Corner shop, Brunel Road, Rotherhithe, London, July 1974. © Geoff Howard.
Gentrification by Charles Jennings:
Two geezers in overalls flicking litter into a truck (‘Could’ve bleeding stayed in bed, didn’t know it was only this one’). Keeping their ends up against the taggers and bomb artists on the main road. ‘That shouldn’t be allowed ’cause they laid out a lot of money’. You’ve got your haggard local shops, giving out, giving in, ‘Houses & Flats Cleared, Apply Within’, a stupidly optimistic fingerpost. The coughing of the birds, the single, muted noise of a car driving along in first a block away. ‘Big Reductions on Room Size’, with a tiny old lady picking at some cream-vinyl dining chairs stuck out on the pavement as if they were poisonous, a dysfunctional boy pulling at the hair of a girl in a newsagent’s doorway, the sullen rumble of a train. Who’s going to be passing through? Dead cars, living cars, stuff you do to your car, garages. Those jaded avenues of small houses, nervy pre-dereliction, the effort to keep up. The midget shops, the kebabs, the roaming crazies (woman in a tank top scouring the bins: ‘Fucking said to him, “Fucking listen”‘). This tomb of obscurity: drowning in toxins, grimed-up, catching screams from the estate on the west side, the traffic barrelling to hell on the roundabout. Sort myself out a nice K-reg Astra. It’s shy of life, but only because it’s keeling over.
… for The London Column. © Charles Jennings 2012.
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.
Bobby Redrupp and customer, Chapel Market, 1990. © David Secombe.
Leakage in Chapel Market, N1
She’s hanging on. I go to lunch.
An old man with a dewdrop on his nose
shuffles towards the market, inching round
a rotting mango and the discarded cartons
propped against the shop that takes my eye
with its display of candyfloss-pink chairs.
A boy reads from a placard to his friend
that Superman has lost his fight for life.
It’s only the cold wind that fills my eyes
and cyclamen in a new shade of purple.
© Susan Grindley.
Although only officially designated a market in the 1880s, East Street Market continues a tradition of street trading in Walworth that goes back to Tudor times. Perhaps more germane to the purposes of the current post is the identification of the market with the 1980s & 90s situation comedy Only Fools and Horses, which is set in Peckham and uses photographs of East Street Market in its opening titles.
The popularity of John Sullivan‘s TV series has given this stretch of south London its own place in modern popular culture. Sullivan himself was from Balham, and he knew the milieu very well. He was working as a scene shifter at the BBC when he approached producer Dennis Main Wilson with an idea for a comedy. Main Wilson was a genuine enthusiast for comedy, a quality not always found in producers of ‘light entertainment’, and had an impeccable gift for searching out the genuine article. The idea was commissioned and became Citizen Smith.
Sullivan’s south London is a fabled place: Del and Rodney live in the mythical Nelson Mandela House (although there is a Nelson Mandela Way not too far away), the local boozer is a haunt of cartoon geezers and Peckham the bucolic playground for an assortment of genial chancers, through whom Sullivan has contributed several phrases to colloquial English. Television writers such as Sullivan and Galton & Simpson (Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son) have created Dickensian characters for modern times, refashioning London in the image of their creations. Peckham has become Del Boy’s manor, just as any mention of Cheam conjures up the ghost of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock – and Surbiton still bears the scars of The Good Life.
Barrow boy, World’s End, 1963. © Dmitri Kasterine.
Joanna Blachnio writes:
And then he forgets. Clearly. The formula for the circumference of the circle and the length of the arch. How to calculate mass, and how to express vacuum in numbers. He forgets the latchkey, warming slowly in his pocket, the water gathered by one of his wingless shoes. He forgets the order of notes on the musical scale. Even that game of marbles, shamefully lost to Jimmy Croghan. He forgets how mist comes into being – and it rises, contrary to experience, from the ground, spreading sideways. And envelops all except his face.
… for The London Column. © Joanna Blachnio 2011.
Brenton Pink on the steps of his house, Lewisham. Photo © David Secombe 1999.
Brenton Pink’s house sits on Lewisham Way, a busy artery into London from the south-east. It is a large Victorian house – described elsewhere as a ‘mansion’, which might be an exaggeration – which its owner has decorated in an extremely vivid colour scheme evoking his native Jamaica, from whence he emigrated to London in the 1950s. By virtue of its prominent location, the house has become a well-known south London landmark. The photograph above is over ten years old; at time of writing, I believe that Mr. Pink is still in residence, although he is not seen outside the property as often as before.
V.S. Pritchett once described London’s brick buildings as having hues “as delicate as plumage”* and their muted tones lend the older suburbs much of their drab character. Painted in primary colours, a Victorian house becomes different altogether: the candy-bright paintwork commonly seen in well-to-do suburbs of London transforms small terraced houses into would-be Italian villas. But Brenton Pink’s decoration of his home is something else: it is a memoir of Jamaica, a fragment of the Caribbean recreated in Lewisham – hardly the brightest of suburbs then or now. He is London’s own Douanier Rousseau.
* London Perceived, 1965.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011.