mercoledì 7 ottobre 2015

Photography as a quest for truth and expression of heart and mind. An interview with Roberto Tomasi, Fine Art Printer and inventor of the Photo Transfer.

Roberto Tomasi, is a smashing technician who lives and works in Milan, he has printed the most beautiful photographs of the masters of the world, by Irving Penn to Mario Giacomelli and many others, Sebastião Salgado, included. Roberto passed through the photographic technique in a 45-years career. He invented and patented its own system, capable of making an impressive definition when the normal images were still printed with the enlarger. With the new millennium, Roberto landed use of digital tools, continuing to upgrade in the constant search for the highest definition, able to play the best known reality.
Now that he is quite satisfied with what he is able to obtain at technical level, finally, he agreed to tell me the stages of his career and philosophy.

Roberto Tomasi fine art printer
Roberto Tomasi and a print he made for Annie Leibovitz
Shot by TG with Canon F1, Canon Fd 50mm f 1,4 and Fujicolor 200

Tony Graffio: Roberto, what is photography?

Roberto Tomasi: For me the passion for photography came from the research of three-dimensionality, therefore the print should be perfect.
I interpret photography as a three-dimensional image and try, through photography, to represent as much as possible the real, the true, as we see it, this also means that I seek the maximum of the definition.

TG: Do you consider yourself a hyperrealist? Do you find this definition suits you?

RT: Hyperrealist? Uhmmm, no, just a realist. Each image has different plans and different depths, then bring that vision on a support, as can be paper, cloth, or what you want is a challenge that I try to do the best as we see with our eyes, the more possible faithful.

TG: Are you looking for the three-dimensionality on 2 dimensions?

RT: Right.

TG: And all the talk about 3D interests you anyway?

RT: Sure, but I'm still, deliberately, on the representation of 3D on only two dimensions. I studied this topic for many years to be able to do this work in the best way. We have to deal with the volumes that when we photograph we want to represent. The camera, is nothing more than a recorder that records all the values of the image, such as the eye. Then the mind will make its calculations, that can, incredibly to focus on everything from what is in the foreground to what is on the background. The camera it fails to do this summary. However, there are tools, nowadays is the computer, once was the enlarger, that helped you to recreate this opportunity to give clarity to the various plans of the scene. In essence, you can make more recovery, so as to focus from time to time the plans that make up the image and assemble them in the printing phase. With the enlarger you nedeed to take more poses made with masks to obtain an image, in fact, perfect.

TG: Roberto, we started immediately upon entering into the argument, let's start again the discussion from the beginning: who are you? When you were born? What training did you have?

RT: I am Roberto Tomasi, I was born on August 7th, 1956 and I started my career as technician of photo-lithography, after studying graphic design at the Cova school, in, Milan.

TG: What was and what did a photo-lithography technician?

RT: The photo-lithyst technician could exist even now, but I do not know that name it could have, anyway he is a worker who prepares facilities for the print or for lithography.

TG: Was it an artistic job?

RT: It was a work where there was an enlarger, some basins, a scanner ... Screens...
When I started I was just a boy, I did do the cleaning, but I remember that in those days engravings were made on stone, lithographs were true lithographs. Then from there, to learn how to work I went from place to place, until I came to a place where you worked with a system called "Direct". With an enlarger we made some poses directly on the high contrast film. Before there was a lith screen that turned the image into a set of points which were then engraved on zinc plates.
The films thus prepared went in lithography and there were sheets of zinc.
We were around 1973. For a while I was in that environment, I left my job for the compulsory military service and when I returned to work, there have been some changes: arrived the first scanners. To stay updated, I changed job again and I went where they had these scanners. We are talking about 1975 or 1976, at that time the scanners were strictly drumscanners, they costed a lot. Those scanners now don't exist anymore and practically no one knows them.

TG: After the experience with scanners, what you did?

RT: After that experience, I was practically destroyed because for paying them we had to work a lot and I was working on three shifts. At night it was hard, therefore, after having learned well, I have looked for another place without those shifts.
I found a job as director in the neighborhood of Bergamo. Just because I was a director, I took care of the scanners, but I did not have to take turns. I worked with Mr. Campanella, but I don't remember the name of that firm.

TG: What was the final product on you worked?

