Photographs for the holdings of the Museum began to be collected even earlier than its foundation. Izidor Kršnjavi, the intellectual force behind the art history course at Zagreb University and the Museum of Arts and Crafts, acquired them with a multiple purpose in mind. Immediately connected with museum practice, with preservation of the architectural and cultural heritage, they were also supposed, and primarily, to serve as a teaching aid, as a vivid prototype for the revival of the fine crafts and only ultimately as museum objects. The first objects for the future museum, obtained at an auction of the painter Mariano fortuny in Paris 1875, were recorded photographically. By 1878, when he held his first lecture in the Chair of art and archaeology history, Izidor Kršnjavi already had a remarkable collection.
At the end of 1939, the photography department was set up on the second floor of the Museum, and opened to the public. Although in scope and available floor space, which it shared with the also newly established departments for graphic arts and printing, it was small and modest, in the press of the time this collection was ambitiously referred to as photographic museum. But even from today’s perspective, comparing figures about the origins of other photographic museums, and the founding of the photographic collection in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1940, which is considered the first museological treatment of photography, we can remark that our collection was among the first in the world.
The display of old photographs in Croatia covers the period from the first appearance of the art until the 1950s, and represents just one of the possible choices from the rich holdings of the Museum. Through the works of domestic authors only it is possible to follow the development of photographic thinking and stylistic changes, as well as the presence of this medium from the time of its invention.
The oldest photographs in the Museum of Arts and Crafts collection are daguerreotype and calotype portraits of domestic clients from the end of the 1840s, taken by travelling photographers.
The first calotypes were taken by Juraj Drašković of Trakošćan in the 1849 to 1856 period. Also represented are the ambitious works of the first permanent studio photographers in Zagreb: of Franjo Pommer (Petar Preradović and Vjekoslav Babukić from the series Portraits of Croatian Writers), Julius Hühn (Ivan Zasche and Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski), as well as Ivan Standl (photographs from the album Photographic Pictures from Croatia). In 1854 the French photographer A. E. Disderi democratised and popularised the photograph by reducing the format to the visiting card size, corresponding to the 6 x 9 cm of today. Croatian studios at once accepted this new departure, which essentially reduced the price of photography and at the same time considerably increased the interest of bourgeois clientele, and in the 1860s and in part in the 1870s, they made photographs almost entirely in this format. At that time every important city had several photographic studios. Thus the collection also shows Maskaric from Dubrovnik, Mioni from Pula and Exner of Osijek.
Professionals like Rudolf Mosinger started being trained and doing advanced studies in colleges in Vienna and Munich. From the end of the 19th century, with the formation of strong photographic clubs with markedly artistic objectives, the work of Karlo Drašković stands out, for he was the most significant photographic personality of the time. From the phase of the first international exhibitions, which started being held in Zagreb in 1910, the dominant stylistic movement is pictorialism, the most important representatives of which were Antun Stiasni, Kamilo Bošnjak and Vladimir Guteša. The 1920s were marked by Franjo Mosinger and Antonija Kulčar (Foto Tonka). In the Zagreb Fotoklub, two trends developed: the social trend in the works of Milan Fizi, Ignjat Habermüller, and in particular of Tošo Dabac, while the other aspirations to find “an expression of our own” were to engender the stylistically and technologically special manner of expression known in the world at large as the Zagreb School of Photography. The most important figures in this were August Frajtić, Branko Kojić, Marijan Szabo and Mladen Grčević.
Photography in Croatia, at both amateur and pro levels, followed changes in style in synchrony: in the sense of classical periodisation, with works that were absolutely competitive with work in the world at large.
Because of the large numbers of works in the collection of old photographs, it was very difficult to pick out for the permanent display just ninety photos to show the features of the artefact, in the manner of treatment or in the choice of subject. On the other hand, it is important that they do visibly supplement and give visual form to our history in a cultural sense. Thus the selection shown has to be understood as a mere aide-memoire to the whole collection of about 40,000 items, and to the exhibition Photography in Croatia, 1848-1951, in the catalogue of which almost all the anthological works are considered.