Interview with Branco Ottico – B&W Reversal Process with Roba Apposta

I first came across Branco Ottico while making Cyanotype prints. They had made world’s largest contact print. I was interested in knowing more about them. I noticed, they had chemicals too for B&W development and reversal process. I thought it  might be worth a go. Just to let you know we made a video too, see below at Branco Ottico regarding their Reversal Process – Roba Apposta.

You got to realise, Italy isn’t too far away from Graz, in the southern part of Austria. Combining a short holiday over the border is just a matter of foot on the gas, down the Autobahn, then seamlessly onto the Italian Autostrada. You’ve got to love Europe for this.

We visited Branco Ottico on 24th of August this year 2021. Both Davide and Silvio were kind enough to entertain and welcome us, while demonstrating the Roba Apposta process. In their studio and darkroom with a large format 8×10 Cambo view camera, they made a positive print, a portrait on photographic Ilford paper.

The Renaissance 15th-century bell tower of the Ferrara Cathedral in Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
The Renaissance 15th-century bell tower of the Ferrara Cathedral in Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

Branco Ottico HQ lies between the Renaissance city of Ferrara and the central northern Italian city hub of Bologna. There is a tiny town, practically a village called Polesella. Not an important place by any means, except for a darkroom, a studio and two passionate photographers, Davide Rossi aka “Canesciolto” and Silvio Gianesella aka “Spillo”. But more than that, they are inventors and pioneers in the area of the photographic chemistry and experimental field.

They have a couple of unique darkroom development kits; Roba Apposta for reversal process, Spitzrol for C41 and cross processing and their own B&W Zone film developer.

Davide Rossi taking portrait with 8x10 view camera
Davide Rossi taking portrait with 8×10 view camera

B&W Images in this article are taken with my Nikon FE with 20mm f2/.8 on Ilford FP4 which were developed in Branco Ottico’s B&W Zone developer (At some point I hope to do an article on this developer to)

Interview and Meeting Up

Davide and Silvio have known each other for over 9 years. They are extraordinarily passionate about photography so I had no qualms letting out my geeky side.  Everything felt very much if I were at home. In good Italian tradition, a bottle of crisp, cold, fruity white wine was opened and glasses were filled as we prepared the trays and chemicals in the darkroom.

Through out the demonstration, I asked a number questions to get an idea and background of what makes Branco Ottico tick. A few things seemed obvious to ask as an non-native to the Italian language.

Davide also told me about his time in L.A. when he wished to be a film director and how he was fascinated by movie studio lighting and how incredible that was. How they could control the light sources from any direction. This has inspired him very much, especially in the area of portraiture.

So let’s begin…

Tell us about Branco Ottico…

Davide: Branco Ottico is a photographic experimentation group, which promotes photography culture, by the means of networking, various projects with schools, events, photography courses, festivals and even performances!
All our activities are self-financed either from private support, through sponsorship or from the sale of our products and services.
I admit, I am the creator of the Branco Ottico project – Davide “Canesciolto” Rossi, photographer and experimenter, our other members of the group are photography professionals and enthusiasts, coming from all over Italy. Currently the group consists of 6 members, plus other people who helped us every time we organise some event.
The Largest Contact Print EVER – Courtesy of Branco Ottico
In 2015, with a lot of help, we created the largest contact print ever made! Branco Ottico became a world record holder with a cyanotype of 24 square meters.
Then in 2019, we marketed the Branco Ottico brand for our innovative  photo chemicals. Our chemicals are unique, especially Roba Apposta kit. This kit can positively reverse any black and white paper or negative film. Imagine possibility to obtain positive photographs. Each photograph being an unique and unrepeatable creation.

What does Branco Ottico mean ?

Silvo: It’s a play on the word of ‘Banco Ottico’ which actually means view camera in the Italian language. The addition of a ‘r’ makes ‘Branco’ bringing the meaning to a pack or a herd. So it’s a kind of group of people who are wild about photography!

When or how was Branco Ottico formed ?

