Yuri Kozyrev's iconic image of the Libyan conflict went through the hands of the post-processing lab 10b before it was published to critical acclaim by Time magazine, due, in part, to its tones colours and contrast. Images © Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for Time.
10b Photography has established itself as one of the world’s leading digital darkrooms, handling post-production for scores of award-winning photojournalists who trust that the company knows where to draw the line between processing and manipulation. Olivier Laurent meets the founders.
When Yuri Kozyrev was covering the Arab Spring, working in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya and Yemen for Time, instead of wiring his images direct to the magazine in New York, he sent them first to Claudio Palmisano in Rome, who would process them according to the photographer's specifications, and then forward them to picture editor Patrick Witty. Palmisano is the co-founder of 10b Photography, which has been working with some of the biggest names in photojournalism for the past five years, including Paolo Pellegrin, Finbarr O'Reilly and Marcus Bleasdale, among many others. Their work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and Russian Reporter, and they count among their clients the Nobel Peace Center, Saatchi & Saatchi, Magnum Photos, Noor and VII Photo.
Palmisano, who set up 10b with fellow photographer Francesco Zizola, explains the company's background. "It was 2006 and I had been working as a freelance digital photo editor [alongside photography assignments] for years," he tells BJP. "I had opened a little lab with a friend of mine, though we used to spend more time playing online games than post-producing images. In the meantime I had started toning images for some renowned photographers. I had worked with Paolo Pellegrin on the portfolio he submitted to Magnum Photos [to become a member], and I had also printed an exhibition by Francesco Zizola."
Zizola, who was looking for the right place to move his Rome-based studio - "I've never been able to leave my hometown," he says - came across "a real-estate bargain". Much bigger than what he was looking for at the time, his new studio was in need of an idea. "I thought it over for some time and I decided that it was worth my while, since it stirred my ambition to interpret the new cultural and technological possibilities arising in the field of photography, especially editorial photography." That's when 10b was born. "I thought of it as a laboratory where new technological, but also ethical and cultural, challenges posed by documentary photography could be experienced and tested," he explains. "I had in mind the same kind of photography that struck me when I was 10; a language capable of increasing people's awareness, but that could also withstand the contemporary debate, questioning the meaning of historical events and denying memory. An ambitious cultural endeavour."
Zizola was 10 years old when he was first struck by the power of photography. "I had asked my father what ‘genocide' meant and he showed me a black-and-white photograph from a book portraying what the Allied Forces found when they entered a Nazi concentration camp - a mass grave full of skeletal corpses. That picture spoke about the horror of war and the folly of human conflicts better than a thousand words," he remembers. "From that day on, photography - and its power to pierce the soul and mind, by means of the reality it portrays - has always been by my side."
To launch 10b, Zizola needed help. "I was aware of the state of the art of photography," he says, "and I knew something about the mounting debate around digital photography and the technological transformations photography in general was going through. At the time, Claudio [Palmisano] was the only one I knew who could conceive digital photography along the lines of traditional photojournalism, and not just within the narrow limits of a technological innovation."
Palmisano first started his career as a computer programmer. "I was interested in the computer's potential as a means of communication," he says. "But one day I was hired by the Italian newspaper, Paese Sera, to build a digital network for its staff photographers." That's when he had a eureka moment. "I realised that images, photographs in particular, could be an even more efficient means of communication, and I became a staff photographer for the newspaper. I was an IT expert, passionate about communication, and a photographer. My encounter with Photoshop was fated."
So, when Zizola approached him, Palmisano didn't think twice. "He wanted me to be his partner in this enterprise; to be in charge of the digital laboratory. I accepted."
10b is a digital darkroom and, for all intents and purposes, works similarly to an old-fashioned darkroom. "The recent introduction of the raw shooting format has enabled digital photography to share a very similar workflow than with analogue photography," says 10b on its website. "Just like a negative, a raw file cannot be printed the way it is and needs to be ‘developed' first. Contrast, saturation and hue, for example, have to be set during the editing process. This step takes the name of ‘raw conversion' and, with the exception of chemicals, it resembles the developing process of a film."
Before and after. "Toning is harder when the before and after images are quite similar," says Claudio Palmisano of 10b. "In these cases, toning is part of the creative flow, where details make the real difference." Images © Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for Time.
10b is quick to point out that it is not a retouching firm. The term is often associated with Photoshop experts, who are hired to alter the look and shape of fashion icons, for example. So when it comes to defining Palmisano's role, it can get tricky. Is he a "digital photo editor", a "Photoshop editor" or a "post-producer"? "Post-producer semantically belongs to the world of video-making and sounds a little too vague," says Valentina Tordoni of 10b.
"Since language tends to ratify a phenomenon that has ceased to evolve, and that eventually crystallises in the word itself that names it, it seems that this kind of profession is still in the process of seeking ratification from the Italian-speaking community."
Until the perfect term is found, Palmisano identifies himself as 10b's digital laboratory executive director, and this is how he works: "Photographers from all over the world upload their images to our dedicated file server," he explains. "Then I try to get in touch with them over Skype or by phone in order to discuss which style to apply to their images."
Of course, he says, working with a photographer for the first time can be difficult. "You need to tune in with them," he says. "We exchange a fair amount of emails, links to online contact sheets and previews with every new photographer. But once the tuning kicks in, the work gets a lot smoother."
