Von Thomas photographer, fine art master printer and owner of Thomas Editions has been ahead of the competition in the photography industry in more ways than one for decades. He recognized opportunities and because of his love for gadges innovative thinking around digital technology he blazed a path for himself despite challenges. His independent-entrepreneurial mindset coupled with determination secured his: education-the cultivation of an outstanding reputation-high level of success-mastery of multiple skill-sets and uniquely positioned commercially as the only Black master fine art printer in Los Angeles, perhaps the nation. Von is absolutely someone every artist of color needs to know.
By LaMar Anderson | June 10, 2021 | 6:00am
What is your name and the name of your business?
I am Von Thomas, and the name of my business is Thomas Editions, Fine Art Printing.
First, tell us a little bit about yourself and maybe where you’re from. Did you grow up in Los Angeles, or are you originally from this area?
Okay, yeah. I grew up in Los Angeles. I’m an old dude; I was born in ’54. Went to public and private schools, my early childhood. I always have these moments where I share certain things like I met Martin Luther King when I was 13. It was like six weeks before he was killed at my church. I used to be an altar boy.
Yeah, I’ve lived in three different cities.
Take that back, four. Is it four? Yeah. I’ve lived in Los Angeles. I’ve lived in Phoenix, Arizona. I’ve lived in Texas, Arlington, and Dallas, and then I lived in New York City.
So, I’ve lived in four places, LA being my birthplace. I moved to Texas at one point. I was a commercial advertising photographer. I picked that up at UCLA back in the mid-’70s and started working. Did a lot of stuff, album covers, outdoor advertising, magazine ads. I shot for Essence. I shot for a lot of the Black magazines in the mid-’80s.
But I was always seeking to be better and better and better. I used to work for a company called Pro-Line, and Pro-Line moved their headquarters to Texas, a hair products company. I went there. My dad was in Texas, so I went there in the late ’80s and started working with them. Did a year’s worth of advertising photography for them, and pretty much, that was as much of Texas as I think I could take. Texas is not my cup of tea, so to speak.
In 1987, I was the only Black photographer they’d seen in Dallas proper in terms of commercial advertising. I was told, or warned, that it might be few and far between for me getting any work because it’s good old boys down there, not good old Black boys. There was one Black assistant, and I found him, which was very interesting. He was always amazed at how I talked to other people, white people in this case.
We’d go to lunch or the restaurant, he says, “Man, how do you talk to the white man the way you do?” I’m looking at him like, “What are you talking about?” Apparently, there’s this kind of less-than approach, at least there was, this mindset of stepping it back a notch. You don’t step up on their level. I said, “You know what? I was born on the West Coast. I went to private schools with white kids. So, from an early age, I was in that arena, so they’re all the same to me. I know there’s the good, bad, and the ugly, but if you’re a righteous person, you’re going to be righteous, and I’m going to talk to you just like I talk to anybody else. I don’t hold anything back, and I don’t lessen myself.”
Were these family values taught to you, and perhaps growing up in Los Angeles the reason why you were the way you were, especially going down to Texas, by yourself, after UCLA?
Well, I didn’t give it much thought about the racial aspect, the racial makeup, or that I was going to be denied. That didn’t even occur to me. I just knew I had a product that was pretty good, and I had been working for several companies up to that point here in LA. I used to work for catalog companies. I’d go in, and yeah, there were no other Black photographers there. I’d be the only one. We’re shooting products for companies, I don’t know if you remember an old company called Zodys, but it was before Target came along. Savon, stuff like that. Just Barbie dolls and everything. But I had been priming myself, looking at all the photographers from New York and how they styled their work, and I patterned my work after theirs, so, of course, my portfolio looked pretty good.
Dallas was one of the places where I’ve had my feelings hurt by being turned down, but I mean, it didn’t start there. I had a studio in downtown LA in 1980; I took over a studio called Curtis Studio. Curtis Studio was named after a famous Indian photographer, Edward S. Curtis. He had been hired by the government to go and film North American Indians, so back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, that’s what he did. A lot of his work right now is very valuable.
Anyway, I found myself in a situation where the owner says, “I don’t want to continue this business, Von. I’m thinking about closing the doors unless you want to buy it.” Well, I’m 20-nothing years old, and I’m thinking, “No, I don’t want this business. You shoot executive portraits.” My mom talked me into it, and I ended up buying the business. Shortly after I’d had it, maybe a month or so, I was getting all the old customers coming to the door. They were always looking for Dennis, who was the previous owner. It’s like, “Hey, where’s Dennis?” “Dennis is not here.” “Oh, when will he be back?” “Well, Dennis actually sold the business.” “Really? To who?” “I bought it.” I actually had people look at me and, “Thank you,” turn around and walk out the door. It’s like, “Whoa.”
So, it didn’t hurt me so much because they were unexpected. They’d walk in the door. But in Dallas, I remember once, I had sent my book over to the fashion… They have a fashion section in Dallas, the Dallas Mart or something like that, and I sent my stuff over there. I figured, “I’m going to get some catalog work.” I get a callback, they said, “We love your work. Can you come in and meet us?” I jump in my car, which didn’t have any air conditioning at the time, and it was in August in Dallas. If you know anything about that place, it’s hot and humid. I sweated my buns off. Get to the Dallas Mart, got in there; I’m trying to dry myself off because I’m all wet from driving in my car.
I get in the lobby at this place, and there’s nobody in there except the receptionist and me. She calls, I guess, the art director. The art director comes down. I see she’s got my portfolio in her hand, and she’s looking around the room like this. She passes me, and she’s still looking for Von Thomas. I get up, and I could see this momentary shift in her demeanor. I said, “Hi, I’m Von Thomas,” extended my hand. She goes, “Oh, hi.” I said, “Well, I’m so happy to know you like my work and that you have some projects for me.” She goes, “Well, those projects are, right now, on hold.” I’m like, “You were jumping out of your skin about two or three projects you wanted me on right away.” All of a sudden, it just went away. So, that kind of gave me a firm understanding of where I was and the fact that you just didn’t see Black photographers there.
