Exhibition: ‘ANALOG: trends in sound and picture’ at The Riflemaker Gallery, London

Exhibition dates: 10th January – 3rd March 2011



Richard Nicholson
Peter Guest darkroom
Courtesy of the artist and Riflemaker



I started my life as an artist as a black and white photographer. I spent many hours ensconced in the enveloping black and red safety light of the darkroom, listening to the sound of running water – a nurturing, womb-like environment despite the toxic nature of the chemicals involved. It was magical to see the image appear in the developing tray out of nothing, an alchemical process that never ceased to amaze me, a link to the early days of photography and the wonder that those first images would have generated. At that time the photography course at Phillip Institute (soon to become part of RMIT University) had 3 huge darkrooms; now they have one with only a couple of enlargers.

Working in those darkrooms did teach you a solid foundation for your art practice: for one thing, the value of developing a working methodology – choosing a good negative that you wanted to print, spending time with it, adjusting the enlarger to obtain optimum size and printing it beautifully – for in a good day I could only print one or possibly two negatives a day. Then there was the process of washing the chemicals out of the paper and drying the prints. The whole process taught you patience, precision and dedication to the task at hand so that the negative revealed in the print something else that might be present, some ‘other’ that photography has the ability to capture if you take time, are aware and receptive to this illumination. These disciplines have held me in good stead during the following years.

I still love analogue colour and black and white photographs. To me it is like the difference between an LP and a CD. The CD might have it all over the LP in terms of information captured but there is this ineffable feeling about an LP with it’s scratches and pops, it’s atmosphere. The same goes for an analogue print and it is something that you can’t quite put your finger on. I believe that there is still a place for analogue prints in the world – for the magical process, for their beauty, sensitivity and downright inspiration. Long may they live.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to The Riflemaker Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs and text in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.




Richard Nicholson (British, b. 1968)
Roy Bass darkroom, Michael Dyer Associates, Covent Garden
Courtesy of the artist and Riflemaker



The End of Professional Photographic Darkrooms and Music Recording Studios

The impact of digital technology on print photography and music production is the subject of ANALOG at Riflemaker, Soho from 10 January 2011. The exhibition invites us inside the last of London’s photographic darkrooms as well as taking a visit to a working reel-to-reel music studio, courtesy of an installation by Lewis Durham of the band Kitty, Daisy & Lewis.


Richard Nicholson. “A Survey of London’s Remaining Professional Darkrooms 2006-2010”

1979. The year my father constructed a darkroom and introduced me to photography. I was immediately entranced by the printing process and cherished the long hours spent in this dark, private space; standing in the gloom of the red safelight, slowly rocking the print tray, watching the ghost-like image reveal itself through the gently lapping developer solution. As I experimented with the many formulas and techniques detailed in my father’s guidebooks, I often found the most interesting prints were the chemically stained accidents pulled from the bin at the end of a session. The darkroom became a bolt-hole for me; a private space where I could escape from the noise of family life. As I passed through school, university and various jobs, I often sought out a darkroom to escape from the crowd. But as I honed my skills – solarising, masking, bleaching, split-toning, hand-colouring – my prints began to attract public attention.

2006. I’m working in London as a photographer. I’m still shooting film, but digital is becoming ubiquitous. The photographic manufacturer Durst announces that it will no longer be producing enlargers. Annual sales have dropped from a peak of 107,000 units in 1979 to just a few hundred units in recent years. The darkroom has always been integral to my practice as a photographer. But for how much longer? Once bustling hire darkrooms have become eerily quiet, and London labs are dropping like flies. Joe’s Basement, Primary, Metro Soho, Keishi Colour, Ceta, Team Photographic, Sky – all gone. Polaroid has stopped making instant film and Kodak and Fuji are discontinuing one emulsion after another. The recently introduced Canon 5d camera has persuaded many diehard film photographers that digital is the future, and those who remain unconvinced are facing clients who no longer have the budgets for film, Polaroids, clip-tests, contact-sheets and prints. The darkroom’s days are numbered.

