It doesn’t seem right to start a text about someone else with a biographical fact, but there it is: due to Joan Tomás I am writing about photography. He gave me my first text to write. That was many years ago now, in Barcelona, in the early eighties, recently coming out of the dictatorship: everything grey and sad, except our youth and our will to go on. There and then, in number 179 of Provenza street, we had our meeting place in the Primer Plano gallery, which was run by Joan Tomás until the day he had to give it up due to the increase in his professional work, with the relief of being able to devote himself a hundred percent to his vocation as a photographer.

Things were moving in Barcelona. The Political Transition period had shaken up things somewhat, and freedom of expression had brought out a great deal of photographers anxious to depict the streets. There was a sector that promoted “normalization”, meaning making photography equivalent to the other arts. The most talkedabout phenomenon in 1982 was the creation of the Barcelona Spring of Photography, in which Joan Tomás also attended at the founding sessions as the director of the gallery, perplexed when faced with the rigid attitude that separated a supposed artistic photography from that which had emerged within professional surroundings. His instinct led him in a different direction, and at the time of his running his own gallery he defended the variety and richness of the different proposals given to him. The photography in the Primer Plano gallery was a unity, of great quality.

Equally, for Joan Tomás his work has also always been a unity, and he does not distinguish between commissioned photos and those that he takes of his own accord. In both cases the same demands of quality are made and they are taken with the same passion. There is no dead time in his studio. When he isn’t out taking photographs he passes the time publishing his books, veritable hand-crafted author’s edition photography books in which he composes very personal series, gleaning photographs from professional contact proof sheet pages or from family albums. The complex element of his work does not lie in the style — which he has in a very pronounced manner — nor in his always original way of dealing with his subjects, but in the quality of the life he captures, the mark of history and of his own biography.

He usually says that he has been a photographer since he was born, and a professional since he took hold of a camera for the first time and set up his laboratory at the age of twelve. But it was in 1988 when he did his first commission as a freelancer for an agency. Since then he has never stopped in his task of taking photographs. Nor in that of living. He only regrets two things: having taken too many photographs or, conversely, not enough.

He feels that whatever he does is his own, no matter whether the result is better or worse. He grants equal value to a book sleeve photo for a medium with thousands of copies of the book being made as to his ephemeral street actions for people from his neighbourhood. These experiences are unforgettable when there had been commitment and passion in them. That is why it is so difficult for him to choose his work in an anthological manner. Is there really a selection that might be more worthy, more true or more representative? When Joan comes into the room in which he keeps his stock of photos and looks at the shelves full from the floor to the ceiling, he can remember their dates and the subjects without having to look at the names on the binders. But his archive does not stop there, because in the bipolarity befitting a photographer in times of a technological watershed, an important part of his work is saved on the six hard disks that his computer holds, filled with the images that he has built up over the years. Photos and photos, traces, slices of reality that he has gleaned from here and there, and, although he doesn’t take many photos, being the tireless worker he is — as well as a tireless liver of life — and as time passes so quickly and experiences and duties are so many, he has amounted an enormous quantity of photographs. He, who deep down is really sentimental, has always felt pity about destroying an image that might be missed in the future. How can one know that it might not be this one, precisely this destroyed photograph which is the only desired trace of the things and of the people that one might want to see again in the future? But at the moment of truth he has no doubts and he picks out those photographs in his archive that will grant a meaning to the story, just as the painter will pick out the colours for his palette in order to complete a painting. I have known few photographers who are as determined and clear as Joan Tomás when setting out series and choosing images. He has a peculiar visual intelligence profile. During the editing process, when he varies very little among his choices, he is liable to put on that fragile air of authorship. He might skilfully compose different bodies. The final form, like in the Tangram puzzle, represents a possibility among the many orders that the world might adopt. And we decide as we look at portraits of so many different people: something is going on here, he is also talking to us about are himself, but in a subtle manner. A little haphazardly, as is normally the case in photography, Joan makes a bundle of photographs like someone gleaning heads of corn in a field that has already been reaped. Like a recycler of images — an idea that was suggested to him by Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse, by Agnés Varda — he brings together these creatures that reality leaves out to one’s will in order to compose a new constellation in which the overall vision will reflect the world as much at it reflects his idea of the world. Reality and the one who looks at it, like a two-way mirror.

The photographer who squares up to a portrait, states Joan Tomás, firstly sees his own fears and worries, his preconceived ideas, truths and desires, his awareness: himself. And he will have to overcome these barriers in order to reach the other, the person who is also squaring up to himself. One has to be ready to open up one’s mind and to accept change. “When being face to face with someone, no matter how still we are, we will always see slight changes. The outside helps us to discover the inside of the person “.