I took a job at a catalog house near Texas Stadium in Irving. I didn’t really want to take another catalog job because, in catalog jobs, you’re shooting products, a different arrangement of products on a daily basis, and you always have a quota. They want all photographers to do “X” amount of shots a day. That means they’re productive enough to pay a certain amount of money, and they can justify that, “Okay, you did this amount of work, and we’re paying… Yeah, okay, you’re good.” If you come in under your quota, especially if you have a 15 shot a day quota, and that was kind of common; you came in with five, they might let you hang around for a couple days, but if you can’t get your shot count up, they’re going to let you go because you’re not beneficial and productive. So, I’m working in this place, and I’m really hauling to try to keep the quota up. It’s not just the amount of stuff you do; it’s the quality of the work. Okay, we’re shooting off four by fives, so this is all large format.
I get a guy one day as an assistant. I had never met him before, and typically, I would work either without an assistant, or there’s a floating assistant that would work the entire studio. So, I get a guy, and I had to shoot a microwave. The microwave has a little window, and usually, advertisers want to show light coming through the window. I said, “Okay, we shot the outside, now we just have to do something to get a light inside that, and maybe we can superimpose that over,” and the guy says, “Okay, well, listen. While you do this over here, I’ll go nigger-rig this.” When he said it, it was just so natural for him that he caught himself, and he probably said, “Oh, damn, I’m working with a nigga today.” He tried to walk that back. I mean, he came up with jerry-rig, jimmy-rig, every other rig came out of his mouth in about a 10-second blast right after that. I was just, “Wow.”
So, I knew where I was. I didn’t like where I was because trying to fit in a place that’s less open to you. I mean, LA and other places, they’re open, and you don’t feel the effects, of sometimes, you know, that hidden racism. But some places, it’s just right there on your front door.
I am curious to know more about the dynamics around the time you grew up and all the things happening that would informed your sense of interacting with other cultures. As a young man perhaps thinking, “Okay, I’m going to set off to start my career”. Did the 60s and LA inform your journey in life and navigating it as a young adult?
Well, as a young person, sometimes you aren’t aware of things unless you have really strong Afrocentric parents. My parents were very nice, my mom was a little brutal, and my dad was very nice; my grandparents were my rock. They had thought that the best course for me was to put me into places where I could learn and grow, so they put me into private schools, into white private schools. Back in the mid-’60s, I’m going to a white private school, and there’s only three Black kids in the entire school. This wasn’t my choice. I rebelled against the idea, mainly because I was in fear, not for my life or anything, but in fear that I was not in my element.
They didn’t look like me; they didn’t dress sort of like me. From my view of the evening news, they don’t like me. So, it kind of put me in a place. In hindsight, I can say my grandparents did me the best service that they could have done with their time working with me, to throw me in the deep end and say, “Well, this is who is running this place, and if you want to be able to work effectively, you’re going to have to learn how to deal, talk to, and maneuver.” So, they put me in a situation just to where it’s thought if you’re going to do a trade, you go to trade school to learn that trade. You’re going to work in a white environment, you’d better immerse yourself, but you’ve got to do it from a young age.
Now, there may be pushback on the kid, which there was. There was a lot of pushback. My friends used to tease me on my block because I’d come home dressed differently. I mean, they used to call me white boy. I’m like, “I’m not white. I just go to a white school.” But kids can be cruel. I saw a lot of that coming out at an early age. I finally got into a public school when I went into high school, and I’ve got to tell you, after two or three weeks, I was ready to go back to the private school. I was like, “I changed my mind. I’ll go back. Send me back,” because this was a whole other level of crazy that I hadn’t experienced.
I mean, I went to a school where I could actually go out, play basketball at lunch, forget my jacket, and on the loudspeaker, they’ll call me, “Von Thomas, your jacket’s in the office. Pick it up after your next class.” They know whose jacket it is. It was a leather jacket because I used to have to try to get my revolutionary on, so of course, I dressed like the Black Panthers going to a white school. So, I had my jeans on, my white shirt, T-shirt, and black leather jacket. I didn’t have a beret. I didn’t want to send them over the top. But no, I just had to represent my little corner.
So yeah, it’s funny. I just ran into a guy who actually went to that school with me in the seventh and eighth grades. I was like… He mentioned the name of the school, LA Baptist, and I’m like, “Dude, I went to LA Baptist.” He goes, “I went there.” He brought in his annuals. There I was. I was like, “Wow.
Where did your interest in creatively expressing yourself start? Through art practice, or was it based on an idea of vocation? What was the impetus to pursue photography?
The one thing that you can chart through my entire life is my love of gadgets. I got this from my grandfather. My grandfather was a carpenter and a home builder, so he had tools just galore. At one point, sometime in the ’60s, he rolls up with a Polaroid camera. Now, he made good money as a home builder. He owned property around Los Angeles that he rented out. He came in with this Polaroid camera, and I’m fascinated. He’s taking pictures; I’m taking pictures. It was his camera. At one point, he buys me a Polaroid. It was called the Polaroid Swinger. It wasn’t the sophisticated kind like his, but it was cool. I could shoot some pictures. Now, I didn’t really gravitate to the photography part of it as much as I gravitated to the gadget because I used to tear things down. My parents would buy me a little boxy stereo, and I’d start tearing it apart, putting bigger speakers on it, which was kind of like, it didn’t look as well, but it sounded better.
Photography, for me, kind of came as… I don’t know; it just kind of hit me like a bolt of lightning. It was something I wanted to try. I was excited by the cameras. I had a friend who passed away quite a while ago that I went to high school with. He was a guy with a gift of gab who could talk his way into anything, and he used to talk his way into concerts. Basically, he said, “Von, I need a ride to a concert,” so I would get into the concert. He had a little Minolta, and he would shoot pictures, and then he’d show me the stuff about a week later. I’m like, “You know what? I’m going to get a good camera.” I went down to Bel Air Camera and bought a Fuji camera.
At the same time, I think I was like 20, 21 years old, I see one of my neighbors walking down the street with a camera over his shoulder, and I started asking him. One thing led to another; we started becoming friends, mostly on the camera side. This was about the time I was in college. I had dropped out of college, and I needed a job. A friend of mine got me a job doing some labor work, just manual labor at UCLA Extension. Well, after these little jobs would be over, I would always inquire to the person in the employment office if they had anything permanent; I’m open. One day, the woman called and said, “Hey, I’ve got a position if you want it.” I take the position. I’m working in the transcript department at UCLA Extension in Westwood, and it came to my attention that I could take any classes I wanted for free.
