The Untold Story of One of the Greatest Printers in Photography
By Peter Turnley
This is the untold story of one of the greatest printers of black-and-white photographs in the history of photography—Voja Mitrovic. It is time that this man, who has literally been in the dark since arriving in Paris from Yugoslavia in 1964, be acknowledged for his important part in the history of photography and his collaborations with many of the great photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Voja's story is also the story of the world-renowned photographic laboratory Picto, in Paris, created by Pierre Gassmann in 1950.
You've seen Voja's work without knowing it. He was a longtime printer for Henri Cartier-Bresson, from 1967–1997, and has made prints for the past thirty years for the great Czech photographer Josef Koudelka. While others also printed H.C.-B.’s photographs, what is so important about the period Voja printed much of his work is that it corresponds to the time when collecting signed photographs first began to take off and change the public’s view of photography collecting and its connection to the art world. Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the key photographers whose work was bought and collected during that period. It was during the time when Helen Wright was representing H.C.-B.’s prints in the United States where most of his prints were collected. A large number of the signed prints of H.C.-B. on any wall in the world printed from 1967–1997 were made by Voja—this fact is little known. He also printed at various times for many of the world’s other master photographers: Sebastio Salgado, Werner Bischof, René Burri, Marc Riboud, Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat, Man Ray, Atget, Helmut Newton, Raymond Depardon, Bruno Barbey, Jean Gaumy, Frederic Brenner, Max Vadukul, and Peter Lindbergh to name a few. I have had the great fortune that Voja has been my printer for the past twenty years. He printed the exhibition and reproduction prints for my books Parisians, McClellan Street, and In Times of War and Peace, and he has made all of my signed prints for collection.
I first met Voja (by the way, the "j" in Voja is pronounced like a "y") in June of 1979. It was during my first sojourn of eight months in Paris in 1975 that I heard of the great photographic lab where Cartier-Bresson’s prints were made—Picto. John Morris, then the photo editor of the New York Times and an early and long-time mentor of mine, and the great Czech photographer, Josef Koudelka, who I had met one fall day in the Luxembourg Gardens after he photographed me kissing my then-girlfriend on a park bench, had spoken to me of this great laboratory, a center world-famous for amazing black-and-white printing.
My first visit to Picto was in late winter of 1976, and I will never forget the sight of men and women in their white coats looking over and discussing the tonal values of some Cartier-Bresson prints lying on a table. I had never studied photography—I had always thought from the outset that one’s vision was more a function of knowledge or experience with almost any other aspect or domain of life than photography and cameras, thus I was more interested in studying subjects like languages, history, political science, economics, and art. But from that first sight of H.C.-B.’s prints at Picto, while knowing that my life purpose was to be a photographer, I had a singular determination to come and work at this laboratory and to gain the practical experience of learning to be a great printer.
Picto was the creation of Pierre Gassmann (see my photo at right, taken in Montparnasse, Paris, in 1996), who had left Nazi Germany in 1933 to come to Paris. While working as a young immigrant photographer in Paris before the war and spending time around Montparnasse, Pierre Gassmann had met and become friends with the eventual founders of Magnum, Robert Capa, David Seymour, George Rodger, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and also with photographers such as Brassai and Gisele Freund. After the war, in 1947, Gassmann put his own photography aside and began to make prints for the Magnum photographers, and then created Picto as a commercial enterprise in 1950. There is likely no one who had more knowledge of and contact with the important members of the world photographic community of the twentieth century than Pierre Gassmann. He was a very important mentor to countless photographers, including me. The famous photography laboratory that he created would intersect with the destiny of multitudes of photographers—and have a profound impact on the destiny of the young Yougoslav, Voja Mitrovic, who arrived in Paris in 1964.
