This In Focus interview is with Dave Champion of Black & White Basement and was conducted by Sarah Fitzgerald-Jones.  Sarah says :-

“The dark room” these words alone would captivate pretty much any photographer.
Not so long ago I was very fortunate enough to talk to this really interesting man from “Black & White Basement” based in London, the mans name being “Keith Lyons”, we chatted and I was immediately fascinated.
“Black and White Basement” happens to be an incredible place where the use of the dark room comes to life specialising in traditional dark room skills and much much more.
After talking some more one of the tutors there “Dave Champion” agreed to do an interview with us at the NPS all about his role in the use of analogue photography, developing, printing and his own journey leading him up to where he is today.
I promise you will find this absolutely fascinating. Have you ever used film? Ever wanted to try? Read on, I can bet once you have finished reading this you will be feeling an urge to get that old film camera out and see the magic for yourself ( I have had a go and I loved it!)
Photo credit to “Brett” and many thanks to Dave Champion for his time in this interview.


1: It’s an absolute pleasure having you do an interview with us at the NPS. You are a man who has worked many years in the photographic industry and right now we see the beautiful revival of film and the use of the dark room. Why do you think now we are having such a revival?

Digital technology is incredible but now it has been around for long enough that the novelty has worn off. We know it is amazing and we have whole heartedly embraced it. We can create superb images effortlessly with a phone, which is fine if you just want a photograph but if you want to explore image making then you may consider shooting on film. This revival is not just in photography, it is all kinds of analogue technology. Our brains are analogue so rolls of film or vinyl records feel right to us; they use processes that we can easily understand. Digital technology is a bit like learning a foreign language, we can learn it and understand it perfectly but it will never feel as warm and cosy as our first language.

2: The use of a dark room is something many photographers have never ever used since the age of digital or even before when people could send their films off for processing. Tell us about the magic analogue processing can bring in the dark room.

When I make a digital image I feel like a manager, I am in charge but I delegate a lot of the responsibility to my equipment! When I work in the darkroom it is just me, what I create is all my own effort and that still gives me tremendous satisfaction.

Anyone who has ever shut the door of a darkroom will tell you that time becomes distorted; hours can pass in what feels like minutes, a day can be too short for what you want to achieve and it can become very addictive. The best bit is watching the image appear when the paper is in the developing tray; I never get tired of that moment.

3: You teach the use of the dark room at the Black & White Basement in London, is this as complicated as many would think? What would pull us into learning this form of art?

The technique is not complicated, developing a film and making a print can be learnt in one day, refining the skills that allow photographic masterpieces to be made can take a life time; if it was all too easy we would soon get bored with it.

There is no need to spend a long time learning before we can see our first result so we get satisfaction right from the start and then can enjoy improving what we do.

4: So tell us a bit more about Black & White Basement and what you and Keith offer there to the members of the public?

Black & White Basement is located in St Johns Wood just along the road from Abbey Road Studios.

Keith has been in the photographic printing business since the early 1970s and moved into the current building in 1976 – he used to run Lab 120 from here and also ran Lab 35 in Milton Keynes. With the advent of digital eventually those traditional colour labs became unviable so were closed but Keith continued to offer black and white developing and printing at the London base.

Today Black & White Basement is always busy and offers hand line film developing and hand printing up to 20×24 inch on both resin and fibre paper.

Developed films can be scanned to high resolution but traditional contact sheets remain very popular.

We make hand enlargements from all negative formats up to 5×4 inch and also provide darkroom hire and darkroom tuition at really good prices.

The Basement is currently well into a major makeover that has become necessary because of the steadily increasing business of which darkroom hire and tuition is a large proportion.

We have four darkrooms – one of which is dedicated to film developing, a digital suite, print finishing area, customer reception complete with comfy chairs and a coffee machine, and a lot of enthusiasm.

Working in photography has never seemed like real work to me, real work can’t be this much fun, BWB is no exception I get to meet amazing people with so much creativity and imagination almost every day.

