Any photographer who came of age in the pre-digital era can still summon up the vertiginous mix of excitement and fear that attended a trip to the darkroom to review the results of a shoot.
Most London labs reeked of fixer and testosterone: some referred to their clients as "the enemy", and any cock-up or infelicity left the photographer open to mockery and abuse from short-tempered darkroom staff. But there were some noble exceptions to this rule.
The passing of John Driscoll – "Johno" – marks the end of a chapter in photographic history. Driscoll was proprietor of the legendary Johno's Darkroom – black and white only – where he made exquisite prints for a generation of young fashion photographers who went on to dominate the international scene in the 1980s, '90s and beyond, including Nick Knight, Craig McDean, Elaine Constantine and many others.
Driscoll was born in Barking in 1953, and got his start in the photographic business as a messenger boy at the Evening Standard in 1969. After being sacked for spending too much time hanging around the Standard darkroom, he began work as a printer at Hatton Photographic in 1972, which later became The London Darkroom. After a spell at Thompson Publishing, he worked in Mark Trew's darkroom, and by the 1980s he had become the printer of choice for many of that decade's key photographers, including Brian Griffin and – most importantly – Nick Knight. The timing was propitious, and Driscoll decided to set up his own establishment, Johno's Darkroom, which opened in 1987.
Based in a series of slightly Dickensian locations around Clerkenwell and Hoxton, and suffused with Driscoll's warmly welcoming bonhomie, Johno's became something of a photographers' club. In a shabby room dominated by a huge Nick Knight print, visitors could shoot the breeze with his colleagues – Christine, Jason and Paul, Barb and Cherie – check out other photographers' work, and glimpse Driscoll emerging from the dark to take a call, retouch a print or send someone to the bookies.
When the rush jobs were cleared, there would be the inevitable migration to the pub, where Driscoll had to be forcibly prevented from buying every round. His wife, Barbara – the other half of the double act – was frequently at the lab, and could usually be persuaded to come for a drink: much shouting and hilarity and missing of trains home would ensue.
The best photographers went to Driscoll because he was the best, yet all the posturing associated with the profession fell away when you were in his company. Driscoll's understanding of photography was the equal of any curator's: he cut through to the essence of what made a good image. Furthermore, his mentoring of photographers saved more than one career, as he rescued them from disaster in the aftermath of a difficult shoot. In a war film, Driscoll would have been the cheerful sergeant steadying the nerves of an inexperienced officer. There are a number of successful photographers who have very good cause to be grateful to him.
Driscoll first worked in New York in 1999 at the request of Craig McDean, who insisted to a client that no other printer could do his pictures justice. In 2000, Driscoll moved to the city and established Johno's NY on Grand Street in Little Italy. Although he liked New York, he only relocated because the market for traditional black and white was drying up in London. (When asked what he missed about London, Driscoll immediately replied: "All of it".) But he became Irving Penn's final printer, thus making a direct connection between the high style of 1950s and '60s New York and the London aesthetic of the 1980s and '90s. However, the rise of digital proved irresistible and in 2009 Driscoll returned to the UK and his home outside Brighton.
Driscoll was keen to get a darkroom going on the south coast, and talked about opening a gallery where he could exhibit the work of his friends and clients, a place to show "all those wonderful images that need to be seen". Sadly, the onset of cancer curtailed these projects. Had he lived, there's no doubt that he would have championed the new generation of photographers who have rejected digital in favour of film. He would have been their hero, just as he was ours. He would have given them something that you can't get from a digital camera: love.
John Driscoll, photographic printer: born Barking 26 March 1953; married 1975 Barbara; died 14 May 2012.