"Digital leaves me cold, it just doesn’t look or feel like real life"

Barbara Wilson is one of the best traditional black & white printers in London, she prides herself on doing everything by hand to the highest quality and with great attention to detail.

How long have you been working in darkrooms and how have you seen the business change in those years?

Professionally, since the early ‘80s. There used to be a market for printing "composite images" for example posters for video shop windows. You had to do everything by hand, print the text in and everything, using tape to mask stuff out. The hardest thing was getting everything perfectly straight!

Then I moved on to darkrooms who covered fashion and advertising. Working at Johno’s Darkroom was the cream of the crop - great photographers making wonderful work, excellent art, fashion and editorial work. The industry was booming, absolutely everything was shot on film. I now run my own darkroom in north-east London.

Photo: James Sparshatt

Photo: James Sparshatt

Can you explain how, for you, traditional photography and printing is superior to digital?

Well it’s organic, isn’t it? Digital leaves me cold, it just doesn’t look or feel like real life. It’s too over-sharp and there’s no depth, tone or grain. For me, they’re just not comparable.

What do you think of the renaissance in so-called ‘analogue’ photography?

There’s definitely been more interest in the last 5 years. I think it’s really good, it teaches people to really think through what they’re doing. Digital photographers who go back to shooting on film say “Wow, I actually have to use my brain again!” It pays to learn good technique, practice lots. With film you can’t just pick up a camera and shoot, you have to know what you’re doing and that’s obviously a valuable skill for any photographer.

Photo: Bill Pearson

Photo: Bill Pearson

Are there any new photographers working with film that you think are ones to watch?

There are lots of new and young photographers I print for whose work I really like. Duo Norman Wilcox & Amanda Johansson, Luke Montgomery. Vera Dohrenbusch’s landscape photographs have a lovely, quiet quality to them.

Do you think it's still important for students and young photographers to learn to shoot, process and print using film?

I think it’s essential! To learn the process from beginning to end is so important to learn about how light works. Your first camera should be a film camera and you should learn photography from that start point. Get in the darkroom and don't be afraid to make mistakes!

What's your favourite film and your favourite paper?

Tri-X is still my favourite film - it’s so versatile. You can push it, pull it, it’s got a lovely grain. My all-time favourite paper was a Japanese brand called Seagull but they don’t make it anymore. I tend to stick to the Ilford range now as clients know what to expect.

Any tips for a newcomer to film photography and darkroom printing?

Fall in love with it! I fell in love with the magic of it immediately and I still feel it. It’s never left me since that first time. Even if you’re doing a job that’s not the most exciting it’s still very satisfying. There’s an atmosphere in the darkroom that I still love. It’s sort of like a womb - the red light, the sound of running water, the darkness.

Barbara Wilson website

By Catriona Gray

Photo: Vera Dohrenbusch

Photo: Vera Dohrenbusch