Photography's pre-digital 'Prince of prints'
Words and Photographs Kevin Davies
As the book Fashion Image Revolution is published, photographer Kevin Davies praises Brian Dowling, the undisputed master of the darkroom…
Brian Dowling has his own kind of dodge tool that he uses in the darkroom. He made it himself using a thin piece of wire and card the size of a five pence coin at either end. He holds it in his hand when developing photographic prints and often refers to it as his ‘wand’. To burn (or let light in) he uses the top of a box of photographic paper – as it is black one side – and punches a hole through it. He also uses his hands to burn or shade, which sounds possibly inaccurate, but he can be very precise. This is all performed in complete darkness and to glimpse his hands when they appear under the light of the enlarger lamp is magical.
Some exposures can be complicated. Brian holds all the information required for a multiple-layered image in his head and might only have 10 seconds to complete all the shading, burning and dodging. He uses masks that are hand-painted on acetate and laid over the photographic paper. He can double colour to produce a more intense palette, or a colour that doesn’t exist in the negative. He can also ‘flash’ the paper with a base colour. In the late 1980s, when photographers fell in love with the technique of cross-processing, he was the go-to printer who could master the weird filtration that it produced. Cross-processing also changed the chemicals to a blood red, but as his lab, BDI, processed the film by hand, they were able to change the developer frequently.
In 1994 The Face magazine compiled a list – the 100 Most Important People in Fashion. Brian was at number 54, sandwiched between Russell Simmons of Def Jam records and the designer Donna Karan. His entry read; ‘There are photographers and there are photographic printers. Of the latter, Brian is London’s finest. When he goes on holiday, half the fashion world grinds to a halt.’
It was a mad time for Brian, with his diary was booked months in advance as photographers tried to secure his services for two or three days at a time. Strangely though, he rarely seemed to get stressed, no matter how big a campaign or how close to the deadline. He has always tended to work to his own internal clock (and let the confusing one on the wall baffle the photographer). Of course, getting a print on time could be challenging – and Brian was known to quip that ‘I had the Beatles negs for the White Album, but I took so long they went for an all-white sleeve.’ Often he would seem to be in the darkroom for an age and yet no prints would emerge from the machine. This meant one thing only – he was on the ‘dog and bone’ again.
Craftsmanship is not just about working with your hands; it’s also about caring for the job in hand: an emotional connection. The process of working with a printer to produce hand prints can be a long one. Prints are assessed and discussed in terms of what the photographer wants the image to look like. Brian interprets this in the darkroom.
More often than not, when I believe the print to be perfect, another two appear; maybe only slightly different, but always more perfect. It’s extremely important to Brian that he achieves the best result. And we are assuming here that the negatives he is working from are exposed properly, but often there is plenty of work to be done. (He also checks out magazines for pictures he has printed just to see how well they have coped with his wonderful colours).
I met Brian in 1988 by looking in the Yellow Pages for a colour lab – his was literally across the road from the studio I shared off Old Street in London. I was happy with my own black and white printing, but my colour was dreadful – I couldn’t cope with the unforgiving nature of transparency film. He has remained on Old Street and has always lived nearby. His mother, Doris, lives close, too – and when her television exploded and filled her lounge with black smoke, he popped round to capture it for insurance reasons. Doris was fine and his photographs were more than mere snaps: years later they were included in an exhibition at Showstudio and sold very well.
Brian has a photographer’s eye. I trust his judgment even to the point that I would re-think my choice of image if he was unsure. It is as much his skill as a printer as his personality – dealing with so many high-profile photographers, each with their own particular approach and style. For many, he defined their colour. He can see and translate colour into one blue, one magenta – and add more exposure. Or as Brian would say in his own particular way; ‘One B and an M, a gnat’s on it and knock a thousand!’