Image courtesy of Perry Ogden
It was in Chicago during the early 90s, that Nina Gordon and Louise Post were first introduced. Set up on a sort of musical blind date, by a mutual friend who thought they should sing together, it was love at first sound.
Slotted into a row off shops just off Old Street roundabout is BD Images, one of London’s most important photographic printers. You might not have heard of it, but chances are you’ve appreciated more than a few images printed by Brian Dowling under its roof, from dozens of Vogue covers to countless fashion editorials, portraits, still lifes and album artworks.
The studio, infused with the tangy, musty smell of developing fluid, is filled with photographs stacked, pinned and hung across every surface. “Anton [Corbijn]’s doing a show,” explains Dowling, gesturing to a wall of Nick Cave. Next to the dozens of copies of Cave’s brooding black and white face hangs a portrait of Dowling himself; “It made the top 100 in the BP Portrait Award but I have this theory you have to be ginger to actually win it,” he laughs.
By the time we sit down to start the actual interview Dowling’s walked me through every room in the building, explaining each piece of equipment, each process, each print with absolute patience. It’s not hard to see why such an esteemed number of photographers and artists trust him with their images, and his client list includes Craig McDean, Glen Luchford and Peter Saville, to name but a few. Among the impressive roster of names however, none can be as significant as Nick Knight, who has described BDi as helping to “change the way the world is coloured”. The two started printing together decades ago and have produced countless iconic images, saturated with the rich, clear colour Dowling’s known for. While Knight’s gone almost entirely digital now, their work remains some of his most memorable and celebrated and the influence of their printing techniques is often clear in his current work.
Now, despite its hugely influential role in the London photography scene, BDi has been dealt a major blow; in the studio’s 25th year Islington council served them notice, choosing to go ahead with a massive redevelopment of the surrounding Redbrick Estate.
Unsurprisingly, Dowling’s not one to sit back and accept defeat: “I own Old Street, just no one knows about it,” he chuckles. “I don’t think the council realised who we worked with; as far as they’re concerned we’re Snappy Snaps.” As soon as BDi announced Islington’s decision to terminate their lease an online petition sprung up in protest, gathering over 2,000 signatures and messages of support from the likes of Perry Ogden, Nick Knight, Elaine Constantine and Sølve Sundsbø.
The council’s decision to forfeit a creative institution in favour of new, expensive housing is typical of London’s current economic climate and there is a growing number of people unwilling to keep letting it happen unchallenged. From the dismantling of Soho’s nightlife and the relocation of Central Saint Martins, to independent designers like Natacha Marro being forced out of their studios, creative communities are taking a serious blow from corporate developers and they’re rallying against the often-exploitative schemes. “I was told the flats were going to be buy-to-rent and that was the end of the conversation,” explains Dowling, who grew up locally. “I don’t agree with all these buy-to-rent places and I don’t agree with the people who buy them and make money out of doing nothing. I’ve always worked for a living and I’ve earned any money myself, printing – I haven’t got four flats that I rent out at £2,000 a month.”
Thankfully the plans for Redbrick aren’t quite as profiteering as the initial development implied, and in wake of the petition Islington Council has promised to relocate BDi to a suitable, local space. “Since the petition’s gone up they’ve suddenly realised I have actually produced something different, something special, and that people fly to the studio from America, Holland and Dublin. I mean Nick travelled every day from Richmond to print with me, and Richmond’s not round the corner!”
Still, relocation is far from ideal and it’s indicative of property developers’ widespread contempt for niche or creative businesses; it’s got the point where you can now buy a ‘luxury residential apartment’ on the site where Bob Marley recorded ‘Redemption Song’.
Image courtesy of Perry Ogden
Image courtesy of Nick Knight
Elsewhere in the local area people are receiving similar eviction notices, last year the New Era estate in Hoxton informed tenants they would face a 100 percent hike in rent or be forced to leave. “I find that disgusting,” says Dowling. “Why should someone in America buy something and just put the rent up? It’s people that have lived there for years, like I’ve lived here for years. Their rents are going to double and they’re being offered nowhere to go.” As with BDi, an online petition created a network of support for those affected and the American investors who have since sold their share but it’s symptomatic of growing contempt for central London residents who don’t fit into the young, urban, high-earner bracket. “Everyone’s wages have gone down; people that work at BDi earn a third less than they used to; my business went down 70 percent when digital came in.”