His tactic is to deeply observe that raw material that serves to explain the personality and the vital moment of his character. And not only the face, but also the hands, the pose, the clothes that covers or reveals the body, the space surrounding the person, the light that touches it.... And allowing the portrait “to be made”. He would rather not have a previously set out script. All of the information about the person portrayed would only be for him to have elements necessary for how to deal with the subject; but not to reflect them in the photograph. The photographer should play a role that would be determined by the roles played by others. Between the two gazes one may be stating: ‘I want to take you’, ‘I let you take me’, perhaps, but his may also imply trickery and cheating, carrying out short tyrannies disguised as gazes of complicity and god behaviour. Sometimes there is this coming together, and on the other hand there is sometimes disappointment and frustration. “So when a session is ended I can feel I have drained myself or, alternatively, I may come out of it with renewed energy.”

He is aware of his work as a notary, just as he is aware that this work would have no meaning without exercising his private, clearly different and genuine point of view. Portraits of people are only portraits of a historical time when the author’s gaze and the gaze of the model portrayed come together. As examples of this we have Marilyn looking at Avedon, Baudelaire looking at Nadar, Truman Capote looking at Irving Penn... and so many other couples with a destiny. Joan also goes out on his own accord to look for characters, and he does not wait around for a commission. He sets up his position behind the stages during jazz festivals or Flamenco shows, and asks people to pose for him. That is how he got a portrait of a young, working-class Evo Morales, before ever dreaming of being president of Bolivia, at an international meeting of union leaders. His sensitivity towards the human soul beyond the character makes him understand the portraits without the stories behind them. For example, before Ferran Adriá became a media phenomenon, Joan Tomás had already portrayed him, showing only Ferrán Adriá looking at Joan Tomás, doing without his “image as a cook” sporting a chef’s hat and apron. But the publication that had commissioned the work from him rejected it, stating that it “said nothing about the character.”

There is a strong visual component in Joan Tomás’s photographs, besides the beating of the human aspect. The colour, the ways of presenting the photographs on the positions on the page, the use of new techniques and procedures, are things that move him. I have seen him  xperiment with the photocopying machine, with the scanner, with laboratory liquids, with old cameras or toy ones, with Polaroids... Making giant computer printouts in order to paper the walls or magazines of the size of a singlefolded visiting card that he himself would give out at parties... He never had any lack of ideas. He is an excellent performer of the multiple image, but with a craftsman-like sense that goes beyond the standards of publishing houses. What most drives him on is the risk, experimenting on the go, including in his commissioned works.

Colour has an essential importance in Joan Tomás’s photography. He was a photographer who had a training in black and white photography and the results of professional colour work had not been to his liking. It was in 1995 that the photographer Bela Adler encouraged him to do the same. This additional quality in his work was greatly appreciated by José Manuel Navia, then the graphic editor of El País Semanal. Colour granted a new turn to his carrier and filled his work with style, creating a certain style, and in the second half of the nineteen nineties his photos could be seen on a weekly basis in most graphic magazines.

The other side of the mirror, opposed to it but complementary to that world of the glamour of glossy paper, is that of the activist who gets involved with reality and deals with the problems of his time. So in 2003 he makes a collection of 140 portraits of people from his neighbourhood, which he then stuck up in the Sant Pere square in Barcelona. Right after this, in the second edition of TRAFIC (2008), the Centre de fotografía documental de Barcelona invited him to carry out a Project for pasting photographs in the street, along the line of the works by the contemporary graffiti artists like JR. Photography acted as a mirror for the disquiet felt by people and groups.

 Now and again the phone rings and silence answers. I know it is Joan. He is discrete, and observes the tone of my voice in order to know how he should “approach me”. He portrays me without looking at me, I think. He calls me up to surprise me with something new. He is never in the same place, although his excitement is the same: curious and bold. It wasn’t long ago that he again invited his friends from those days to the inauguration of an exhibition in which his photography was the starting point for a search into the field of the graphic, the cartoon strip, poster work or the fanzine arts. The walls screamed out frightening slogans: “Fear lives in Hearts of Stone”.But our eyes were full of joy, of shapes and colours, of humour and irony. We were looking at ourselves and noting this vitality after all these years, like in the times of the Primer Plano. Then he might have been sitting in an office publishing some photograph made by someone else, just as so many other eminent photographers have done when they have come to a point when carrying a camera about is tough. But Joan is not tired of carrying the weight, of thinking or of getting involved in things. I don’t know whether many people know that his business partner in Malasaña, Señor Lorenzo, is in fact he himself. On the other side of the mirror there is the face that sums up the good things he has seen, all the strength htat has beaten, all the beauty and the grace of all the faces that he has portrayed and which, no matter how fleetingly, have ended up being friends.

Laura Terré
Vilanova i la Geltrú, marzo de 2012
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“Mi barrio”  2004 project
“La ciudad Tomada” 2009 project
Joan Tomás Photobolsillo, published by La Fábrica, 2012
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Terenci Moix
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Ferrán Adriá
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Carles Moya for El País Semanal
6_Evo Morales.jpg
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From “En los corazones de piedra habita el miedo” exibition
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Lagartija Nick in Alhambra from Granada
“Mar adentro”
Evo Morales, 1993