RT: We worked on facilities for making lithographic prints: for luxury books and things like that.
Our customers were publishers as Fabbri, Mondadori, Rusconi, Rizzoli and everyone else. At the time there was a boom in publishing and prints of art, We worked a lot, we were fine and we earned accordingly. The money was good, very good.
At one point I thought I wanted to do something on my own. Although we were in a very good working situation, I wanted to earn more money, so I opened a design and advertising studio in Ponte San Pietro, again in Bergamo. There I began to do some catalogs and other projects, but in the end I always used to go to Milan to realize them and to process the image. My brother was working in that lab. At one point, my brother asked me to work with him in Milano in the image world.
So it was that I entered the world of photography.
The company that we had was called Poliart Color and did exclusively processing of images of photography, there were duplicates of a Kodak format 30X40 cm.

TG: So, you made post-production before the use of a pc?

RT At that time it was not called post-production, but photo-finishing. The term post-production came with the digital era. Tonino Fodale that was our competitor, even worked with the airbrush. We did some touch-ups with a small paintbrush, by hand with aniline, preparing masks, takes and all we needed to change the subject.
Everything we see today made by computer with Photoshop, once it was done by hand. In 1999 with the arrival of the first computers and Photoshop we asked to this software to do what we already knew to do.
Photoshop was not asking us to learn his way of proceeding, but it was us who asked to this program to make the computer do what we knew already. We did not need of course, to learn new things or anything else, perhaps the only difficulty was having to do this work in English, because there was not a version of this program in Italian yet.
Here, in this way already he worked for large advertising agencies such as McCann Harrison, the Armando Testa, and other agencies that were in Milan.
At the time we were in a few people working in this way, there was competition, but it was minimal. We were in the 1980s.

TG: When did you become a printer?

RT: Let's say that I've always been a printer, I have always been involved in this, but I did it full time only after the retoucher. I worked with the enlarger just a little, because printing with the enlarger did not satisfy me: it was a print contrasted, blacks were very closed, the whites were burned, the colors were not separated, there were disturbances.

TG: How long have you worked on the chemical printing?

RT: For a short time, because in 1989 I put up my printing process.
Coming from a school scanner, I said: <Why do not print with a scanner?>. Doing so I could get the incision of the scanner, color separation, the opening of blacks, some depth and all those qualities which now are quite easy to obtain with digital tools.

TG: Excuse me Roberto, scanner scans, they do not print, what it's like what you're saying?

RT: First scanners were analog, this means that they acquired, but did not broadcast the data on the computer, however, sent them on a support. In that support that, from my experience of lytography technician, recognized as a dithered support, it was enough to remove the mechanical part of the screen to get the continuous film tone of the measure concerned to final print.
I did the scan I created these films, they used enough printing 70X100. I produced continuous film tone that measure color for color, in primary colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and the Black. These films, overlapping in more passages with their punching. I took shoots on any type of photographic paper, transparent or not, thanks to a special printing box filters which had made build for this new printing technique that I called Photo Transfer.
I really liked the Cibachrome, both glossy and matte, which was the only make that guaranteed the longest life of the colors: around19 years. These 20 years, compared to the 100 or 200 years of life of the products of today, are nothing.

TG: So, you've created your own technique?
RT: I designed and patented a technique, the Photo-Transfer.
I was the only one who made these Photo Transfer, in practice I realized these matrices and then with a contact printer with a tungsten light, vacuum tubes, in contact with the various color correction filters, red, blue and green I printed I realized wonderful prints.
I not only built a special contact printer, I did make changes to the scanner; I had bought the scanner that time cost 160 millions lire, around 100'000 USD (brand Hell ndTG).

TG: How did you advertise of your technique?

RT: I contacted Titta Beretta who was the director of Fotopratica, I told him what I was doing, he saw the result of my Photo Transfer and he said: <Show this now to Franco Fontana>.
I went to Modena to show my work to Franco Fontana and from there, in fact, a collaboration was born. Then I went to Giovanni Gastel and we began a collaboration, I went by Oliviero Toscani and we began a collaboration, I went by Gian Paolo Barbieri and I began working with him, then I realized that I had gone by all the leading authors of contemporary photography. From there it happened to me to have the tail of photographers outside the lab, they wanted to see what I was doing and made me compliments, but they could not buy my products because the processing was very expensive.
In order to work, since at the time the dollar had a very high value compared to the italian lira, my brother Gianpaolo Tomasi and me have seen fit to go and find photographers in New York and offer them our work. The first door that we thought of knocking has been the one of Irving Penn.