In fact, Palmisano adds, "The relationship can grow so strong that we often send the enhanced images directly to the photographer's client, usually a magazine, and it has happened, in very special occasions, that the photographer hadn't had the time to check the final version before it was delivered." That was the case with some of Kozyrev's images in the early months of 2011 in the Middle East.
Palmisano has been working with Kozyrev for a few years now, and together they have tried out different stylistic interpretations of his work, "depending on the country where he was shooting from, the story he was covering and the historical context". He adds, "Clearly, technology has an impact on a photographer's style. Working on scanned slides is not the same as having raw files. The work on the Arab unrest was certainly influenced by poor and irregular access to satellite internet connection on Yuri's side and, as a consequence, by having to work on a large number of images within a short period of time on my side."
But, he explains, "A limit turned into an opportunity and I had an idea. Since I was working on JPEGs and not on raw files - too big for a satellite internet connection - I built up a complex pre-set action that would soften the sharp contrast typical of JPEG images and convey the first stylistic ‘coat' at the same time. Then I would proceed as always, enhancing one photo at a time, looking for the subject, the proper ‘mood', the ‘punctum'," - the detail that creates a relationship between the viewer and the photograph's subject.
"I like the way he's doing it," says Kozyrev. "I'm amazed by Claudio's knowledge of Photoshop. What he did for me, I could never have done with my laptop, especially since, in most cases, I had no access to the internet or even electricity."
"Working with Yuri on these images was particularly exciting and challenging," says Palmisano. "He had very short and specific deadlines. Yuri would upload the image files to our server at night. With my laptop - no matter where I was - I would remotely connect to our file server and post-produce Yuri's photos. Then, always through a remote connection, I would upload the final image files to the Time file server for Patrick Witty.
"Once I was on a beach in Croatia. I also worked from several of my friends' houses in Rome, taking a break from dinner in order to work on Yuri's images via a wireless internet connection. I have also worked during my holiday in Linosa [a tiny Sicilian island south of Lampedusa, in the Mediterranean Sea], where I was always looking for the best GSM coverage riding on my rented quad bike. Sometimes it felt really weird, I would be in some beautiful place, maybe scubadiving 30 metres underwater in the blue silence of the sea depths, and five minutes later I would be engrossed by my work on Yuri's pictures from the Arab Spring, often concentrating on what would soon become icons of pain and death."
Kozyrev's images have won multiple awards in recent months, including a Visa d'Or, and the Noor photographer is a clear frontrunner in the February 2012 World Press Photo competition.
But is 10b engaging in digital manipulation of these photographers' images? The laboratory's founders don't think so. "We believe that talking of ‘manipulation' is correct only when pixels are ‘moved', therefore when the minimum unit of a digital image is at least either replaced or cloned," says 10b on its website. "In these cases we can talk of a mystification of reality, whose results not only represent something different from the original subject but have also broken the main rule of the photojournalism ethics."
Beyond the digital file
As with the advent of digital photography, 10b is embracing new trends in the world of photojournalism. "In recent years, 10b has broadened its areas of expertise," says Marco Baldovin, who joined the company after he attended a course on Photoediting held by Internazionale magazine at the LUISS Business School in Rome. "The gallery has become one of 10b's central features and is now one of the main venues for photography in Rome," he tells BJP.
"Thanks to the experience we have acquired by printing and producing several exhibitions for our own gallery, we are now also able to offer exhibition design services to our clients. We take care of the printing, mounting and shipping of the pictures, as well as of the graphic design for reference panels and advertising materials (such as flyers, banners and postcards)." In fact, at this year's Visa pour l'Image festival, 10b took over Kozyrev's exhibition - a rare feat. "The hardest part was to convince Jean-François Leroy," says Kozyrev of the festival's director.
But 10b has also opened its own multimedia studio to create interactive applications for smartphones and tablets devices, as well as to design entire websites for photojournalists. "There are at least three factors that, in recent years, have laid the foundations for a significant change in the way photography is distributed and enjoyed by its audience," says Baldovin. "I am talking about the crisis in the publishing industry, the spread of smartphones and tablet devices, and the constant growth of the internet, which is slowly subtracting room from paper-based publications and television broadcasts."
These factors, he adds, are encouraging photographers to rethink the way they tell their stories and portray their subjects. "I think that we haven't fully tested the potential of new technologies and that what we have seen so far was borrowed from traditional media-based formats, in most cases. However, there has been an increasing demand for motion, professional photography website designs and iPad magazines in the past two years. The industry is changing." And this is the challenge that 10b aims to meet.
Images © Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for Time.
Images © Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for Time.
Images © Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for Time.Wall for debate
Wall for debate
10b Photography recently opened a gallery in Rome, from where it hosts exhibitions, workshops and other cultural events. "The gallery is a constant source of challenge for us," says co-founder Francesco Zizola. "Each exhibition is intended as food for thought for our visitors, but also as a statement, which ought to be interpreted in the context of current events and of the international debate around photography."
In the past couple of years, 10b has exhibited photographers such as Martin Parr, Paolo Pellegrin, Andrew Testa, Frank Horvat, Félix Nadar, Yuri Kozyrev, Alexandra Boulat, Eugene Richards and Stefanor de Luigi. It has also shown Noor's Consequcnes and Solutions group projects. Zizola is a Noor photographer.
"We're also running an educational programme, with workshops, lectures and meetings with renowned authors," he says. "We want to offer a chance for young photographers to meet with professionals with established careers in photojournalism, something that is quite rare in Rome."
The 10b gallery is located at Via San Lorenzo da Brindisi, 10b, in Rome.
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