In 1976, after being awarded my BA in Graphic Design at Central School of Art & Design in London, I failed to get into the Royal College of Art. This was the first really big failure in my life and, at the time, I found it devastating, since several of my closest friends had been accepted. I spent the next few years hanging out in the RCA student common-room as much as possible, which was quite sad of me, but since these were the glory days of punk, and the college had an on-the-ball entertainment committee, I did at least get to see The Clash, The Vibrators, Jayne Country, The Jam and so on.
But I wasn’t yet ready to go out into the world, and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do there anyway. Like a lot of ex-students, I was feeling at a loose end, without clear aims, prospects or money. I cobbled together a living by working part-time in bookshops, and for want of anything else to do, signed up for a postgraduate course in animation at Central. But I didn’t like my tutors, and despised the course’s aims, which were to produce something worthy that would be of benefit to disadvantaged members of society. As far as I was concerned, I was a disadvantaged member of society.
So mostly I slunk off and did my own thing, taking photographs and printing them up in the college darkroom. And at some point during 1976 or 1977, I had a go at colour printing. You can see some of the results on this post.
I already printed from my black and white negatives, but colour was another kettle of fish entirely. Most of the pictures on this page were taken from transparencies – probably Kodachrome, but possibly Ektachrome. Either way, the process was very complicated.
In old-fashioned black and white photographic printing, the enlarger shines a beam of light first through your selected negative, then through a lens which enlarges the image, projecting it down on to a sheet of photographic paper held flat by an easel. You have knobs to fiddle with, to focus the image, and to make the enlarger head go up and down, according to how big you want the image to be. As in a manual camera, you have two main methods of controlling the exposure – adjusting the amount of time the paper is exposed to the beam of light, and adjusting the amount of light passing through the aperture of the lens by changing the F-stop.
You can also mess around with the exposure by “dodging” and “burning”. I always enjoyed this process because it felt so lo-tech, and entailed making magician-like passes with your hands over the paper during the exposure – “burning in” underexposed areas so they became darker, or “dodging” to prevent more light from reaching areas of the image that were already dark enough. Hence, you could keep someone’s face light while making their surroundings darker. But you had always to keep fluttering your hands, to avoid ending up with hard shadows on the finished image.
All the photographers I knew had cobbled together their own “dodging” instruments from wire, bits of cardboard and masking tape, or whatever else was at hand, so you ended up with a range of miniature spatula-type tools to interpose between the lens and the paper. Once, when I wanted to simulate the effect of smoke in a portrait I’d taken of Ray Bradbury holding a copy of Fahrenheit 451, I played around with a tuft of cotton wool – and yes, it really did end up looking like smoke.
While printing black and white photographs, you could use a red safelight to see what you were doing. But colour printing required TOTAL DARKNESS. After you’d exposed your image, and before you could switch the light back on, you had to seal the paper in a drum. You then had to keep rotating this while adding and subtracting a great many different chemicals for very precise amounts of time. And you couldn’t look at the prints while they were developing, so it was all quite hit-and-miss – or at least it was for someone non-scientific like me. To this day, I’m astonished that I managed to get any results at all. I tip my hat to the younger me.
In many of the original transparencies or negatives of the pictures reproduced here, there was detail in the shadows or highlights that hasn’t shown up in the prints. Some of them are too contrasty, and in others I got the colour balance wrong. These days, of course, all it takes is a digital tweak via iPhoto or Acorn, and Bob’s your uncle; I tweaked a couple of pictures to show you. But the colour in prints made from Kodachrome (or Ektachrome) is very rich and saturated, much richer than that in prints made from colour negative film.
Once I had quit college for good, I was left without regular access to a darkroom until 1980, when I came back to London after a year in Japan. I bought an enlarger and the rest of the equipment, and set up a darkroom in a spare bedroom in the friend’s flat in Kennington where I was living (supposedly as a temporary measure, but I ended up staying there for five years). I wasn’t just annexing territory for my own purposes; the owner of the flat (one of the friends who had been to the Royal College of Art) also took photographs, so she used it too.
I routinely developed my own black and white negatives and printed my own prints, and would never have dreamt of sending them out to get them done professionally. This was around the time of my life that I tried very hard to find work as a photographer – I did the rounds of newspapers and magazine art departments with my portfolio, over and over again. Nice things were said, but not a lot of work was put my way, so I never earned enough to make a living wage out of it. But I did have pictures published in Illustrated London News, Time Out, Event and various Japanese magazines before the writing took over.
In 1985 I bought my first flat, two rooms in Powis Gardens, Notting Hill. I put together a darkroom on a large landing that was legally part of the flat, though not directly adjacent to it and half a storey down; I had the space partitioned off by a builder friend. My blackout curtains were useless, so I could only use it at night. But in any case the arrangement was less than ideal as there was no water supply, so I had to trudge upstairs with trays full of soggy prints to wash them in the bath, and my downstairs neighbour used to complain about the noise of running water. Unlike her, though, I didn’t keep throwing impromptu parties midweek, without warning. And I had somehow acquired the skill of moving from one end of my flat to the other without slamming doors – which was apparently beyond her capabilities.
It was this – and my upstairs neighbour’s habit of vacuuming and rearranging the furniture at 3am – that made me decide to move to Cambridge. That and the increasing gentrification of Notting Hill, which was fast losing its allure and turning into one big West London extension of the Groucho club.
From 1989 to 1996 I lived in a three-bedroom house off Mill Road in Cambridge. I made the smallest bedroom light-tight and set the darkroom up in there. It was right next to the bathroom, so washing prints wasn’t too much of a chore, though it wasn’t always easy keeping my cat Tiger at bay. When I was in the darkroom, she would mew and scratch at the door, wanting to come in too. Once I’d let her in, of course, she would want to go out again. That was when she wasn’t jumping all over the printing area, shedding hairs and sniffing the chemicals. You know what cats are like.
That was the last darkroom I ever had. My next flat, off Red Lion Square in Holborn, was too small, so I sold all the equipment before moving there. And then digital cameras took over from single lens reflexes, and the whole ritual of developing negatives and printing your own photographs with an enlarger went the way of the dinosaurs.
I still miss my darkroom, though. I used to stay up all night, developing negatives and printing photographs and chain-smoking and listening to music. Sometimes I would break off from the printing to dance around. It was all quite rock ‘n’ roll.
One night, in the darkroom, I was listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – which in itself now strikes me as odd, since I preferred Station to Station-era David Bowie to his earlier albums. For some reason, a lyric I’d heard hundreds of times before, without really thinking about it, leapt out at me. “When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band” triggered an extended darkroom reverie about the idea of pop stars being killed by their fans.
Sooner or later, this was going to happen, I thought. But I knew it would never happen to Bowie himself, because he placed such a distance between his stage act and real life.
This was December the 8th, 1980. The next morning, I heard on the radio that, during the night, John Lennon had been shot and killed by a fan outside the Dakota building in New York.