TG: What did you say Irving Penn?

RT: Beautiful, beautiful, congratulations and from there we started working together.

TG: After Penn, who have you contacted?

RT: Then, little by little, by little we have been by various artist: Avedon, Chuck Close, Annie Leibovitz, later also Hiro (Yasuhiro Wakabayashi) and others.

TG: What kind of effect gave these Photo Transfer?

RT: The main feature of these prints was the incision (the definition ndTG). Their definition, even then, was the definition of a scanner, which in photography can not have because the higher magnification ratio is, the less you have. At high enlargements the image becomes pulped; you wuold hide the blacks and is a disaster, really when I printed with the enlarger I went crazy all times because I could not get what I wanted.
Discovering the scanner was a challenge with an agency that asked us to submit a print for a Philadelphia cheese advertising. I remember it was the Mark Harrison. They told us: <If you will make a beautiful print of our product, you will have won the contract.>.
From there, of course, I studied a different system from using an enlarger because if I had worked with an enlarger, also if I didd all my best, I could obtain something slightly different from all the other printers.
So, I thought: why don't do something really different? And I invented the Photo Transfer

TG: We can say that you came to the quality of the inkjet digital plotter printers already with your Photo Transfer, 10 years before the others?

RT: Yes, 10 years before.

TG: This experience has served you, have you been recognized for what you did?

RT: I was recognized for my results, but then shortly thereafter was born the problem that the films of great format for the printing was no longer produced. This is why I stopped doing my technique. We were around 1999.
The advent of computers has swept away the film that had no reason to exist.
We would have had to make huge orders of many thousands of dollars to have a package of films sufficient to dispose of the work for our customers.
Then the work continued until at some point, because it was expensive and the order after we were told that the company had closed and was the only company in the world to produce those films: the Typon.

TG: The quality of Ciba helped you in getting what you seek?

RT: Ciba was the best we could have on the market, but in Italy there was only glossy paper and even there we had to take big orders to be able to supply us with the matte paper.

TG: For what markets were you working?

RT: We worked for the American market, for all those who counted a little: for the French, the Germans, we were quite knew in London, not so much in Japan.

TG: What did the Americans think of a couple of Italians who went by them to teach how to print a perfect print?

RT: They had the utmost confidence in us, although then I Knew the english language even less than now, I could not have a dialogue very clear in words, but there was interest and confidence and they bought without problems. I had Salgado into my darkroom for 5 days, to fallow directly my work. In color we nedeed 4 matrices, in black and white, we had only one.

TG: Which paper did you use for the for the black and white?

RT: Even there, there were problems, I succeed to use the Agfa barita. Over the time, papermakers have disappeared and at the end we only worked with Ilford which was no longer graduated, but there were some filters which determined the gradation.Also that paper was fine because only the matrix gave a spectacular look at these prints.

TG: Was there anyone else in the world that used this technique?

RT: No, no, no one has used it, but surely someone has taken cues from our system because soon after came the scanner in photography, as it happens ...
We were so proud of our product that we explained everything to everyone. All in all (Roberto says this with some of regret. See the video interview in original language).
TG: Would you doing it again?

RT: To explain? (Laughs) Well there was a constant struggle with my brother because I like that coming from a world of photo-lithography I had been taught to respect the professional secrecy, instead my brother has always been a free spirit, he said: <Well no, what professional secrecy! It doesn't matter, if you're good you're good ...>.

TG: Why do you think no one dedicated himself to this technique? Not to pay you for the rights or because it was too expensive?

RT: Well, it didn't last so long, others have not made time to notice it, then the scanner was not so well known: it was the time when everything was done in the darkroom huh. The customer arrived, withdrew copy, saying: <How beautiful!>. And just, there was no video screen to make comparisons,
He not wondered why it was so. Now when a customer enters in the studio, he sees that I've got an Epson plotter, a Dai Nippon scanner, an Apple monitor...
The customer is here and he can seen, and even asks: <Where did you get it?>. And asking questions in order to fend for themselves, because the world evolved in this way and the professional does it all by himself.

