Master Mono Darkroom 

On Southgate Road in the heart of De Beauvoir Town is Master Mono Darkroom, offering professional black and white film services, including processing, printing, retouching, toning and hand-colouring.

Owned by Melvin Cambettie Davies, the studio welcomes private and commercial customers and takes on a range of work, from retouching family photos to producing large-scale prints for exhibitions.

Melvin is an expert in silver-gelatin printing and has over 50 years’ experience of handcrafting images, processing film, retouching photographs and printing. He is a published author and won the ‘Kodak Gold Award for Excellence in Printing’ for five years running.

Master Mono Darkroom is commissioned to create prints from originals for esteemed clients, including the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, Australian photographer and adventurer Frank Hurley, and Hollywood photographer Frank Worth.

“One of the things I love about this job is that I never know who is going to walk through the door or be on the end of the phone next. I see people from all walks of life with all sorts of work, it’s fascinating,” Melvin said.

His journey into photography and printing began at an early age. “As a child, I wanted to join the RAF. I was in air cadets and was mad about aircraft” Melvin explained. “But I didn’t get the grades I needed and so took a messenger job for a photographic company called Waverton Ltd.

“I started learning how to make prints from glass plate negatives, as well as other techniques, and I was assisting brands and commercial clients. I soon discovered I had a real interest in it all.

“I later took a job with another printing firm and learnt different print techniques, many that have started to die out now with the rise of digital photography.

“I got hooked, absolutely loved the work, and that’s where my passion for printing began” Melvin recalls.

“From there I started experimenting and practicing more and more, taking my own pictures and printing those, as well as processing a range of different work.

“I set up as Master Mono Darkroom in 1978 and have been going strong ever since. The thing I love about traditional print over digital images is how tactile they are, and no two images are ever identical. I think that gives them character.”

Master Mono Darkroom is a team of two; Melvin and his assistant John Sabiston, who works on retouching and hand-colouring.

Over the years, Melvin has worked from locations across London. He was looking for larger premises when a friend suggested the Benyon Estate.

“A friend of mine works as an estate agent and told me about a property available on Southgate Road. So, I contacted the Benyon Estate, who were refurbishing the property at the time.

“As the works were ongoing, I had the opportunity to have some input which was fantastic, it was a blank canvas. The result is a perfect custom-built darkroom and studio. There’s plenty of light in the studio, then I have a spacious darkroom out the back.

It was a nervous time for me before I moved here, as I was without a place to work and therefore no income for three weeks while works completed, but the Benyon Estate were really efficient and helpful.

I’ve been here since 2010 and have no plans to move anytime soon!”

In 1994, Melvin had his reference text Toning and Tinting Made Easy published.

He explained, “when I began learning about photo toning, there wasn’t much information out there. People that were doing it wanted to keep it quiet so not to lose business to competitors, and that’s what led me to begin my research and start the book.

“It’s a culmination of over eight years of work. I want to make sure these old techniques and skills don’t die out.”

In addition to his work, Melvin also runs workshops and short courses on the photographic process, from beginners to advanced levels.

He also regularly takes on students for internships or work experience and teaches them printing skills and techniques, such as silver-gelatin printing, printing from glass plate negatives and hand colouring.

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Studio photographs by Victoria Roper.
Prints photographed by Christopher Robinson.