the noted humanitarian Diana Budisavljević. Tonka, who was a masterful photographer of children, lived up to the task in this case as well, creating important but also stylistically outstanding portraits.

After the war, Tonka moved with her adopted daughter to Rogaška Slatina, Slovenia, where her studio had a subsidiary since 1922.

Tonka died in 1971 in Rogaška Slatina, but was buried at the Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb. Her portraits, nudes, and photographs of dance and theatre performances constitute one of the finest oeuvres in the history of Croatian photography, and, as such, they had shaped the image of an entire epoch.

Ilica 8, Zagreb

The courtyard at 8 Ilica Street used to be one of Zagreb's most popular gathering places of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The city's first public bathhouse "Diana" stood there as early as 1834, and in 1894, it was where the renowned photographers Rudolf Mosinger and Lavoslav Breyer set up their studio. In 1918, the studio was taken over by Rudolf's son Franjo, who had photographed the legendary entertainer Josephine Baker in the studio in 1929. Antonija took over in 1932 and established the famous "Foto Tonka" studio, where she worked until 1958.