So, photography wasn’t my first choice. I took an interior design course because I wanted to learn how to furnish my place so I could have a bachelor pad. I got into that long enough to understand that I was some kid trying to jump into something that was way over my head. These were serious people taking these interior design classes, and the woman who was teaching it was a well-regarded interior designer. Well, after I found out I was going to have to spend X amount of dollars on things just to participate in the class, I said, “Eh,” dropped that. I signed up for recording engineering theory. I wanted to be in a recording studio that didn’t pan out. I tried one other thing, oh, computer programming that wasn’t a problem, I finished.
But then I tried a photo class, and once I took Beginning Black and White [photography], it was all over. I picked every class that was in the catalog for photography. I was double and tripling up classes and quarters. I was doing two to three classes at night a week, so I’d go to work in the day, and then go home, grab myself a bite, come back to Westwood or wherever the class was being held, and I’d be in that class. I’m very competitive, so when people show their work, they give an assignment; I did a shot one day that was a tennis shoe. It had flowers coming out. It was a four by five-shot. I finally got it right, and I brought it in. That set the stage for the level in the class because when the students saw that, everybody else, the next week, they threw down. Everybody was kind of lame. Then, the work started going up.
But the teachers who were teaching me at night were graduates of Art Center. So, I was getting an Art Center education without going to Art Center and without really having to pay any money except for lab fees and stuff like that. Then, one day, probably two and a half years in, and I’d probably gone through almost every class, I got a call from the registrar calling me down to her office. She says, “Von, it’s come to my attention that you’re taking classes here.” I said, “Yeah.” She says, “Well, it’s come to my attention you’re taking two to three classes a quarter.” I go, “Yeah.” She says, “You can’t do that. Not for free. You’re taking money away from the departments. We need that for paying customers. We give you one class per quarter, but not two, not three. We can’t do anything about what you’ve already done, but going forward…” Then, maybe a few weeks later, they called me up and said, “Listen, would you be interested in shooting for the university?” I go, “Yeah.” So, the university that taught me was the first one that gave me a job to do photography. I went around and photographed all the departments for some big gala that they were having; I think it was an anniversary thing.
At some point, I figured out that, “I don’t want to work at a regular job. It’s not cut out for me.” Every day that I would go in, I don’t know if you’ve ever had a 9:00 to 5:00, but you might have had clock watchers. You come back from lunch, and they’re looking at you, and they’re looking at their watch, at the clock. It’s like, “I don’t like that.” Then, the highlight of working there… I had benefits. I had enough to be less than comfortable, haha. Not fully comfortable, less than comfortable. The highlight of working there was every 10, 15, 20 years, you’d get awarded a pin, a gold-plated pin. When I saw that that’s all they give you, I said, “They give you a bonus? They give you a raise?” “No, but I got this pin!” I went, “That’s not enough.”
Now, I’m 22, something like that. The good thing about being young is you don’t know everything. My not knowing everything helped me a lot because if I knew more, who knows? Maybe I would have stayed at that job because it was safe, and I knew I could always count on it. As opposed to going out in an area that I knew nothing about. But I had started working for a couple small magazines in town; Soul Magazine was one. They helped put me on the map in terms of getting close to celebrities, so one day I’d be in a room with Marvin Gaye, one day I’m in the room with Earth, Wind & Fire, one day I’m in the room with Peaches and Herb, I’m photographing them. They’re giving me access to concerts, so I took the skills, the knowledge I had from my photo classes and applied it, so I started working there. That opened a few doors.
I kind of figured, “At some point, I want to do album covers,” because I’m looking at album covers, I’m looking at my shots, and I’m going, “Yeah, yeah, I can see this.” But album covers are not all live. Some were, but a lot were studio. I started calling up people like Norman Seeff; he was a big name in the album photography world. I bugged him, and I bugged him, and I bugged him, and he finally agreed to meet with me. Looked at my portfolio of all of my live photography, and he says, “This is some nice work, but I shoot studio. What do you know about strobes? What do you know about lighting?” I go, “I don’t. I want to learn.” I guess I had made an impression just because of my tenacity that he said, “Okay, well, I’ll tell you what. We’re doing a shoot on Thursday. Why don’t you come by the studio? You can sit in and watch; you can help out. If we need some wind, we’ll give you some foam core; you can give us some wind. I’ll have my guys show you what to do.”
I go on by, and… What was the shooting that day? I can’t remember offhand, but it might have been the Emotions. He would sit back there, and he had about 50 to 60 rolls of Tri-X and Pan-X film, and he had his Nikons, and he’d just sit there and just fire away. He had a Black assistant. That was like, “Whoa, a brotha.” A Rastafarian, he had dreads. I was like, “Oh, man.” So, I met that brotha. That brothas name was Darius Anthony, and we ended up a couple of years later sharing studio space. But I was always trying to reach out and do something more. Being in the house of Norman Seeff, that was Mecca for me because there weren’t too many albums he didn’t do.
Sounds like a natural progression of coming into unique adulthood. Can you speak to whether or not a sense of entrepreneurship in your life at that time, perhaps thinking, “I don’t want a job 9:00 to 5:00” and “I like what I do as it relates to my independence”? Did you have family who was supportive of your decisions?
My being independent came naturally from my parents. None of my parents had 9:00 to 5:00. My grandfather had his own building business. My grandmother had a sewing business, used to sew for a lot of the shops in downtown LA. She’d go down there and grab her materials, and we’d have our den full of day laborers, had machines, so she had a series of machines. All-day long, you could hear the clack, clack, clack, so she had her thing. My mother owned a keypunch business. Back in the day, they used to have keypunch cards that you’d program computers with. That was her business, Thomas Keypunch Service. Everybody didn’t work for someone. My mother did work for somebody, but I guess her spirit wasn’t a nine to fiver either. So, that came very naturally to me, just being in their presence and seeing what they do.
