Words Kirk Truman
Photography Paul Vickery
“It was sort of accidental. I did go to Art College in Bournemouth, I moved up to London in the 1980’s and sort of drifted…”
Underneath the tarmac that has come to hide the traditional cobbles, once braving the four seasons of Fitzrovia’s Foley Street, is a man who, for just over twenty years now, has been following something equally traditional; with only a red light and a radio to keep him company. It is, what I assume, by the event of a miracle and sheer aptitude that printer, Peter Guest, has remained patient and sane. Peter allows very few members of the general public to visit him, only his much valued array of professionals are regulars to his darkroom. I visit Peter for tea and a crash course in old school photography.
I make my way down into the cellar of 24/25 Foley Street. It gets progressively quieter until silent; except for the occasional faint roar of a passing motorbike is clear overhead. Peter, emerging from a revolving door, greets me, whilst keeping the darkroom free of natural light. There are tall stacks of magazines around me; Jocks & Nerds, Pop, Italian Vogue and numerous cycling magazines, like Rouleur; more prints than there are magazines, and enough stock film-negatives from Peter’s clients to rework The Maltese Falcon. There is an odd scent about the air. It is the darkroom, and the distinctive flavour of something really quite ‘niche’, as Peter would put it, the developing of photographs. I am shown about the small corridors of the cellar, passing the covers of numerous magazines, presumably left by clients. There is a back-room where a bike is kept. Peter has two darkrooms, both of which are the building’s traditional storage pits for coal: “’Round the corner at the end there’s another darkroom, it’s just like this one, but it’s not as big. I use it solely for contacting [making contact sheets],” he says. All of this points to the making of a family man, a keen cyclist, an underlying creative.
Peter arrived on Foley Street in 1993, having worked in the trade for over 20 years, and The Image began; though he was not alone then. “I’m here nowadays on my own, though I did used to have other people working for me, but now I’m very much a one man band, although my wife comes down and does the books and bits and pieces which helps me out.” Originally from Dorset, Peter went to Arts College in Bournemouth and moved up to London in the 1980s. When moving to London he had various jobs, though, as he would put it, pursued ‘nothing terribly interesting’. “One day I met somebody who spoke to me about dispatch riding on a push bike and I thought: ‘oh, that could be interesting, I could probably do that!’” He rode around the West End, client-to-client for a couple of years until, one day, a client, black and white printer Kevin Tobin-Dougan, invited him to take a look at his new darkroom on Lexington Street: “He said he was looking to take on an assistant. I went away and I thought ‘I’m going to go back and ask if I could have that job!’” Peter worked alongside Kevin for some time until he chose to leave the trade, leaving Peter the opportunity to start his own studio. Today he works alone, quietly, in the minimal setting of the studio; through his own technique, he is very much at home in his work.
Very few darkrooms have come to survive in the modern age, and the revolution of the new and, all too often, favoured digital format. “With digital photography there is so much you can do, though, equally, it cannot replicate what film can do. I’ve always had lots of work; the high-end magazines tend to use older photographers who generally only use film.” I tell him that digital photography is an infrequent hobby of mine; that I’m no photographer, though I do dabble. I ask Peter about the process from developing the film to creating a finished print. He brings a negative (‘neg’) into focus in his enlarger: “it’s made up of what you call grain, what I’m really looking for is the grain in the emulsion and bringing it into focus.” He begins to move his fingers and palms around the light as he exposes the photo paper to the image on the ‘neg’. I observe in awe. His hands flex and bend, they turn and they reshape, as if he were conducting a symphony; the uneven figure of a tentative portrait, the practice of worship. It is the only image that he doesn’t see on a negative, the alluring one I witness as Peter manually ‘dodges’ and ‘burns’ the image. He transfers the photo paper into the liquid developer, seconds pass and we talk on. I peer down at the paper as the image of the subject appears on the paper. The subject is a Scottish novelist (now deceased), the photograph was taken somewhere between the late ‘70s and the early ‘80s. I ask him who the photographer is, startlingly he tells me, “…but it’s sort of something I’d rather keep under wraps. I have to be very discreet about who I’m working for. Photographers are lovely people but they’re quite sensitive about who’s doing their work.”
Despite his online following and the occasional querying prowler, such as myself, Peter’s preference is strictly not to publicise his studio but for the users of this rare trade to find him somewhere along the celluloid trail. I talk to him about where the majority of his work comes from: “Currently, I’m doing an editorial for a French magazine called Número, but I get less of this type of work these days. The majority of my work is actually all negatives from people’s archives which I’m working on for exhibitions, fine art galleries, art books and photographers’ own portfolios. Most of my clients are ‘old school’ but younger photographers are now discovering this format, eager to find a point of difference and something less homogenised than digital photography. And that brings them back to the original art of image creation using light and chemistry. Many of his clients are regulars; he doesn’t feel the need to seek any more work than he has already. He goes on to explain that his work is very much back-to-back, that he has more than enough to keep him busy.
I look further around the room, where photographs left and right are left to dry amid the murmur of the radio, and ask the curious question of how Peter deals with spending so much time in the dark: “I’m not seeing much daylight generally but, in some ways, it can be very therapeutic!” He laughs, “I find that it’s one of the reasons I’m a very keen cyclist. I live in Kingston so I cycle in [to Fitzrovia] every day through Richmond Park. Cycling gives me a good feeling of the outdoors and getting a bit of fresh air really. It’s actually quite a sociable job in a lot of ways, I get a lot people coming down here like yourself and photographers coming and going.” There is a feeling of calm and wonder in the studio that I haven’t encountered before, that is lived and breathed by the man himself. Day-by-day Peter watches on as he develops the negatives and slowly the faces, locations and intricate workings of the lives of others unfold beneath him, in photographs taken by his clients. That wonder, which must circle in him, fills the studio. It is a perceptive emporium of the lives of others, a place where the impressions taken of dissimilar beings flourish, in this uncanny format of photography.
Having first met Peter a year ago, I remember that fresh feeling of intrigue and surprise to hear that there was a darkroom in our neighbourhood. I felt then, as so many people do now when I tell them what lies beneath Foley Street, curious. “I don’t think there’s ever been a particularly rich black and white printer!” Laughs Peter, “it is a passion, I do really love it, though it’s not the only thing in my life, I am down here a lot of the time, but I’ve got the wife and family to take care of!”
The reality is, unless you are a black and white photographer, you will never set foot in a curious place such as Peter’s darkroom, for this I consider it a pleasure to have experienced what is a rare and, all too often, found to be dead profession. You may read this and take from it what you will. There is a magic in Peter’s work that, in talking to him further, I realise he accepts as a common practice. I ask him whether he considers what he does to be as fascinating as I perceive. “No, not really!” he laughs. With every movement of his fingertips and palms he physically perfects, dodges and burns photographs for his clients. “The whole business is incredibly time consuming. The process of creating each print can take up to an hour.” He then develops, dries, flattens and retouches them, solely by hand, ready for collection. There is an element of his work that I feel is equal to his need to cycle and his infrequent references to his family. It is a passion and Peter Guest is very much at home in his image.