The art of traditional darkroom printing is mysterious and fascinating. I talk to Mike Crawford – author, educator, and recognised within the photographic industry as a true master printmaker.
Mike, tell us how you first got started in the darkroom
Initially at school by joining the photography club. Later, I studied photography at college and learnt the importance of good printing and presentation. When I left and came to London looking for work, the first job I got was in the darkroom in a photographer’s studio in Covent Garden, and twenty five years later I’m still in the darkroom!
You have worked with some interesting clients. Is there a particular commission that stands out for one reason or another?
I’ve worked for Brian Griffin, one of the UK’s most respected photographers, for over ten years which has been a privilege, an education as well as a lot of fun. Five years ago I printed a major retrospective taken from over thirty years work for the Reykjavik Museum of Art in Iceland. Last month we finished a big show of his for the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival this summer in the South of France. As I spend most of my time in my lab in North London, the odd trip overseas for an exhibition opening makes it all worthwhile.
With an almost complete shift from film to digital photography, why are people still coming to you for traditional prints?
As the majority of commercial photographic work now tends to be shot, processed and submitted to the client digitally, most of my darkroom work is for exhibitions, print sales or for portrait and social photographers. These photographers and their clients appreciate that traditional black and white prints have their own visual and tactile qualities as well as a proven history of archival permanence. The darkroom also gives the photographer (or their printer), the freedom to interpret a negative by the choice of paper, developer and toners as well as the individual control in contrast and density possible though printing by hand.
One of the advantages of working in the darkroom is the ability to use a variety of different techniques such as lith printing which is often used to add atmosphere and texture to a photograph. This process uses a high contrast developer which changes the tonality of the print. In this example the shadows have increased in contrast while the midtones and highlights are compressed with a warm red/brown hue.
How do you view the relationship between photographer and printer?
Very important. Some photographers will have a clear idea of how their work should be printed while others will look for input from the printer to suggest different interpretations. Personally I feel the finished print should reflect the personality of the photographer and not the printer, or in other words, the printer is there to bring out the best in the photographer’s work and not show how clever he or she is.
When you first receive a negative, as far as interpreting the image goes, is there anything in particular you are looking for?
Only that it is well exposed and processed! Technically I would assess the image from the quality of the negative but visually and aesthetically I always need to see a positive photograph, either from a contact sheet, test print, scan or jpeg.
You have several personal projects on the go. Do you think this is important for a photographer?
I do try to work on my own photography when I have the time and tend to work in two ways. If it is a small project, shooting quickly, editing and then printing, or if it is a larger series of images, building it up over a period of time, which could be months or often far longer. Working in the darkroom is a good way of learning patience.
Where do you see the film/digital debate going in the future, and do you feel there is the interest and training needed to sustain traditional photography?
There is a very big interest worldwide in learning traditional photographic skills instead of digital. Often the reason cited for this is that many people now spend their working lives in front of a computer and shooting on film and printing in the darkroom is an excellent and creative respite from this. However, I expect the debate between the two mediums will sadly continue. Digital has revolutionised photography not only in the methods of shooting, printing and reproduction but also in the possibilities of on-line presentation and communication. While it will now always be the dominant method of photography, I do feel that the importance and appreciation of traditional film based photography and printing will continue to grow. Additionally, the vast majority of digital images, whether captured on a camera or mobile phones are often only ever seen on screen, if at all. With traditional photography, the whole purpose is to end with a fine print.
From an ongoing project photographing Westminster at night. Shot on fast 35mm black and white film, particularly for the texture given by it’s grain and the halation (or glow) which occurs with bright highlights. Although they are contemporary photographs, the use of this film adds a nostalgic or even ‘retro’ look to the work.