Now, I’ve tried, over the years, working at a 9:00 to 5:00. I’ve had somewhat limited success. The job that I took at the studio downtown, the Curtis Studio, but the guy left me alone all day. I’m in the darkroom. I’m processing stuff, I’m doing stuff, so it wasn’t like I had some person over me, browbeating me. Even when I worked for the catalog offices, you worked by yourself. They didn’t harass you. They let you know when it’s lunch and when to turn in the rest of your final work for the day and get out. But I photo-assisted around Los Angeles for quite a number of years, and I worked for a lot of different photographers, different types of photographers, from automotive to fashion to lifestyle.
I ended up working with some photographers that eventually led me to one of the department stores, the Broadway department store, and I started working as an assistant in one of their photo studios. They had two, one at one time, and then they built another one. But one that did all pots and pans, bedding, and stuff like that. The other one did fashion. When they opened the fashion studio, I was like, “I want to manage. I want to manage.” Well, I had been there long enough, and I used to take the crews out to do the… Anytime you see a white sale in a catalog, these beautiful beds and the sheets and stuff? Well, they would go out and rent these gorgeous homes in Malibu and Beverly Hills, and we’d convert a beautiful living room into a beautiful bedroom, complete with window treatment. It’s a full day. I’d take a truck and a crew out. So, that was my thing, to organize the equipment and the crews to go out, make sure we had everything we needed to do the shoot, any spares, and the manpower to do it.
So, I lobbied for the position at the fashion studio, which was their new, state-of-the-art 40,000 square feet. They gave me assistant manager, not manager, and I decided, “Okay.” I was like, “Can I do this?” Because this was going here every day, and unlike an hourly employee, I have a salary, so, “This is what you get every month, no matter how much you work. That’s all.” It was challenging at first because I was building. I was going in; I had to build out and buy equipment and stock the place and get photo assistants and hire some of the photographers. So it was challenging at first. Then, the challenge just dropped, and then it became a boring 9:00 to 5:00.
I didn’t have a chance to shoot. Now, I worked in a place where I had all the cameras in the world. I had Hasselblads, I had… Nikon’s were the thing back in the ’90s, the Nikons and the Chinar four by fives, and I had everything. But I couldn’t shoot because I had to manage. Just to give you an example, they’d give you a layout at the beginning of each day, and we’d assign a page to a photographer. They’d say, “Von, you want to shoot today?” I’d say, “Yeah, I want to shoot,” so I’d have a layout. I’d have an assistant. It was all products, so I set up the table right outside my office. Then, “The toilet’s clogged, Von. Need to call some plumbing services.” “Oh, something happened over here. You need to go on this side of the studio.” So, I got bogged down in doing day-to-day work, and I couldn’t. So, for me, I was kind of depressed. I was so close to photography, but yet I wasn’t taking any pictures. Then, it was shortly after that job, Broadway dissolved. They went bankrupt and sold off everything. All the photographers went scattered to the wind.
After that, that’s when I ended up in Arizona. I ended up in Arizona. I actually tried to change my business because I thought, “You know what? I’ve been messing around with this, and I really haven’t made any kind of money, and I’m really…” So, I ended up going to an employment agency, and when you filled out the form, “What are you good at?” “Photography.” “What are you…” “Photography.” “Photography.” Because I knew everything, there was about photography. I worked at so many studios and done so much stuff for the last 15 years, at least 10 to 15 years, so I wasn’t really a good employable person, especially in Arizona.
Then, I started looking at photographers, “Well, maybe I can find somebody I can assist.” I found a guy, he hired me, a guy named Jeff Noble. I worked for him. He was hilarious. He still is a hilarious photographer, a really cool guy who’s a little too sensitive. But he’s funny as hell, and the first job he hired me to do, I met him at the location. It was shooting the owner of a movie theater called the Cine Capri. The Cine Capri was this old Art Deco really cool theater. A guy named Dan Harkins owned it, and the newspaper, the Arizona Republic, was doing an article. Either the Arizona Republic or the Phoenix Magazine was doing an article on it, so I went down and met Jeff on the shoot.
Usually, I meet the photographer at the studio, we talk first. But I met him at the shoot. I just threw myself right in. But I noticed how he talked to this guy, who’s a multimillionaire. “Dan, when you got up this morning, did you have a good poop?” So, I’m looking over at the clients, and the clients are like, “This guy’s talking to my client like this”. I appreciated that about Jeff. Jeff kept it real. Jeff and I photographed Dan Quayle, the Vice-President, right after he was out of office. I had told Jeff that I was in the restroom at the same time Dan Quayle walks in. Whoa, the Vice President. I mean, we’re pissing next to each other; I said, “Good morning.” Now, I knew who I was there to photograph. I don’t think he knew who this little Black guy was. He didn’t even utter a word. I was like, “It’s just the two of us. A nod, something back would be appropriate.” No. I went back out and resumed with Jeff, and I said, “Jeff, I was in the bathroom with Quayle and he kind of snubbed me on hello.” [Jeff] “He did?” Man, he [Jeff] harassed that man that day. I mean, he keeps it right on the edge. “So, so, so, have you ever been impacted? What do you do? What do you do? Metamucil?”
He’s throwing this stuff, and the guy is like, “What the Fuck?” Because you don’t expect that coming at you. I’ve never heard a photographer kid around antagonize a client the way he does, but he gets the result. That was one of my fun days working with Jeff. But in Arizona, there was a pivotal point. I was trying to get to work and do some catalog work for the local department store, like Dillard’s. That’s the Macy’s out there. I hooked up with an agency that shot a lot of products for them. They had an in-house studio. I said, “Well, listen, I’d like to assist you guys,” any way to get over there.
Well, I got over there, and I discovered they had digital cameras. Now, this was ’95-’96, or ’96-’97. Digital cameras in ’97 were like… I had never seen anything like that before. This was like magic. It was voodoo. I was like, “Whoa.” I’m looking at these… No, I take that back. I did see them when I worked for Broadway. They came out right as the Broadway was ending. These guys were trying to sell the department store on these cameras to save money on film. But they went belly-up before they were able to buy, so I did see them. I was in the room with two or three digital cameras, and I’m like, “Wow.” They say, “Well, yeah. We’ll teach you how to use them.” That was my thing right there. That ignited a fire in me, so I learned how to use these digital cameras. I’m going to fast-forward because it wasn’t too much time left for me in Arizona. Arizona was too hot. The work there was very small and minimalistic. I didn’t want to get jaded by the people around you, so if you’re around a lot of people who aren’t that creative, you become less creative.