TG: Without printer ...

RT: Without printer. Also because there is not this huge demand for quality.

TG: Why has the world taken this turn? Do the costs come before anything else? Or people is no longer able to distinguish the quality?

RT: For both reasons. The costs are the most important thing, and then, even if people understands, it says to you that somebody else costs half your price...
I have just seen the evolution of this situation, when I worked for Mondadori or Rizzoli, they paid me the image processing, then at some point, with the arrival of computers and digital cameras, these costs decreased, the agencies have begun to say that they were not going to pay anymore for these expenses. To be able to do image processing, the costs should already be included in the delivery. So, the if you wanted the post-production of the images, the photographer had to pay for it.
Photographers, of course, didn't want to payfor this processing, but post-production was too important, so photographers began to make this job too. Simple.

TG: And in the fashion and advertising what happened?

RT: Even for fashion photography and advertising, the photographer had to fend by himself.
While before the customers turned to a kind of professional like me and required a service, now buyers have often someone within the company that performs these situations and costs less. I can tell you that once a laboratory like mine was equipped with equipment for at least 500 million Lire (300'000 USD), now, with 20,000 Euros you are able to make most of the works. For a fashion house or for an advertising agency costs almost nothing to have a computer (6,000 euro) with a kid payed EUR 900 per month that works on the machine and in this way, they can already count on a graphic studio inside the company.

TG: There are also many customers who are asking to the photographer files already corrected and ready for use.

RT: Exactly, and then it's the photographer's business. This happens at least since 15 years in Italy, when the computers came inside the production process. Photoshop is available to all, as well, for those with a minimum of good taste it is quite easy to be able to improve the images. While once it was just requested that the laboratory was able to make the masks, the touch-up to brush, which also it required a lot of manual work and so much material that impacted on  the costs of production.
Now, thanks to the computer there is no more film, there is anything to develop, there is no more the brush, there is no more aniline, even if the work, at the level of quality is now higher.

TG: Are you telling me that now there are people less good in working, but the work comes out better than before?

RT: No! People are less good, however more photographers can do an acceptable job.
Then if we think that a picture in a magazine does not require so much attention, huh! Once there is the shae and the product, that's all, then if we think that anyway is the magazine to ruin the image printing it... If I make a high definition image, then they go to the press with the dot crushed and goodbye, it did not do anything...

TG: What is the dot crushed?

RT: Eh, that dot that was used for the inking in lithographs, being printed in lithographic process it had to be cured, otherwise drenched of ink creates burrs around him and makes the image a bit mixed, soft focus, flou, you can call in many ways this type of printing. It takes cleaning and care, as with any manual craft.
Right now, with this type of care, only images of a certain importance and impact can be made.

TG: Does the technique count, yet?

RT: The technique still counts.

TG: Do you consider yourself an artist?

RT: No, I am definitely a technician. I do an activity that was born almost 200 years ago in order to provide a service. Photography is not born to be a form of art, but a service, although you can use it on an artistic level or as a tool, as well as use the brush, you use the photograph. Photogrphy was created to do portraits, documentaries, weddings, communions, events and everything you want to store in an image. Photography is a service, not a form of art.

TG: Is it important that the artist know the technique?

RT: Well, it is very important. Surely it is very important that the artist is familiar with the technique to be able to develop what he wishes to say. Otherwise it will stop, as many artists using a technique without knowing it. But they are already artists, that's fine too. No names, there is people taking pictures blurred who became famous (perhaps talking about Paolo Roversi ndTG). I abhor the blurred photograph; for me the phtograph must be on focus, clear, definite and perfect. That imperfect photo, however, is probably art. This is why I consider myself a technical...

TG: For a certain period of your life you also did the photographer, right?

RT: Yes, always with my brother Gian Paolo, in the yars 2000-2004. As usual I took care of the technical part: lights, developments and prints, while Gian Paolo took care of the artistic side of the shooting.

TG: Roberto, now in wich technique are you interested?

RT: Now everything is digital, I have here a scanner Epson 6000 that I never use because nobody brings me films any more.