5: So how about you? After chatting with you recently I know photography is certainly something you grew up with. You did an exhibition “The Father, The Son and the folding camera”, now the title alone has got me captivated, would you share with us a little more about this?

This could be a very long story so I will try to keep it as brief as possible.

In 1930 my Dad bought a rather nice Kodak folding camera. During the next ten years he took a lot of photographs of places he went and people he met. After the war he met my Mum and the camera took pictures of me in my pram, etc. At the age of four I took my first photograph with that camera (with a bit of help), I still have a damaged print but I cannot find the negative.

When I started my own exploring I was given the camera and I used it until the 116 size film became impossible to get. Today I still have the camera and it works perfectly after nearly ninety years, and I have several thousand negatives that it took, the negatives from the 1930s spent many years in a large biscuit tin in the shed but they have survived in reasonable condition.

A few years ago I thought it would be nice to select some images to tell the story of one camera’s life. The exhibition was very well received and now I am slowly working on a book. That camera was responsible for making me a photographer but as a teenager I did not realise it, at that time they were just snaps and I had little idea what the settings did, I had settings for bright, dull and really dull; it seemed to work well enough.

6: And right to the here and now, you have worked as a commercial photographer for many years, you have taught and still teach and so much more, what about your own personal projects? What do you like to do?

I have always enjoyed experimenting. Pinhole photography is something I have done for many years; I have made my own cameras in formats from matchbox size up to 10×8 inch. Currently I am working with a 10×8 camera that flat packs so I can carry it along with all the stuff necessary to shoot a negative, process it and then make a contact print. The camera also acts as my contact printer and it has several different size pinholes so I can control the printing exposure. It may sound as if I carry a whole darkroom around but it is actually not that much stuff. It all fits in a rucksack and two pannier bags with enough room left for a tent and sleeping bag. It is huge fun making an image that somehow becomes rooted to the place of its birth, I often leave a print behind and wonder if anyone will find it and maybe take it home.

I am also making books of toned cyanotype prints from images captured with a sixty year old Leica, which I was given!  But that is another long story.

7: Finally for anybody considering going into the use of film cameras, developing and printing. What’s your best bit of advice right from finding the right camera to plunge of the “Dark Room”?

Different people will want to approach this in different ways; the most important thing must be to think about why you are doing it and what you want to get from it.

Choosing the right camera is important; don’t buy the first one you see.  There are plenty to choose from and plenty of information on line about them. If you are looking for a 35mm SLR I would avoid the later complex electronic ones; many are over complicated, the electronics are old now and are likely to fail. Also avoid anything that uses “Advantix” film. Anything else is fair game if it is in good condition. Look for a camera that is clean and has no dents, scratches or obvious wear. Check all the functions and look through the lens; it should be clean, un-scratched and dust free. If you are not sure then buy from a dealer and you will get a guarantee.

Using an old box camera or a shoe box with a pinhole poked in it can be great fun but they come with limitations so you definitely need to know what kind of photography interests you before you get the camera.

Developing film can easily be done at home, it does not need much equipment and there is no need for a darkroom, the film can be loaded into the developing tank in a changing bag and then it is all done in normal light.

Setting up a darkroom for printing is a bit more difficult; traditionally people convert their bathrooms, which is not that hard especially if the bathroom does not have a window. But when not in use the darkroom has to be stored somewhere.

Help and advice can come from local photographic clubs; there are more than you realise and if you are looking for tuition or darkroom hire; start with the on line Local Darkroom finder http://www.localdarkroom.com/index.php

Black & White Basement are also introducing new things all the time with the room’s they have available, recently they are now able to offer people a 2 hour film processing session using all of the specialist equipment they have and if you need or require any guidance there is someone always on hand, don’t forget to check out their website for more information on tuition and darkroom hire, these wonderful people are very helpful and aim to support and give you the absolute best.

More information is on their website www.bwbasement.com and their FaceBook page can be found at www.facebook.com/bwbasement