So, a guy named Mark Abrams came to Phoenix. He’s a New York photographer. I had seen his work in fashion magazines like Vogue and different places. He didn’t hire me, but a company I used to work with, called Tony’s Production Service, they were a motor home company. They were a production company that facilitated motor homes for functions. So, Tony had himself a fleet of anywhere from five to 15 motor homes, and he would rent to photographers coming over from Europe. A lot of photographers came from Germany and Austria to shoot in the desert for their catalogs, and also photographers from New York and LA would come to shoot in the desert. I was one of his okay drivers; wasn’t too goofy, and the fact that I was a photo assistant or a photographer. He would always put me with the top photographers. I ended up showing Mark Abrams my portfolio, and the first thing he says, “Well, why are you here? Why aren’t you in New York?”
Those words launched me. So eight months later, I’m rolling into New York City in a U-Haul truck. So, I started calling every contact, every person I had worked for in Arizona because a lot of photographers came to Arizona. I worked with this guy named James Salzano. He photographed Mike Tyson out at this little seedy gym over in the west side of Phoenix. I worked with him also on another project he did. There was a big retirement community called Sun City. Well, there was a brand-new one that was built back in the late ’90s, and he was hired by the ad agency out of New York to go and photograph how life could be if you moved to Sun City. It was a dog and pony piece, smiles, old people having fun in the pool. The place was gorgeous, though. Sun City was a bad place. I mean, I was like, “Dang. They got it like this for seniors?”
So, after working with him, I called him up and said, “Listen, I’m in New York now. See if you have a spot to hire an assistant,” so after a little bit of calling, I finally got him to hire me on some projects, but the guy, Frank, who shot Mike Tyson, and Salzano shot Del Webb. I called Frank Micelotta. Now, Frank was a freelance photographer. He had a business, shot exclusive red carpet events, and was well-known coast-to-coast for his photography. People syndicated his work, so he’d go to red carpet events. He shot for MTV, VH1, Viacom, he had all of these accounts, he shot for the Academy, and he’d fly out here every year to shoot that.
Well, this was in, I guess, the last part of the real dot com industry where they were funding a lot of different companies, so there was seed money for him to start up a business, the first all-digital picture agency. He started this company called ImageDirect. I said, “Listen. I’m here; I could use a job as an assistant.” He said, “Well, can you work five days?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Well, why don’t you come on down? We’re at 42nd and Broadway.” I’m like, “42nd? That’s Times Square.” He says, “Yeah.” So, I roll on down there, and he put me to work in the office. Going through images and pictures and cataloging, and I’m like, “I hate this.”
But he paid me, I think it was $200 a day, and for me to get $200 a day to sit in an office, that wasn’t half bad in Midtown. I shared an apartment with a crazy model, so I paid, I think, $500 a month. Two or three days, I paid my rent, and I’d moved to New York with $10,000, so stash that. Well, I kept pushing to shoot because he started hiring photographers from all the different newspapers, the New York Post, the New York Times, a lot of people he knew. He was putting in their hands these new digital cameras, these Kodak digital cameras, and they were going, “What am I going to do with this?” Well, guess who had worked with those digital cameras back in Arizona? So I would set the cameras up, instruct the photographers how to use them, and send them off. That was my job, at one point, is just to make sure that they had everything.
Then, he started sending me out on a few assignments, actually. I got out on quite a few assignments. I ended up going and shooting football teams, like the Baltimore Ravens, when they were still in Baltimore. I shot about three or four football clubs and then ended up shooting… I finally bought my own digital camera. I went to Arizona and shot spring training for MLB, so I shot all the pictures, the player pictures that go up on the JumboTrons, although that wasn’t that much fun. It was fun knowing that I was in the room with all these athletes, but it was an assembly line. MLB gave me a strict instruction list on how to photograph so that any photographer shooting would come up with virtually the same kind of picture. There were so many feet and inches from camera to subject. There was the lens that you used, and they wanted it on a certain millimeter. There was the background, distance from. There was the light. Everything was documented that I had to follow to a tee. But that was interesting. Not too long after, ImageDirect was bought by Getty. You’ve probably heard of WireImage.
WireImage came along after ImageDirect, but they were also bought by Getty. They just scoop up everybody. In the meantime, I had bought this camera when I was shooting the Major League Baseball project, a Canon 1D. I sold a Rolex that I had found, I really found it, put it together with some other money and bought a $5,000 camera, which, in 2001? $5,000? That was like, “Wow.” But I bought this camera, and I remember I was waving it around one of the camera stores, Foto Care. I’d go in, “Hey, look at this.” Now, taking a digital camera into a camera store shouldn’t be a big deal. But this was a camera that was very new on the market that the stores hadn’t bought yet. Foto Care is the photographer’s photo store. If you work out of New York, that’s the store for you. B&H is if you want the price, but if you want service and you need a rental. They’re like Samy’s but better.
So, one day I get a call. They said, “Von, would you rent us your camera?” I go, “Yeah, sure.” “Can we rent you, too?” I go, “Yeah, what do you need?” “Well, we’ve got a photographer that’s got a shoot, and he’s got to shoot it digital, so we’re going to buy a camera like yours,” and that made mine two. I said, “Great.” He says, “Well, come on down, tell us what you need,” so I said, “Well, I’m going to need computers because I’ve got to back this stuff up. This, I’m going to have to transfer the files from raw to JPEGs.” The job was for the US Navy. So, I flew to Norfolk, Virginia, and for about a week, I was on almost every floating craft the Navy had.
Man, I’m on a troop transport where the front comes down, and me and the photographer runoff. I’m holding a laptop with a sling. I’m running off the front, hoping I don’t trip and smash my laptop. He’s running off first, and backing up, and then shooting the troops as they’re coming off, hitting the sand. Now, the guy’s named York Midori. He’s an adventure photographer, so I’ve worked with him quite a few times on things. He was always called for the aggressive stuff like he’d hang out the side of an airplane or a helicopter and shoot a person on the Salt Flats in Utah.
