Johno Driscoll. Photo: Tim Marshall, text: David Secombe.

John Driscoll, outside the Horseshoe, Clerkenwell Close, 2011. Photo © Tim Marshall.

David Secombe writes:

Any photographer who came of age in the pre-digital era can still summon up the clammy, vertiginous mix of excitement and fear which attended a trip to the darkroom to review the results of a shoot. Most London labs (invariably located in basements) reeked of fixer and testosterone: some establishments referred to their clients as “the enemy”, and any cock-ups or infelicities on the part of the photographer left the hapless smudger open to mockery, abuse and, it was rumoured, actual physical violence from short-tempered darkroom staff. This added a certain nervous tension to the experience of checking out your film. But there were some noble exceptions to this rule.

John Driscoll, who died on Monday, was the proprietor of the legendary Johno’s Darkroom – black and white only – an establishment supreme of its kind, its reputation resting on John’s brilliance as a printer and warmth as a human being.  On any given day from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, a bewildering array of images would pass through Johno’s – haute couture, music, hard news, fine art – but whatever the subject, all John’s prints bore that exquisite, luminous quality which made him the printer of choice to the likes of Nick Knight, Craig McDean, Elaine Constantine, Eamonn McCabe, Sean Smith, and many, many others. His printing technique was matched only by his generosity and enthusiasm for the work of the photographers he admired.

Johno’s was a sort of club for the profession. You’d wait for John to finish your prints, swap notes with other photographers, sneak a look at pictures other people had brought in and inwardly (and occasionally outwardly) remark upon the quality of them. You’d exchange stories and bad jokes with his colleagues Jason and Paul (later it was Barb and Cherie), and glimpse John emerging from the dark now and again to take a call, retouch a print or send someone to the bookie’s with a hot tip and a tenner. When all the rush jobs were cleared, we’d migrate to pubs in pre-gentrification Clerkenwell or Hoxton (John was based in Hoxton Square for much of the early 1990s, and his darkroom was next door to where White Cube stands today), where John had to be forcibly prevented from buying every round. Very often, his wife Barbara – the other half of the Variety double act – would be at the lab, and could usually be persuaded to come out for a drink: much shouting and hilarity and missing of trains home would ensue. Everyone felt good around John, he could energise a room simply by walking into it.

The best photographers went to him because he was the best, but all the bullshit surrounding the profession fell away when you were in his company. Some photographers might be prima donnas in the wider world, but no-one outshone John in his own domain. And it was unwise for, ah, naive photographers to treat John as just some kind of tradesman; more than one photographer was shown the door because John thought his or her work was fraudulent. Yet, for some of his clients, John was prepared to do much more than just turn out lovely prints. Occasionally, John would receive rolls of film from some flailing, desperate young photographer, fearing disaster after a fraught shoot on a big assignment. In a war film, John would have been the cheerful sergeant steadying the nerves of an inexperienced officer: if John was on your side, you were all right. He’d get you through. He was the relief column. There are a number of very successful photographers who have very good cause to be grateful to John. He inspired tremendous loyalty. We weren’t his clients: we were his devotees.

John first went to work in New York around the Millennium. It was at the request of Craig McDean, who had him flown out at the expense of a client as he was the only black and white printer who could do Craig’s pictures justice. He ended up founding Johno’s NY and stayed in the US until the rise of digital eroded the market for traditional printing, retiring to Brighton only a few years ago. Of course, he wasn’t really retired, he was looking to get a darkroom going on the south coast, or a gallery maybe – somewhere where he could share his love of photography and showcase the work of his friends and clients, a place to show “all those wonderful images that need to be seen”.

With grim irony, I learnt of John’s death on the same day as I heard of a new digital camera from Leica: the ‘Monochrom’. It only takes black and white images – the idea is that a digital chip will duplicate the look of the finest black and white photographs. It’s worth stopping to consider the proposition: that a piece of hardware can replace the care and dedication which transforms a negative on a piece of celluloid into a work of art on paper. I can’t see it myself.

I think of John casually producing a box of prints he’d made from my negatives, and asking if I was happy? The prints glowed from within. I was so grateful I wanted to cry. I’d grabbed a few pictures in difficult conditions for a demanding client and he’d turned them into objects of beauty (saving my arse in the process). You can’t replace that with a chip. An age is passing and we are the poorer for it. I grieve for an irreplaceable friend.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012.