TG: You had also a Imacon ...

RT: No, the Imacon is skipped, no longer spare parts, there is no more, it was an old model... And it's useless for you to make that face there, it's not a problem, if you want me to just pull out the secrets I'll tell you that today you can make a good scan with the camera, so it's better because the camera does it all in one shoot, while the scanner is a linear CCD, then it had to stand there and see the whole picture. Now you with a good full frame camera and a good lens can do the scanning of a negative, or slide, even better than before.

TG: Is it better to scan the negative or a positive print?

RT: Always the negative.

TG: Didn't you hurt to lose the Imacon?

RT: No, no, the camera is a scanner. I come from a traditional way of working, you know it, right?
Check the negative developed with the tank at home, in the kitchen by my mother who grumbled, etcetera, etcetera. I am passionate, I did the darkroom, both amateur and professional. At Christmas time, I developed 250 baryta prints during the night for Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, Krizia, Trussardi and all these companies. And yet, now I find some magic in the digital. At the time, the grain that came out of a high-definition, super-developed etc. etc. negative it was annoying, then it became pleasant, because it is art and I know what else...
Now we have these high definition digital files that allow us to do what we want without grain. Grain that we have to put in on purpose in the picture, if we want to recover these flavors.

TG: Don't you think there was also a habit of seeig the grain in the pictures and that these new super-defined images are more graphic than photographic?

RT: I do not like grain.

TG: Maybe because you're a graphic more than a photographer...

RT: I do not know, am I a graphic?
I'm a technician who worked on the image, for 45 years now, but technically.
Then it happened to me to take some pictures, now I'm photographing landscapes and portraits with a digital camera, or with a view camera, when I find the film and the right situation.
If I have to take pictures I quietly take them with the digital, because now the question is also to be able to find the film.

TG: You can find it...

RT: Yes, in fact, you find it, but you have to look for it. If you now ask me to take a picture like that, now I do not have the film.
My film project is the landscape, I can take a picture with the film.
To make a panorama, I go on site in the morning and I'm interested in doing a pose at a certain time, another pose to another time, things that at the time you were in the studio with flash, pam, pam, pam you shot different poses. Development of the contact tests, and then you could chose the one you liked best.

TG: Are you satisfied with the digital photography, or is there something you don't like in this system?

RT: I am satisfied.

TG: And what do you thik about all this variety of proprietary raw files? Nikon has its own NEF, Fujifilm has a RAF, Canon has its own raw and all are not compatible with each other.

RT: Here it is, this is something I do not understand, even if you can develop all with Photoshop, once you enter into the software you need their plugin. Photoshop is also the best of these systems.

TG: You speak of DNG? DNG is better than RAF, for example?

RT: Yes, the DNG is the best system development, better of the systems developed by the companies that build cameras.

TG: Do you believe that one day could it be a problem, for example, to open NEF files of a certain model of Nikon produced only for a couple of years?

RT: Yup.

TG: Would it be better if everybody used the DNG?

RT: Definitely. The first thing I ask to the custumer is to give me the Raw.
Give me the raw and I'll develop it and I will calibrate it and then I'll print it. Give me the jpeg as you saw you and I'll show you the difference.
The JPEG is a system that does not fit.You can also potograph using an high definition jpeg, but the jpeg accompanying the Raw is never a very high definition file.

TG: However, there is the Tiff...

RT: Then, everything becomes Tiff, jpeg when you open it is a Tiff, then you can re-save Tiff, but when you open it he has lost the information, instead there are raw in all the information you want and you can freely adjust them with the Photoshop.

TG: The fact that there are so many types of raw is a thing that can be annoying, or create any problems?

RT: No, there are not problems in the sense, it's all good until it comes out a new camera, then if you have not updated Photoshop, you can not open the Raw for that camera model.

TG: So there is a problem!

RT: Yes, the problem there is. The problem is there and I do not understand why they have to be different, because I have tried to develop them with their proprietary software and they are not as good with Photoshop.

TG: Then what do you do? Do you transform them always to DNG?

RT: Yes, DNG.

TG: Once you open them, you transform them to DNG?

RT: Exactly. Or when you insert the plug-in in Photoshop then you can open, but the installation never succeeds...