Both Voja and Picto would have a tremendous impact on my own destiny. In June of 1979, after arriving back in Paris, I went to see Pierre Gassmann at Picto and asked for a job as a printer. Pierre, with his tough-love gruff voice, asked me what I knew how to do—and I exaggerated and told him that I was a great printer and knew how to do everything with black-and-white prints. He said to me, "We will see. You will have a three day tryout, and if you aren't as good as you say, you won't get the job." On my first day of my try out, I was given 100 negatives and told to make 8x10-inch prints of each by the end of the day. At 4 p.m., a tall, handsome man with a foreign accent, one of the printers in the lab—Voja—came to my enlarger and asked how it was going. I told him that I had only printed 20 negatives. He said to me, "You will never get this job—give me the negatives." I watched him take the hundred negatives to his enlarger, and in one hour, he printed the remaining 80 negatives, putting each sheet of printing paper in a closed drawer after exposing each negative. At 4:50 pm, he took out 80 sheets of exposed photographic paper and went to the open developing tank. I watched him chain develop all the prints, and one by one put all 80 prints, perfectly printed, into the fixer. At 5:10 p.m. that day, Pierre Gassmann walked into the lab and said, "let’s see how you have done." He put his foot on the foot pedal to light up the fixer tank with bright red light, and went through my 100 prints laying in the fixer-and a few seconds later, looked up and said to me, "you are as good as you said; you are hired!" After Gassmann walked out of the dark room, I took Voja aside, and said, "thank you. I will find a way one day to thank you for this!" He looked at me and said, "I was an immigrant also. I know what it means to need work—we need to help each other!"
While I worked as a printer at Picto in 1979 and 1980, I saw first-hand the amazing work of Voja Mitrovic. After I left Picto, and had finished my graduate degree in international relations at Sciences Po in Paris (where I was a classmate of the current French president Nicolas Sarkozy), I began to assist Robert Doisneau in 1981, and then embarked upon my own career, traveling the world as a photographer. While at Picto, I eventually became a pretty good printer, but knew that I wanted more than anything else to continue being a photographer myself. I was clear about that before ever starting at Picto—but I am sure that my experience as a printer has helped me understand better what I want from prints of my own photographs, and it certainly has helped me appreciate even more the mastership of Voja's prints. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend a life in the dark, and realized early on that I could never be nearly as good a printer as Voja, who has now printed my work for most of the past three decades.
Voja was born in Foca, in Bosnia, Herzegovina, part of the former Yugoslavia, in 1937. His father was killed during the war when he was four years old, and from this early age, he became aware that he would have to work to help his mother and family. He came to photography by accident—his family had a cow, and daily he would deliver a liter of milk to the house of a local photographer named Radmilo Mazic. One day this photographer asked Voja's mother if her son would like to be his photographic apprentice. In Sept., 1953, Voja began to work as Mazic’ apprentice. Mazic had studied photography at a school in Zagreb with teachers from the Ecole de Graphisme of Vienna. It was during this apprenticeship from the age of 14 to 18 that Voja gained extensive knowledge and skills in photography and printing. At the age of 19, he was obliged to do his military service and entered a unit of aviation photography of the Yugoslav Air force. After his military service, Voja worked for five years in a photographic studio in Belgrade where he was involved in all aspects of photography, making photographs, and developing film and making prints.
In September of 1964, Voja and another friend decided to embark upon a trip around the world before getting married and settling down. He arrived at the Paris train station on September 4th, 1964, with one hundred French Francs in his pocket and a backpack full of clothes and sausages—the money being the equivalent then of not more than US$100 now. Voja quickly discovered that with his Yugoslav nationality, it would be difficult to obtain the necessary visas to travel to other countries, and within two days of arriving in Paris, he had already found a job retouching prints at a lab near the Gare du Nord. This first job enabled him to obtain a "carte de sejour" and a work permit, which enabled him to begin to learn the French language.
Two years later, on April 2, 1966, he answered an announcement in a newspaper for a job as a printer at a lab called Picto. When he arrived at Picto, he met Pierre Gassmann and was given a tryout with three other candidates. Gassmann told him that he had been happy with one of his previous printers who was from Yugoslavia, and that he felt that people like him, who came from Central Europe, were good printers and good workers. Voja was hired that day. He worked at Picto for the next thirty years, until his retirement on January 1, 1997.