20 Comments on “Johno Driscoll. Photo: Tim Marshall, text: David Secombe.”

  1. Kent baker says:

    I think I speak for many when I say without John and Barbs support, talent and friendship over the many years I/we would not have enjoyed the successes we have to the extent we have. John is one of the most real and open human beings it has been my honor to call a friend. Our thoughts are with Barb and of John. I have no doubt that should there be life after death John is already making himself invaluable to all who seek him out in some tucked away spot….. Not too far away from a nice pub. Here’s to you John.

    Kent Baker.

  2. Phil Knott says:

    oh no- thats so sad-fuck- john was the best printer in the world- him and his wife barbs- often pop into my mind- i loved hanging out at johnno’s having a beer-,getting stick of barbs- his work was truly something- you really ,really ,will be missed dude-thank you for printing my stuff over the years- youre work is so beautiful
    barbs-hope you are ok darling
    love and respect
    phil knott

  3. Dusan Reljin says:

    Dear John, one of the things I will remember the most was when we where working at LTI with you during the 4th of july 1998. We where printing for Craig and nobody else was there. I found a tv, and we brought it into the darkroom and put a red gel on it, so we could watch the World cup while we where in there. You sent me out to get some beers. Ronaldo was playing and you where loving the way he was dribbling. It was one of the best days of my life.
    You taught me so much and you where a very dear friend. I will miss you dearly and I hate myself for loosing touch with you. Barb my love and thoughts go out to you.
    Thank you for being a part of my life.
    Dusan Reljin

  4. […] Johno Driscoll. Photo: Tim Marshall, text: David Secombe. […]

  5. JohnO was my greatest friend in the photography industry, I have so many fond memories of my time working in the darkroom at Hoxton Square and Clerkenwell workshops, too many to recount here, but my time working there was the best of times for me. John was an inspiration to me and I treat any one that works for me now in the same manner that John treated me, with respect and humour and rarely without a drink. I hope that it is some comfort to Barb to know that John was a huge influence on both my professional life and my personal life too. I will miss John terribly.
    Paul Massey

  6. steve hunt says:

    A moving tribute.
    Johno gave me a job when i was on my arse and inexperienced.
    I loved the job so much, i skipped to work down Roseberry Avenue to his place at Clerkenwell Workshops; he inspired that love for and dedication to the job.
    Watching him print was a real privilige, his hands would dance with the light like a close up magic act, he made it look so easy while usually singing something like ‘Golden brown just like my arse’.
    Thankyou Johno. God bless you.

  7. Christine Camilo says:

    I’m devastated to hear the news. John & Barb are dear friends and I’m grateful to have spent time with them last year. Barb, you are in my thoughts and I wish I could be there. I enjoyed working with him and talking endless hours about photography. You are deeply missed.

  8. Jonathan Lucas says:

    I am truly saddened by this. I was fortunate enough to meet John when my wife and I stayed with him and Barb last year. His talent and joy when speaking of photography made a lasting impression upon me, and the love between he and Barb was — and remains — an inspiration.

  9. Martin Crook says:

    Thanks Dave for such beautiful words when we are all at such a loss of what say. I can’t believe he’s gone and can still hear him now calling us “soppy sods” saying “alright chuck”and “au revoir” ….. I remember days in the lab and nights in the Horseshoe trying to finish one pint before he’d bought you another and in NY, Saturday mornings in the Red Lion watching West Ham, the xmas party at Slainte….actually the xmas party in Clerkenwell where we drank the bar dry and someone stole a life size wooden crocodile !! …… I remember a beautiful day at Belmont race track with him and Barb ….. and the beautiful prints he produced from our nowhere near as good negatives….so many memories…… The height of my career was never shooting this for whoever, it was when I got to make colour prints with Brian and black & white with JohnO.

    John and Barb are family to me and were to us all who knew him. He was the kindest, most generous, beautiful person. Anyone will tell you this from his old friends to someone he’d only met for 10 minutes. He taught me so much about being a good person and doing the right thing and I’m a better man for having known him. We’ve all said it but it was an honour to be counted as one of John’s friends.

    I miss him.