Davide: Branco Ottico was born out of a community of like minded folks together in 2015. I have for over 10 years been organising workshops and photographic events with a focus on experimentation. While making my knowledge and equipment available to others. The beauty of photographic activity is also in the sharing too. Branco Ottico brought things together to inspire as well as organising our activities.

Why is analog photograhpy still exciting to you?

Davide: I discovered that the world of analog photography is infinite and you never really stop learning.
In my opinion though, it is not at all true, that everything has already been invented, I keep discovering things every day in my work.
When you are facing something new, usually this happens by doing something wrong, the adrenaline of discovery often feeds the emotion and passion. When this passion occurs it is clearly seen and transfered into the work. Stuff like this fuels us to go further.

How was it like to create the world’s biggest contact print ?

Davide: This is a really crazy story. In that period there was such a rush on to who could have the biggest photographic print
There was a challenge between some groups worldwide, which aimed to create gigantic cyanotypes on canvas, bigger and bigger. Pretty much all the same. That is a cyanotype created under sunlight with various objects placed on a cloth – a photogram.
We wanted to take it to the next level and defeat the competition. So I thought of a photograph instead. A real photograph using a gigantic negative of 24 square meters.
The task was not easy and our frustrations nearly got the better of us. On the day of the event, we were ready but we were under cloud cover. Not good for making Cyanotypes. We were lucky, when we got a break, a ray of clear sunshine that only lasted a mere 20 minutes. We had to be quick. To roll out the canvas and negative in one. To take advantage of the sudden cloud break.
We only really needed 12 minutes. The feat was not only remarkable, it was a wonderful success.
You need to check out the video – https://www.brancoottico.fineartlabo.com/blog/largest-contact-print-ever/

Who are your photography influences ?

Davide: I believe the great masters are the columns that form the basis, A.Adams, Andrea Feininger, Man Ray, Jerry Uelsmann, Josef Sudek, just to name a few.
I believe that there are so many extraordinary creative photographers especially among the younger generation. It’s incredible to discover such expressiveness. The community maybe quite spread out, but there are plenty of opportunities to meet up.
Davide Rossi reads the exposure required to take the image on Ilford paper in the 8x10 view camera
Davide Rossi reads the exposure required to take the image on Ilford paper in the 8×10 view camera

Why or how was Roba Apposta – the B&W reversal kit created?

Davide: Experimental photography can at times become a tedious trend especially on the social media scene.
I just wished to discover my own journey as an artist and inventor.
Thanks to all the mistakes that ended up in the bin and the continuous collaboration with Sebastiano Fiorito, the chemist of the Branco Ottico crew, we finally created the kit, that allows you to positively reverse any black and white paper and film. Yielding a unique final image.

Silvio:  the first time I got to sample and try out Roba Apposta when Davide visited me in Mexico. I was workings as a photographer there. Davide brought the first solution in a beer bottle to avoid awkward questions from the customs. Even though the chemical solution is allowed to be exported globally as it poses no danger. I was super excited to sample the first batch.

Video

We made a video of their HQ, studio and darkroom while demo’ing the reversal process. Iris was our model, we made a couple of prints. In the video I explain the process and you get to see it too in the darkroom. Plus there’s a bonus announcement too!

As Ilford doesn’t recommend reversal processing for their HP5 Plus or DELTA 400 films. Ilford states the results are likely to exhibit unacceptably low contrast. This is why I asked the following question to Davide.

What do you say about  HP5 and DELTA 400 in regards to reversal process?

Davide: Maybe Ilford never tried to reverse HP5 and Delta with our kit …
Ilford HP5 is one of the films that I started reversing right away and I really liked the amazing softness and richness of detail.
Our kit is one of a kind, because it works on the concept of infinite range development, which is based on the development of all silver to its depths.

Can you use any photographic paper such as expired ?

Silvo: All papers works. That are silver gelatin based such as Ilford or FOMA.

Davide: The best part is that each type of paper offers different results based on how it was produced. You can notice tonal separations and characteristic grayscale depending on the brand.
It is also possible to take advantage of graded photographic papers to try to satisfy your taste in contrast too.
Old expired photographic papers  prove to behave very well, it happened to me with the very old AGFA BROVIRA, whose results left me speechless.
The reversed negative medium is a world to be discovered that has never been explored to its fullest.

