London gallery Riflemaker kicks off 2011 with its annual group show, entitled
ANALOG - trends in sound and picture, featuring an eclectic quartet of photographer
Richard Nicholson, sculptor Clare Mitten, rockabilly musicians Kitty, Daisy and Lewis
and futurist light installation outfit Ziegelbaum + Coelho. The most poignant contributions
are by Nicholson, who in the summer of 2007 decided to shoot images of professional
darkrooms in and around London. At the time 204 were still in existence.
When he completed the project three years later, only eight remained.
The big companies that grew up servicing the fashion and music industries
in the 1980s — including Ceta, Keishi Colour, Sky, Joe's Basement, Primary — have all gone.
What remained were the one-man bands, the 'master-printers', which still use film,
whether printing in black and white or colour. Artisans like Michael Spry,
whose high-contrast printing for Anton Corbijn gave U2 and Depeche Mode a
visual language of their own. Robin Bell whose silver gelatin printing for major
photographic exhibitions has included everyone from Bill Brandt to Ken Russell,
Lee Miller to Terence Donovan. And Brian Dowling of BDI, a small commercial
darkroom on Old Street in East London, who has over the past 32 years printed
colour photographs for Juergen Teller, Craig McDean and Nick Knight. Knight
created some of his most iconic and influential work from the late 80s and early 90s,
including his catalogues for Yohji Yamamoto. The process would take days, with
Dowling printing conventionally onto a baseboard, masking the various areas with
sheets of photographic paper, and blending the colours with his hands. Knight is a
great admirer of Dowling's practice, likening it to Haute Couture.
Initially the images of these craftsmen's dens all look the same, but staring
into their worlds their uniqueness begins to surface. As Nicholson observes
"The spaces I discovered were often haphazard and brimming with personal
details: coffee cups, CD collections, family snaps, unpaid invoices, curious
knick-knacks brought back by globe-trotting photographers. These human
elements transformed what might have been a detached typology of modernist
industrial design into something more intimate and nuanced."
Our world has been changed and enriched by the produce of these black
cupboards, so how fitting that they too should have been caught on film
and exposed to a wider audience.
Analog - trends in sound and picture at Riflemaker, London opens on 11 January
and runs until 31 March.
Text by Julian Balme
Julian Balme is a London-based art director,
designer and writer who has had a number
of photos printed in the darkrooms featured.