Dowling’s been developing and printing film since he started work at the Press Association on Fleet Street aged 15. Since then his business has grown to fill the 2,700 square feet where we’re currently sitting and it’s still “bedlam on a weekday”, but when digital came in about seven years ago the company took a massive “nose-dive”. “There used to be 10 of us here but the work fell off,” he tells me. “It’s gradually creeping back up but it’s nowhere near what it used to be.” It’s a sad indication of how the fashion industry is changing. “Most of the time when people want to shoot film the magazine will come back and say they haven’t got the budget, the joke of it is you could do it on digital and they’ll give you £3,000 for retouching.”
In an industry increasingly scrutinized by advertisers, magazines are clearly less prepared to take risks for creative gain and the safety net of digital retouching means the art of hand printing is becoming increasingly overlooked. Unfortunately, the two processes result in very different final images and I often find digital retouchers a bit over-zealous in their attempt to “perfect” an image.
“Oh, every time!” Dowling agrees. “Some people say digital has no soul and I know what they mean, you lose the magic. It’s the ‘nothings’ that make a picture, the amount of times I’ve been working with Nick and he’ll say ‘just put a nothing in it’, just repeat it, there’s always going to be something different.
“Now it’s another story, if you see the dresses they put on the models they’ve pinned them all up at the back, that’s crackers. I’ve seen bulldog clips on either side knowing that they can just retouch it out, well that isn’t really photography.” Luckily it’s a different story away from the glossy magazines. “Anton has no retouching – that’s not the way he works. Johnny Rotten wants to look rotten, that’s how he is and he doesn’t want to be retouched.”
Despite the knock-on effect it’s had on business, there are ways that digital has positively impacted Dowling’s work too: “As much as you can dislike it, the digital world is an improvement. I still do Anton’s prints even though he lives in Holland because I can show him the work I’m doing over email. I’ll send him a bunch of pictures and then he’ll adjust them, which is what we’re doing now with Nick Cave. It works really well.”
However he’s communicating with his clients, when it comes to the printing Dowling’s work is strictly analog and his skill and artistry have garnered huge respect and recognition within the industry. “There was a time when Vogue wouldn’t let anyone shoot on film unless they came to BDi, which was great for me! I remember Robin Derrick, who was in charge phoned me and said ‘Do you know out of 12 covers this year you’ve printed 10?’ I thought that was just fascinating.”
And it wasn’t only Vogue whose pages were hungry for BDi. “On i-D’s 25th anniversary I went round the archive with Terry [Jones] to pick out my favourite pictures for an exhibition and I was looking through some of their magazines thinking ‘I printed that, I printed that’ – from the front page to more or less the back page like, ‘done it, done it, done it’. It was unbelievable.”
We both agree that magazines have sacrificed some of their vitality and fun in order to keep up with the industry standard of retouching photos to within an inch of their life. “Most people don’t want prints now and if they do they want to scan them and play with them anyway,” he says. “The idea of hand printing is to play with it in the dark room and get all the colours, you don’t want to achieve something that you don’t like just so you can scan it and then make it good. That’s defeating the whole object of it.” It’s not only within the industry there’s been a dip, with smartphones increasingly replacing cameras we’re all guilty of substituting quality for speed and ease. “Inkjets are rubbish and that’s what people use, that’s why Snappy Snaps and all those labs have gone out of business. People take digital pictures and then print them at home, they’re good enough to put in an album and that’s all they want.”
Yet, despite the blow to business BDi shows no sign of giving up it’s position as one of the few and most influential analog printers in the country: “I’ve been lucky because I’ve worked with so many great photographers,” smiles Dowling. “They all loved coming here and listening to my silly jokes and making me a cup of tea! You can’t have your prints until you’ve made me a cup of tea. That’s how it was.”
Out of all those years and all those photographers his favourite image to print has been one of Siouxsie Sioux smoking by Nick Knight, “probably because I smoke as well and it’s not often that Nick does anything with cigarettes. It was one of the easiest pictures to print from Nick’s point of view. I enhanced the yellow in it, the blue and her maroon coat.”
We start talking about other images he’s worked on with Nick and the different processes required for each, every so often he’ll duck into his own room and pull out another box to explain it better. I feel like I’ve had a masterclass in photographic developing by the time I walk out onto the roundabout, and along with Dowling’s passion and understanding of film spills some of that magic which digital seems to have lost. As we wave goodbye I have no doubt he’s going to own Old Street for a long time to come.