That started my business into digital, officially, working for York. Now, they were starting to call me for all of the photographers that wanted to shoot digital, because frankly, they didn’t have anybody else. I was the guy who knew, at least, this camera, and they had medium-format. They said, “Well, listen, let’s just hire Von. He knows his stuff.” I started getting booked out. At some point, I learned that I would get $500 for the day, and that was fine. I might work five days a week, so that’s $2,500. But the winners were the people who had the equipment and were renting the computers, the monitors, and the digital cameras. So, I decided to start saving up my coin. I saved up a little bit of money, and I wanted to buy this brand-new medium format digital back from Phase One. It was $32,500. I had been such a really good advocate for that company on the internet on a couple of websites that they said, “Well, Von, you pitch for us pretty good, and you tell good reviews about our product when you’re actually using it-“
So. Anyway, I go off on this deep-end quest to buy this camera that costs more than anything I’ve ever purchased in my life. I’ve had cars, I think at that point, the most expensive car I ever bought was a brand new Audi 5000 in 1977, and that was $10,000, this was more than double that, and I was like, “Woah,” But it just seemed like it was a doable thing. I had a client, this client was Forever Bridal Company, so they did high-end bridal. I had worked for them; I used to work for the photographer they hired, and then he didn’t want to shoot digital. They went to another photographer, and I ended up being the digital tech for that other photographer because, at that time, there weren’t a lot of people who knew digital, so it would always, sometimes, just boomerang back to me.
So when they saw that I was now working with this new guy who they really didn’t like, they disliked him something awful, they liked the old guy, but he just was refusing to shoot digital. A lot of photographers refused because they feared what they didn’t know, and they didn’t want to look bad, I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m doing here, so if they can’t look like they’re in charge, even if it was a good thing and I told the guy, I said, “You’re going to lose a client.” And he did; I eventually got them. I went to the owner, and I said, “Listen, you really like having your work shot with the big cameras?” He goes, “Oh yeah.” I said, “Well, I’ve got my small little Canon.” He goes, “No, no, I don’t want it, I want a big image.” I said, “Well, listen, I would like to buy one, but I need a loan,” said, “I need $12,000,” said, “I’m putting together the rest.”
Which was roughly $27,000, he said, “Okay.” I said, “You won’t have to spend any money renting a camera for the rest of the year; that’s going to save you a lot of money, and I’ll pay you back your money in six months.” I actually paid it back in 90 days because that digital back in New York at that time was the hottest thing in town. There weren’t very many of them, and I had one of the first ones, so I was renting that thing out for seven, $800 a day. When I wasn’t using it, it was out the door to everybody.
And that led the way for me to get another one, and I ended up having four digital backs and about seven or eight computers. I think I had 10 monitors because I always had two monitors up on a desk and got catalog clients. So Spiegel Catalog was one of my big clients. I opened up doors, my company Digital Tech NYC. So here you had a brotha in Manhattan rolling down digital tech in all these big companies; whether it was pharmaceutical jobs or advertising jobs, it could have been editorial. Shooting off to St. Bart’s for Cosmo magazine or shooting for Italian Vogue with Melvin Sokolsky. I had some big-name photographers as my clients.
And so that put me on the map and, for the first time in my life, money. Because I was earning on average four to $8,000 a day, and I was printing money for a while. I just wish I had done things. Differently, diversified had more products to offer, like retouching and things like that, all I did was digital capture, and I was good at it, and I taught other people, and they ended up working for me. So that all closed down in 2008.
Knowing how 2008 unfolded the way it did, Is this the impetus or transition for Thomas Edition fine art printing?
Well, the digital tech gave me a lot of background information about digital files and coming up in the way that I did and the area that I did. I got there when the pioneers were still working things out, and they didn’t have hard and fast rules, so a lot of things were moving week to week and month to month in terms of, this is the way a workflow should go, things were changing and shifting, and so I was watching this shift and kind of keeping up with it. One of the stylists that worked on this bridal said to me one day as we were finishing a job, she says, “you should meet this guy Douglas Dupler, he’s really tech-savvy, he would like you, all your tech ability”, so I called him up.
And so he says, “well, come on up” I went up to his place and sat down, and I just thought he was just another guy that I was going to be taking over his head, nope. This guy started to spit knowledge, and I was like, “whoa”. He had color management, digital file knowledge. As a matter of fact, he was sponsored by three camera companies and Epson. He consulted with Epson as one of their color management consultants. So we would chat about different things. I’d see him making profiles for prints, and he’s digging deep. He’s just spending time on one thing to make a certain print. So I’m watching this guy and just fascinated. One day he says, “do you want a printer?” And I go, “yeah, what kind of printer?” haha.
He says, “a large-format, 44 inch,” I said, “yeah, but you know they’re $6,000” now I was making money, but I wasn’t thinking about dropping six grand on a printer at that time, he says, “all right, I’ll tell you what, I’ll hook you up, it’s not going to cost you six, it’s going to cost you something, but not six” And I almost felt obliged just to go with it anyway at that point, he was giving me that guilt look, if you don’t take this you’re a fool. A lot of people say that too in New York if you don’t do this, you’re a fool. These guys, when they told me to work for them, and they say this stuff, that’s what I like about New York, haha. So I said, “okay” So a week later, a big crate gets a drop shipped on my loading dock to my studio downtown in New York.
And it’s the printer. So similar to the printer in the other room, that size, but it was the model before that. And he says, “give me $2,000 when you can we call it square,” and I went, [motions quickly as if writing a check] “$2,000 here take it, I’d save $4,000”, and I’m now faced with printing on this thing. Now I know color management, I had been calibrating and use of calibration device for my monitors, I was learning about printer calibration too. However, that was still more of a mystery to me then, and through Douglas, I learned the ins and outs of color management for printers and how to be able to nail your prints to look like your monitor, and it’s very simple, I mean it takes a little, I mean you got to have the equipment and the software to do it, but once you have that, it’s simple, it’s not rocket science.