TG: Have you ever tried Capture One Pro, or other software of this type?

RT: No, for now I'm happy with Photoshop.

TG: What happened to all your analog equipment built specifically for the Photo-Transer and everything else, including the enlargers?

RT: I threw it all away and I had to pay 3200 Euros to take all my equipment to the rubbish-dump. I remember it very well. It happened in 2002.

TG: So, the Photo Transfer can no longer be made?

RT: No, you can not do more. Why, do you want the Photo Transfer?
No look, I can tell you one thing, I am a proponent of the Photo Transfer, but although we have been successful with this beautiful technique, I tell you that today, with the nine colors pigment print polychrome are obtained exceptional results .

TG: Even for the black and white?

RT: Also for black and white.

TG: Do you print black and white with 9 colors?

RT: No, only with the three colors of black and white. They are: black, light black and very light black.

TG: Have you ever used Piezography?

RT: No absolutely not, because Epson blacks are deeper. When I could not get the deep blacks as I wanted, I got interested in this Swiss company called Piezography who had thought to create the most powerful blacks. It was off the colors of the printing and replacing them by Piezography that had a grant of Epson and through a software called RIP re-grading the machine, using more or less ink to get a different result.

TG: Why did you ever tried it?

RT: Because when I went to see Piezography, I did not like the results.
It was much nicer what I printed using an obsolete Epson machine. I speak of the 10000CF. With that machine I could do whites and blacks by fear. Fear.

TG: Now which printer do you have?

RT: Now I own the 10880, same Epson family.

TG: After how many years have you to change printer?

RT: Actually these machines are very resistant, but then at regular intervals come out new softwares, faster nozzles capable of producing smaller ink droplet. On average every two years there is something new.

TG: Is it always a run up to newer technologies?

RT: Not even so, when I printed with the enlarger it was even worse.
When I started with the enlarger, I made a choice of quality: Zucchiatti mechanical, Durst head and the focus was done manually with a special loupe that enlarged the grain of the negative. After six months, the seller offers me a sonde to focus automatically, okay okay, I take it and I spend 6 million Lire (around 3'300 USD). Installments, leasing and so on. With six million I had the perfect focus. After another six months, the seller is back and says: <Are you still there to do the test? But do not you know that you can now use the densitometer that gives you the minimum and maximum density?>. Another six million lire. And then: <But do not you know? Now there is the sonde to measure yourself the color...>. Tim, tum, tam, take that too. Then came the first video to accompany the enlarger, where you saw the positive. Then the first keyboard I've seen the whole evolution, piece by piece, until arrived this stuff here (indicating the digital printer and the computer).
Slowy you were throwing away the old stuff to update continuously your darkroom.
For me, in the future, there will be a pair of glasses that will make you see things as you want, and then with a clap, you give the okay. <Go! Stop!>. And you realize what you see through the glasses. You got it?

TG: The choice of printing papers and their calibration is it difficult?

RT: The paper is still the same, I think there are two or three factories in the world that then make products for all those who then repackage. Then they tell you this is called Hahnemuehle, this is Ilford, this is Agfa, and a lot of other names of papers.

TG: And for the tones?

RT: The tones, if you wish, you can give them to the paper even with the printer. Once you have a paper of a beautiful white light, if you want it off the cover with the yellow and you can print, eh!
For me a photographic paper must be white light. White whiter than whiter can not be.

TG: For you who have past from the age of stone, to the silicon age of computer, what is better? How did you live this experience?

RT: Ah, good question... Apart from that the time flew away, it seems to me that it was yesterday when I washed the floors and saw lithographic stones so high (makes a gesture with his hands), with all the smoke of the burning acid...
In reality, not much has changed. I think that today there is a higher quality.
We have the opportunity to express photography in a more comprehensive, multiple media, with more control over color, shape, etc., and this is a  thing I really like because I've always thought of photography as a quest for truth and expression of hearts and thoughts.

Surrealist Piazza Vetra Milan
Roberto Tomasi and Piazza Vetra, the perfect print, obtained with a method which I cannot say anything, except that the exposure was made with a 5X7 view camera and printed with an Epson plotter 10880
Shot by TG with Canon F1, Canon Fd 50mm f 1,4 and Fujicolor 200

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