  10. Jackie Robles says:

    I am so sad to hear of Johno’s passing. I am honored to have been one of the recipients of his photo knowledge nuggets that he gave out so generously. He was so kind and funny, always made me smile.
    Barb, I send you my love in this difficult time. He will not be forgotten.

  11. David Ormes says:

    JohnO was one of those people that would leave you feeling like you did something wrong for not being that awesome and kind. You don’t encounter that often. I did the mark for his shop here in NYC, it’s the first one to appear on my site and will forever remain that way.

  12. It’s very nice to see all these comments. I’m sure John would have been embarrassed by all the fuss, but I think he knew we loved him.

  13. John’O a true master and one of the most amazing people I have ever met. Just lovely!! I am so grateful for the experience, prints, amazing conversation and support. I am honored to have had so many good times with John and barb. John’O’s smile and laugh will be forever with me. Cheers to John!! All my love to you Barb.

  14. liam duke says:

    A great talent, a true gentleman, a lovely husband, a funny, generous and kind man.
    He was one of the good guys!

  15. Peter Connor says:

    Very well put David, as a non-printer type I did come in handy on the plumbing side, my mate, cousin, Brother John would take me in the dark room to show me how it’s done and every time I asked John” Shall I put the light on he would have a heart attack” I did rise to the ranks of Senior Dryer though. I remember having bike races with John in Martins studio only the be found out by the tyre marks on the floor and leaving Martin’s bike with a puncher, John will always miss you, will be having oyster’s on Brighton seafront very soon and thinking of you.

  16. petedrinkell says:

    A very fitting eulogy, JohnO was certainly a one of a kind and the very best at what he did. He did it with passion and enjoyment. The countless times I would sit with John printing Craig’s negs, John printing me watching in awe as he waved his hands under the lamp. Then the trip to the pub, I don’t think I was ever allowed in about 4-5 years to buy John a drink it was not tolerated by him at all, luckily as I would never have been able to keep up with him. An amazing man who helped me out and taught me a great deal and was always a joy to be around, very sad to hear of his departure. My love goes out Barb.

  17. Tim Bennett says:

    Printer Barb told me this afternoon of this John’s passing and between then and reading this beautiful eulogy (thanks you David) I have been fondly reminiscing about the times I spent working alongside John and Barb for the short time I was at LTI.
    Mirroring what Martin said above; the highlights of my career have not been printing wot not for so-and-so but rather the times I spent learning from John and Brian @ BDI.
    LTI was my first proper job after leaving school and whilst learning the technique and art of C-type printing from Jeremy and Cos, I would often pop in to chat with John and Barb (as is often the case in times like this, I wish I’d popped in more often) and John taught me one the simplest but most important skills as a printer – just to look. He would tell me to look at a print, but rarely would he say anything – passively encouraging me to take in and absorb the image; and as one of the last generation of pre-digital printers it is a skill I appreciate more today than I ever did back then.
    Ironically, I only remember going to pub with him once but I shall be raising a glass in John’s honour tonight.
    My thoughts are with you Barb, hopefully I’ll be able to see you after all these years next week.

  18. Anna B Sexton/Open To Create says:

    Johno was a true master & mentor for so many people including me in my fresh faced first stumlings into darkroom photography as a work experience bod. Yet he did not make any distinctions – he let me get stuck in on real jobs, introduced me to his valued clients & friends and of course got me to get the beers in!
    A man of humility and ability to bring out the best in people, a talent spotter & grower. And one of my first real creative mentors and for that I am grateful. I also recall him talking with me about my uncle Martin Palmer about his talents and I have often revisited that as his love for Martin was so clear, and this was touching.
    My thoughts & love are with Barbs, his close and extended creative family.
    Thank you David for writing such a fitting & true piece – I will save this and the lovely picture.
    A Guinness will be raised in his honour today.

  19. Oh my.. I am so sad to hear this news. JohnO printed Truth and Lies for my book and many of my 5×4 portrait negs – arriving at the darkroom at Clerkenwell Close to be met by Johno’s smiles and enthusiasm , trays and surfaces filled with prints – he had such a love of his craft – not the one print man that some others insist on – I loved that about him. Barbs, Barb a fitting team always by your side. RIP JohnO. I still have many of your prints here and I will treasure them.