And I actually hosted in my studio a Black photography group. One of the guys that used to work for Calumet had a Black photo group, said: “Listen, if you want to talk about printing, why don’t we have the Black photo group come by”. I met him because I went to Calumet and talked to their guys. They said, “Listen, you know a lot about this, that and the other. Would you mind being our tech person in the field”? I said, “what does that entail”? They said, “well, somebody buys a printer, you go to their house, and you help set it up, they buy a computer, they buy hard drives, they need them formatted, you set them up, they buy a camera, you give instruction, and you charge what you want to charge.
And so I was charging $125 an hour, and they would say, “call this guy, and he would come out to Brooklyn or lower New York or wherever” I do a home visit and sit there two, three, four hours sometimes, and so that’s how I met the guy Ron at Calumet. And I remember that one of the first things that one of the photographers said in this little meeting, he said, “We see this on your monitor and we see this coming out of the printer, how did you do that? How’d you get that to look like that” And it occurred to me that he’s not alone. Everybody has that problem. What they see on their monitor and what they see coming out of the printer is apples and oranges.
And I said, “well, I can show you the steps, and I actually went through how to do it,” but I told him, “you have to invest. I mean, none of this stuff comes without some kind of money investment, and you try to start small, work your way up until you get to where you want to” But that’s what’s triggered the printing, and then I started printing for a lot of my clients that I was teching for.
And for some reason, when I moved out here to LA, the business of Digital Tech started to decline. Not so much in volume but in rate, and I had already built myself up. I was not the cheap tech, but so many people had learned from me. I wrote a Bible of basic how-to guide for Spiegel catalog. So they can hand it to anybody coming in to work for them because I wrote it, and it’s a step-by-step playbook. So I started losing business, and 2008 was a bad year for a lot of people economically, and a lot of my clients were starting to scale back, and a few go belly up, and a lot of people decided to start going in-house. So they were just going to hire somebody who could pay a $100 a day, $200 a day, or minimum wage, give them the book, and say, “we’ll do this”, And that was good enough for them.
Somebody has shown me some video, and he said, “listen, I’m doing a project down at my studio. Could you give me a hand?” And I went down to give this guy a hand. He says, “listen, we’re going to shoot this thing for VH1; it’s a green screen. I actually had a green screen that I rented the guy, and he had these people dancing. He got a camera, he put it on a tripod, just locked it off, and the camera had a FireWire port on the back where you could actually capture the image to a computer. So he set up Final Cut Pro on my computer to be able to capture the video.
And he networked my computer with his computer, and he would then drag that material over from his, and then he would key it out and drop it in, and we’d be done. A two-day job turned into one day, all afternoon. It was so fast because he said, “Von, normally I shoot this, then take all of this stuff, then ingest it into my computer, put you in the middle, capturing the stuff and then get into my machine” And I said, “I wonder if there’s room for what I do in motion picture”. And that’s when I learned about the Red camera. I got fascinated, and when I moved out here, I went and banged on RED’s door loud until they finally said, “okay fine, we’ll teach you the camera, We’ll teach you the workflow” And they did, and one thing that happened because the camera was so new. It was not like the other digital cameras, the first 4k camera on the market.
And a lot of people were a little intimidated by it because it didn’t operate like the older film cameras. RED put on a series of training workshops. They call it REDucation, which educates you on RED. So they hired me as a teaching assistant. So I worked behind their top guy at Red at their top instructor guy named Michael Chile. Together with my two or three teaching assistants, they would host 30-40 students from around the world because people who bought that camera were from all over, from India, from Australia, from China. The class is packed with, I mean, on one day, I counted 15 different countries represented in this one class.
I taught with them for two years and then I put out on the internet on this one website, REDucation instructor, willing to teach the red camera anywhere in the world. I had a couple people say, “Hey, we’re interested”, And the one that came through was Ireland, so I ended up going to Ireland two years in a row teaching a three-day course on how to operate the camera and deal with the workflow. So that kind of brings me around to where I am now. A lot of that wasn’t pretty, it was more photography, more film, but the thing about me, when I got this apartment, one thing I loved about it with the walls and I said, “you know what? I’m going to put some pictures on these walls” Now that wall still doesn’t have anything.
For a long time, this room didn’t have anything, but between the hardwood floors and the walls, I said, “this place is ripe for some pictures of art, and I got to put some art on the wall”, and so I said, “I’m going to buy another printer”. And so I was going to shop around for a used printer. My guy Douglas in New York, with Epson, said, “don’t do that” he said “You might find more problems getting a used printer than you want” He says, “Because if the heads are clogged, it’s going to cost you, and you don’t want that” So I just bit the bullet and bought a new one. I started praying, just for myself, I went to print some big stuff, and I thought I can do a business for this because I see what some of the other companies are doing, and people are always complaining; they complain about the service.
They’re always having to come back for a reprint because, surprise, this color doesn’t look like my original. What’s wrong? Something’s always off, and they don’t get treated like they want to be treated, like a friend, they get treated, it’s more hostile? You’ve been into places where they’re very curt, and I had gotten a little break. Kaiser was opening a new medical facility in the Crenshaw / Baldwin Hills area, and they were seeking photographers or people to create art for the walls. And a few people I knew were selected, and their images were selected, and they needed to have them printed for the walls. Well, these pieces were anywhere from 20 “x24″ all the way up to 40″x60” and they said, “Well Von, would you like to be our printer?” I’m like, “Yeah, I would really like that. That’d be great”.
I started printing, but before I could do that, the person in charge wanted to see if my prints were worthy, so I had to do some kind of test for them to see the quality. So I sent a test to them, and they said, “Okay, we’ll even send you some other people that were printing” And so I ended up doing about 130 prints that are still hanging in Kaiser, and that just really further pushed me over the edge to get Thomas Editions up and running. I guess shortly after that I started, getting the website together and then getting all the things that I needed to really do business. Because it’s not just paper and ink and a printer. It’s cutters, tables, little sandbags that hold your prints down, haha; tape, all these little things, shipping tubes. It’s getting a shipping situation for yourself where you can easily do this and don’t have to freak out every time someone says, “can you send this across town, or can you send this across the world”?
I’ve learned, I’ve had some setbacks, not that the customer see these, it’s just on my end, learning experiences, you get a print all done, and you make a mistake with it and mishandle it. It gets a crease, and you just might as well fold that up. I don’t care if it’s an 8 “x10” or 8’x10′. You got to fold that up, trash it and start all over. Now that’s heartbreaking because that’s a lot of money.