While there have been several people who have printed for Henri Cartier-Bresson—people such as Georges Fevre, Pierre Gassmann, Philippe Jourdain, Toros, Daniel Risset, and since Voya’s retirement, Daniel Mordac—few people , even in H.C.-B's close entourage, are aware of the role Voja played in printing his photographs over thirty years, most importantly during the time of the “photo boom”, that period of explosive growth in the modern acceptance of photography, of print collecting and photographic exhibitions. Collecting signed prints of photographers began in earnest by a large public in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During this time, Voja Mitrovic printed a significant number of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s collector prints, book prints, and exhibition prints. While I was at Picto in 1979 and 1980, Cartier-Bresson came to Picto almost every week to sign prints that would be sent to collectors in the United States—and many of these prints were made by Voja. I will never forget H.C.-B.’s frequent visits to the lab—witnessing him sign a print was a powerful sight, like a final conclusive act in a process of great creation—and it instilled in me the sense that a signed collector print is the summit of the photographic art. There was always an amazing spirit of conviviality at the lab between the printers and visiting photographers, and always a tremendous level of pride and respect within the walls of the lab. Everyone was aware that we were all involved with people and a process of artistic creation that was unique and special.
This was also a time when an important change took place in the world of printing—the introduction of multi-grade paper and filters, which allowed for a subtler rendition of details in both the shadows and the highlights of prints. It was also a time when the highest quantity of silver was in printing papers. Voja has indicated that there are certain qualities of richness in gray tonal values that he could never achieve with today’s papers, that he was able to obtain in the late 'seventies and early 'eighties. Also, since Voja’s retirement, many people, including myself, have noticed that the later prints of H.C.-B., sometimes became too pale, lacking detail in the highlights. Voja has indicated that this is not the fault of later printers' skills, but mostly because H.C.-B. himself changed in his printing taste a bit, asking for lighter prints in his latest years. He would often say that he didn't want his prints to be "dramatic" in the manner that was popular with many American photographers.
Most anyone who has ever spent any time printing in a darkroom knows the emotional difficulty and joy of making a great print. Josef Koudelka said that Voja has the mind of a computer. While I often saw other great printers at one point or another arrive at a moment of emotional and mental block when they couldn’t achieve a result they wanted with a print, Voja was always the picture of perfect methodical discipline, patience, and consistency. He has explained to me that from early age he knew he would have to work, and he learned quickly that whether he was doing something, or re-doing something, it was still simply work, and he respected that, and he would never become frustrated and emotional about doing something until it was done as well as it could be done.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Pak-Ming Wan: "Peter, That's a wonderful story about both Voja and you. As an ex-pat in Paris, I know first hand how hard it is to restart a life—but restart with just $100 in your pocket and not knowing the language or anyone? And to play that hand and turn it into something as great as he has is something I respect. Inspirational."
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "As an addendum to this wonderful story...
"Those who would like to see quite a large stock of Mr. Mitrovic's work first-hand should make an attempt to see the "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century" exhibit now at the Art Institute of Chicago. The show, which originated at MoMA and was curated by Peter Galassi, features the largest and broadest volume of Cartier-Bresson's work (298 prints plus original magazine publications) you'll likely ever see assembled again in your lifetime.
"The show is organized approximately chronologically. So although printers are not noted (but printing is cited and discussed in an early part of the exhibit) the period of Mitrovic's work will be easy to scope, as it covers most of the show.
"If you cannot see the show in Chicago or its future venues, Peter Galassi's accompanying catalog is the next best thing. No, scratch that; it's actually equally valuable, as it presents a wonderfully rich narrative as well as all of the images from the show, beautifully reproduced."
Featured Comment by Bahi: "B&W wet printing is an irresistible combination of science, art, myth and magic. I just loved this story."