Against this backdrop, I begin to look at the darkroom in a new light. My enlarger (a handsomely engineered GeM 504) has been an invisible tool, but now it presents itself as a sad and lumpen creature in the face of extinction. With its long neck, heavy head and inviting focus handles, the thing has a human form which elicits sympathy – the surrounding matt black walls add an air of theatricality. Hearing tales of noble machines being unceremoniously dumped in skips when labs close down, I decide to document them before they all disappear.

I chose to photograph professional darkrooms because they are often shrouded in mystery; hidden behind the tidy glass facade of the lab’s front desk. As a keen printer myself, I was curious to see the workspaces of the master printers; craftsmen who had spent their working lives in darkness. The spaces I discovered were often haphazard and brimming with personal details; coffee cups, CD collections, family snapshots, 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.

I photographed each darkroom on large format film. Working in total darkness, I carefully painted these normally dingy spaces with a flashgun, seeking to reveal the beauty of the machinery, and shed some light on the clutter stained with the patina of time. Some of the darkrooms were busy, whilst others were neglected (all attention being given to the new inkjet printer in the adjoining corridor). Many of the darkrooms were facing imminent closure. (The one with the slogan pinned to the wall, ‘I want to stay here forever’, was dismantled the day after I photographed it and is currently being converted into luxury apartments.)

Many of the iconic images of recent decades were crafted in these rooms. Mike Spry’s high contrast lith prints of U2 and Depeche Mode for music photographer Anton Corbijn, Peter Guest’s black and white prints of the Trainspotting cast for portrait photographer Lorenzo Agius, or Brian Dowling’s intricately masked colour prints for fashion photographer Nick Knight. Such commercial work is now routinely carried out in Photoshop and professional printers have had to seek out new avenues for their skills. The art market is perhaps the last bastion for traditional darkroom printing, but even this area is being taken over by digital machines – Lightjet, Lambda, and Chromira printers. But suddenly there is a resurgence of interest in analog processes amongst younger photographers who were brought up on digital. Left cold by the clinical nature of the virtual workspace, they seek depth and authenticity via the chemical ambience of the traditional darkroom. Alternative processes from the early history of photography are being rediscovered, Polaroid instant film has been relaunched, and the craze for poorly engineered Russian and Chinese film cameras (Lomo, Holga, Diana etc) continues unabated.

I wonder at this enthusiasm. Like many committed film photographers, I experienced a belated epiphany when I finally switched to digital. My darkroom skills were easily transferred to the digital realm, and I soon discovered that Photoshop offered creative printmaking possibilities that far exceeded what I could achieve in the darkroom. Whilst I don’t miss the chemistry of the darkroom – much of it highly toxic – I do miss the aura of the red safelight and the soothing sound of running water. I miss the excited sense of performance when making a complicated print (there’s no ‘undo’ button in the darkroom), and the physicality of dodging and burning – the manual shaping of the light. With film I had a network of contacts across London and felt embedded in the city, whereas with digital I feel disembodied. The history of photography is young and fast moving. The darkroom era was short lived. This collection of images represents its apotheosis.”

Richard Nicholson, November 2010

I would like to thank all the printers who kindly allowed me to photograph their darkrooms.


Nicholson, Richard. “A Survey of London’s Remaining Professional Darkrooms 2006-2010,” in Taylor, Tot (ed.,). ANALOG: trends in sound and picture book. London: Riflemaker, 2011, pp. 17-19. ISBN 978-0-9563571-6-8.


Richard Nicholson. 'Roy Snell darkroom, Earlsfield' 2006


Richard Nicholson (British, b. 1968)
Roy Snell darkroom, Earlsfield
Courtesy of the artist and Riflemaker


Richard Nicholson. 'Gordon Bishop Associates, Paddington Street' 2006


Richard Nicholson (British, b. 1968)
Gordon Bishop Associates, Paddington Street
Courtesy of the artist and Riflemaker



The Riflemaker Gallery
79 Beak Street, Regent Street,
London W1

Opening hours:
Monday – Friday 10.00am – 6.00pm
Saturday 12.00pm – 6.00pm

Riflemaker website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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