I try to keep my prices to a point where I’m not overboard, but I have to keep it in perspective if I make mistakes. I don’t want it to cost me; I don’t want to pay for the job. I love printing; I love the fact that I know something that even though there are people out there that are doing it, have been doing it longer than I, aren’t as devoted to it, aren’t as engaged. I mean, I go pretty deep. I’ll show you my little spectrum back in the other room; I have this device which helps me profile my different paper. Now it’s just a thing that reads color, that’s all it does, but it’s an accurate reader of color. It can put together a profile that I can plug into my computer that will accurately print or whatever paper I’m doing.
When would you say Thomas Editions was established?
I’d say 2017; that was the year I was doing the Kaiser project.
Is it accurate to say you are the only African or African-American or Black fine arts printer in California, certainly in Los Angeles, if not the nation?
That’s pretty accurate, and it’s probably accurate if you say, “I might be the only one in the country” I don’t know of anybody. There was a gentleman who contacted me an artist. Do you know LP Ross?
No, I do not know LP Ross.
He’s a fine artist, gets a lot of partnerships with the city [of LA] and programs with the city [of LA] when the artwork goes up for metros and stuff like that, he’s involved in that. He had come to me, he says, “Von, I want to check you out in terms of your printing. I heard about you, but I’d like to see a sample”, he says, “but I’m also checking out this other black printer” My ears perked and went, “What?”
So there’s another brotha that does print, but not on a commercial scale. He prints very small in terms of his clientele, he doesn’t print for everybody, and I think he was an instructor at one point, George Evans. But anyway that really perked me up, but I called George because I’m like, if you’re a Black printer, I want to know you and I think we should know each other” So after we talked, he goes, “no, no, I only print for a couple of people, I don’t really make it a business. And I said, “Oh okay, well I’m here then and should you need something” and I said, I told him my capabilities in terms of size, now where there may be other people, Black companies that do silk screening that do four-color press, that kind of [printing] but not fine art printing. I don’t think there is another Black photographer, or excuse me, Black printer and especially one with the vast knowledge of photography and printing combined. The digital file is something I could sit and talk about.
I advise my clients on all that stuff, and there are a lot of times I collaborate with my client. They have an idea, and I’ll help them finish it off. Whether it’s a look, putting a look on an image, I have this one photographer in New York, Keith Major, he sent me a color image, and he said, “I want this to be kind of a sepia, here’s a sample of what I’d like and just food for thought” And that’s the one that is sitting over my desk. So I sent him, I think, one or two options to see what he liked, and he dug that one. He says, “that’s it, that’s the money shot”, and I went ahead and printed that for him.
So that happens quite a bit where I go in and help somebody with something. This artist here, Harmonia, does work, and sometimes she’ll ask me to do something else, like collaborate on her art, which I always feel a little out of my water. I’m not in that realm; you’re a fine art painter. She’s had this one piece, and I’ll show it to you where it was a circle, but it looks like the circle had been chopped off on each side, so it curved here, curved here, and then squares of the side. She goes, “I really should’ve painted this differently. Can you add a circle to this and add a circle to that”? And I’m like, “maybe” So I created a full circle image and then enlarged it up, and she’s happy as a lark.
What services do you provide to anyone coming in the door or reaching out to you for printing?
Well, I have quite a few services that I can offer for the photographer or the artist. I offer fine art print services. I print on, for the most part, Canson Infinity paper which is archival. I am a Canson-certified print lab. To be a certified print lab, Canson or Hahnemuhle have to certify you, which means they take you through an audit of not only what equipment you’re printing on, but your knowledge base, skill level, and then they want to see samples of your work. Now they send you a set of paper, and they tell you exactly what to print, and a file, and they want to bring that file back and match it up with theirs, and if it’s within spec, you’re good to go, if it’s out of spec, they’re not going to certify you.
So I went through their audit and their prep test, and they said, “welcome to the Canson family, you are now number 39 in the United States, certified by Canson”. And I think only the third or fourth in California. Yeah, there are two in LA, but I’d say I’m probably the one, but anyway, back to services. So I offer giclee printing, I offer scanning, so I have drum scanning and flatbed scanning, and for items that are larger than 13 “x19”, I do high-end photography. So I’ll have artists bringing their images, their paintings in, and I’ll copy these, and I’ll color match and then make a reproduction of that.
I do also profile services. So even if you want to print your own work, but you want to print correctly on your printer, I can help you by making a profile for a particular paper that you use. That will allow you to print more accurately, and I do consultations. I have a billionaire client who has an Epson 20000, and he wanted to learn how to print with it; I went to his place in Santa Monica, and every now and then, I spend time with him either over the phone or in-person going over color management, software, print technique, now he has enough money to buy whatever he wants, and so he always has the best equipment, but it’s interesting working with somebody who just wanted someone to teach them how to print. Now they had called other labs, but labs said, “No, no, we don’t do things like that” Well, I saw a chance to make a new client and possibly meet another interesting person, I didn’t have the slightest idea they, you know, had that much money, haha.
Tell us how to connect with you, and support Thomas Editions, whether it’s your website or social media platforms?
Well, I have a website it’s Thomaseditions.com, that basically spells out my philosophy on printing because I really tell people what I do. I don’t do everything here, I do one thing, and that’s to make some gorgeous prints; I don’t frame. I made that mistake one time trying to do something outside my intended area because someone needed it like ‘right now. And I guess it looked okay, but it didn’t pass my test; I like things to be perfect. I’m on Instagram, @thomaseditionsprinting, and I’m on Facebook, Thomas Editions. Hopefully, soon I just got hit up the other day about somebody who’s going to help me with my LinkedIn and all of my social media, so I can have much more of a presence because everyone should know, especially photographers of color, if you’re in need of some serious work, you want it done right, you come here, you’re going to make a new partner in your art. I think that is one of the best things is having somebody you can rely on. So people just call me now, they say, “Von, I just sent you this file,” Like the artists over the… there’s the sketch, they just send me stuff, and it will end up either halfway around the world or halfway across the city. I do ship worldwide.
PH: number is 213 258 5274
FB: Thomas Edition
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