Which paper do you like to work with most ?

Silvio: We like to work with FOMA because it’s good and inexpensive. Most of the images you see here are done on FOMA paper. You can also tone the paper too. Such as Sepia or Selenium toning, actually any kind of toning you like. The best way to see it is to do the magic.

So we proceed to the studio where Davide and Silvio had setup a 8×10 view camera and some really large strobe which have plenty of power – 3000 watts! However before things can begin, music must be playing in the studio / darkroom for creativity. I have to say I do approve of this method entirely!

Reversal Process

Davide Rossi, the founder of Branco Ottico explains and demonstrates the reversal process from black & white photographic paper using their unique chemistry set called ‘Roba Apposta’.

How easy is the reversal process to use ?

Silvio: We’ve designed the kit that anyone can get up and running with ease.

Photographic paper it isn’t so sensitive to temperature and it’s a really easy place to start with. Primarily because you can see everything in front of your eyes in the darkroom. However negative film requires following the introductions more methodically and to the letter. Roba Apposta can be used with every type of paper or film which is silver based.

They even used it to make a 1 metre squared print direct from their massive ultra large format camera Bertha. The focus is so sensitive to get accurate. Silvio says, He’d gently kick the solid wheel casters to tweak the beast into submission.

Davide Rossi takes the image on his Cambo view camera
Davide Rossi takes the image on his Cambo view camera

What does ‘Roba Apposta’ mean ?

Davide It means the ‘stuff for purpose’, difficult to translate exactly.

The Right Stuff‘ I interject, like the movie from 1983 film.

The atmosphere is exciting especially for Iris and I. Iris will be the model for today’s shoot. Both Davide and Silvio are just as excited as I am. We had some minor difficulties with old chemistry and old paper. Actually I glad to see how they solve this. This gives me great faith in the Roba Apposta kit.

Because I was able to learn how it works and when things don’t work as good as they should. But having said that, the Roba Apposta reversal kit worked a treat. You get results no matter, it’s really up to you to tweak and refine it. I love this very much because you can start without much knowledge and get quite excellent results.

Are your products available for worldwide Shipping ?

Davide Our products can be purchased in our online shop and we ship all over the world.

All those who do not find their area in the shipping of our e-commerce, can write to us directly for information on costs and timing, so far we have shipped to enthusiasts in the USA, China, Japan, Thailand, Mexico and almost all of Europe.

Tell us about the ecologic aspect concerning your product’s chemistry ?

Davide: That is a really important question, at the moment we have an eco fixer. We have managed to make some chemicals work by eliminating the most poisonous ingredients, but it is not possible to go beyond this, analog photography cannot exist without certain re-agents.
To find new ways to avoid polluting the environment, we need further research and collaborations which we have been able to fund just yet.
It is the usual problem, initial investments are needed to do research and unfortunately we are still a very small entity,  however we continue to evolve analog photography.

Have you any new chemicals or experiments in the pipeline ?

Yes, we are working on a kickstarter project to take the Ultra format camera around in a large van to make giant size prints with Roba Apposta.

This is an ambitious project to create on the road giant portraits. One metre squared! With the help of a darkroom van, I reckon we can do it!

Have you got any news to tell us ?

Oh yes, we are working on Roba Apposta colour! It will be available soon, maybe in a year. Give us time while we continuously working on it.

You also offer workshops tell a bit about that?

We organise very special workshops, such as:
  • The development and analogue printing of colour photography;
  • The camera obscura, from the construction of the camera to the shooting on photographic paper;
  • Film development and the Zonal System
and much more, all our workshops are located in our community and are aimed for every level.
More can be found at  https://www.brancoottico.fineartlabo.com/corsi-di-fotografia.

I wish to thank Davide and Silvio for being so kind to be interviewed and spending their valuable time to demonstrating the reversal process with  us. It was a real pleasure and so enjoyable to learn new things.

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