Out of the shadows: A new exhibition sheds light on the photographic darkroom

When photographer Richard Nicholson decided to document some of London's professional darkrooms he had more than 200 to choose from. Four years on, with the project completed, only five remain in business.

The impact of digital photography has mothballed the industrial and personal domain of master printers. They were the interpretive hub of the photographic industry where craftsmen applied their skill producing prints for the country's top photographers. Mike Spry's high-contrast prints of U2 and Depeche Mode for music photographer Anton Corbijn, Peter Guest's black and white prints of the Trainspotting cast for portrait photographer Lorenzo Agius and Brian Dowling's gorgeous, visceral colour prints for fashion photographer Nick Knight stand as testament to their craft.

I may not have a master printer at my disposal but I am still taking my 35mm film shot on my stalwart Olympus Trip to the local high-street processor. It is also equipped to process the, admittedly haphazard, offerings from my box Tengor camera. This cute-as-a-button 70-year-old piece of kit comes with a Zeiss lens, a choice of three aperture and distance settings and carries the medium format (larger negative) 120 film. The anomalies that arise could never be replicated on screen – magenta flower heads fizzing out of a murky, occluded patches of green, all with an organic graininess that the most skilled Photoshop user would find difficult to recreate. The alchemy of picture processing presents a subtler image with a more three-dimensional tactile quality to the print.

A professional photographer would rarely encounter the happy random surprises that emerge from my package of prints. They have the experience and skills of a printer to guarantee accuracy of each frame. It is not just the vagaries I encounter using film that have kept me from the might of the megapixel. It is the considered and economical approach I have to employ when using the camera. As soon as you load a roll of film the editing process has begun. A finite number of frames stop me from becoming one of the mindless hoards aimlessly waving my compact at arm's length. The camera isn't on a permanent loop, grabbing and capturing a scene. I have to participate and then pick my definitive moment. I have to be more considered before I press and hear the satisfying click of the mechanical shutter. There won't be a slew of similar frames that many people display in the belief that it validates and makes the images more interesting. There won't be hundreds of images sitting on a memory stick or hard drive that will never see the physical light of day.

You could sit and work your way through a Photoshop tutorial on how to achieve "authentic grain" on your digital image or you could use film and let the molecular wonders of wet processing work their individual magic. When it comes to my pictures I remain a chemical girl in a digital world.

Richard Nicholson's Analog runs until 5 March at Riflemaker Contemporary Art, 79 Beak Street, London, W1F 9SU. www.riflemaker.org

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