An Interview with Mike Crawford

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.

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Fernseturm, Berlin.
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.

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Embankment, London.
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.

To see more, please visit www.lighthousedarkrom.com or Mike’s personal website. The photographs that illustrate this post are copyright Mike Crawford.

The Need for New

Another old print, but still a firm favourite of mine. This sepia toned black and white photograph was made from the balcony of the Tate Modern in London, overlooking a temporary stage where dozens of couples were dancing the salsa. It was Summer, around six years ago.

As a professional photographer I have several cameras. The one I use most often is not working as well as I would like it. The autofocus is fast enough but pretty inaccurate, which for someone who is a children’s photographer most of the time, is more than a little frustrating. The sharp roll-off of highlight details requires careful management when shooting in the sun, and whilst I’m busy complaining, I now long for greater dynamic range and resolution than its sensor offers. Sitting here at the start of the new year, and considering the purchase of newer equipment that will cost many thousands of pounds, it’s somewhat ironic to think that many of my most successful images have been made with the most basic of film cameras, some of which are several years older than I.

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This photograph was made with a camera constructed almost entirely from cheap plastic. Possessing a wobbly lens, a film back taped shut to prevent light spill, and a single shutter speed of roughly 1/60th of a second, it cost less than the lunch I had eaten moments before this capture. Peering through the tiny viewfinder I made a rough guess as to where the frame edges would be, set the focus to a distance depicted on the lens by a mountain, and tripped the shutter. Hopeful of a good result, but without any real expectation, I forgot about the film until a batch were ready to be developed in the darkroom.
This one jumped out from the contact sheets so went straight into my enlarger. It was exposed onto Forte Fortezo paper for 56 seconds, with just the stage area dodged so as to make it lighter. For a further 35 seconds I burned in the sky, and used a piece of card with a hole in it to selectively shine light and so darken the tent in the lower-right corner. The print was developed in Ilford Warmtone developer, bleached slightly and then toned in a weak thiocarbamide solution. It was finished in a 1+9 Selenium bath for one minute, washed and air dried.

I’m well used to the the unpredictability and shortcomings of this camera. They force creativity and with so little technical control, place the emphasis firmly on ‘seeing’ instead of operating. For a family portrait commission this lack of control would be impractical, and the very unpredictability that encourages experimentation in my personal work, would be a fear and total distraction on a paid portrait shoot. Context is everything – both for me, and other professionals who wield basic gear in their spare time.

In reality the camera I want to upgrade has served me well, and been used by others to make many of the most memorable and recognisable images seen publicly, since its release in 2008. But the bar is always being raised, and with each evolution in technology, a want for the latest features becomes a strong desire, which eventually the mind rationalises as a ‘need’.
Anyway, The Pro Centre emailed a few days ago with some attractive discounts on the Hasselblad ‘H’ range. I’ve long desired one of these beauties. A little longer on their website in the New Year, plus a few more commissions, and who knows – I might just find I need one.

Changes on the Horizon – Cannon Rocks, SA

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I made this photograph on boxing day, seven years ago. I was taken by the mist, blown in off the sea, and the play of light as the waves broke in the foreground and the sun faded away. The paper this is printed on was made by Forte, a leading manufacturer of darkroom materials who have long since closed down. Although I was never overly enamoured with the sheen of the paper base of Forte Fortezo, it toned superbly and and as a result, sits amongst my favourite darkroom papers. There is an interesting project underway to resurrect its multi-contrast brother, Polywarmtone. This print was made with Ilford Warmtone developer and given a quick Sepia and then Selenium toning cycle.

I’ve been so engrossed in making platinum/palladium prints for the last two years, that I completely neglected my work in silver. As I revisit my archive of these prints, more of which I will post soon, I am reminded of the special qualities of a silver print. Certainly platinum is very beautiful, but there is less room for experimentation and differing looks; with fewer usable papers, choices of developer, toner etc. I have begun to miss this diversity over a particularly busy period of platinum printing, and although I love and am committed to the process, want to reintroduce some alternative methods in the new year. Not to mention making posts in this journal more often.