Adrian Ensor sitting on stairs outside his basement darkroom on Grafton Way.
Adrain Ensor outside his darkroom in Grafton Way. Photo: Tori.

Adrian Ensor is one of Britain’s finest black and white photographic printers and has been working in his basement darkroom just off Fitzroy Square for over 50 years. Over these five decades Adrian has developed a deep and intuitive understanding of the mysterious alchemy that makes black and white photography work, as a new exhibition this month reveals.

A two time winner of the prestigious Ilford Printer of the Year Award, he is the author of the highly acclaimed bible of darkroom techniques Advanced Processing and Printing. It is no surprise that his consummate skills attract leading photographers, not only from the UK, but from around the world.

Around 30 years ago, Adrian started taking his own photographs seriously, and the quite wonderful fruits of this endeavour can be seen in the exhibition Fifty Years On, curated by Mayfair and Soho gallerist Anthony Reynolds, for one day only on Wednesday 30 June 2021, at The Fitzrovia Chapel.

Born in South Woodford, Adrian left school at 15 and helped his uncle, a wedding photographer. He managed to get a position at Crawford Advertising in Holborn, through the good services of his Auntie Gladys, moving on to Derek Robinson in Marylebone. Derek was Adrian’s mentor and taught him not only how to print photographs, but also turned him on to the heady pleasures of jazz and fine wine. After a period at Primrose Hill Studios, in 1971 he branched out on his own, and managed to lease a basement studio in Grafton Way, where he still works today. In the early days he would take his portfolio around photographers, and had soon built up a clientele that included Brian Duffy, one of the top fashion and portrait photographers of the ’60s and ’70s, and top advertising agencies, whose prints he would deliver in his Ford Consul.

The technical skills and sensitivity to the vision of the photographer shown by the printer cannot be underestimated in the creation of great photographs. In the same way a master etcher or lithographer might work with a visual artist, a photographic printer who understands the precise aesthetic of the photographer is essential. One glance at the many examples of famous photographs that he printed, to be seen in his book Advanced Processing and Printing, shows the often tiny tonal nuances that create iconic photographs. Analysis of Gered Mankowitz’s famous portraits of Jimi Hendrix show that five different areas were exposed for different periods to achieve the desired effect; similarly a haunting photograph by John Stoddart of actor Harry Dean Stanton is the result of finding the perfect combination of developer / exposure / paper and many other factors.

Also of course, all this is on film. No digital imagery, no checking a photograph is OK immediately after taking it, no digital filters and no Photoshop-type applications to improve the shot. The photographer would have no idea if his photographs had worked until the following day after Adrian had worked his magic. Rather like a film director checking out the day’s filming on the rushes in the evening.

Adrian’s expertise has been in demand by many top photographers, including: Clive Arrowsmith (known for his music and celebrity images of everyone from Mick Jagger to Daniel Barenboim); John Claridge (renowned for his gritty photos of the East End, and his even grittier portraits of Soho people, this writer included, often taken in a ‘studio’ in the landlady’s flat above The French House on Dean Street); John Deakin (Soho character who took many photos at the behest of Francis Bacon that were used as the basis of his paintings); Jack Lowe (famous for his unrivalled access to John and Jackie Kennedy, and his intimate and informal photographs of the family).

Another branch of Adrian’s career is his work with leading artists, for many of whom photography is central to their practice. These include: Richard Deacon, Hamish Fulton, John Hilliard and Sir Richard Long.

The catalyst to Adrian taking his own photos came over 30 years ago, with the loss of his beloved dog Billy, which prompted him to go walking with his Rolleiflex camera instead. These poignant, dreamlike Yorkshire landscapes became the basis of his first photographic monograph Billy’s Walk, and the start of a photographic journey that has taken Adrian around England, across Ireland, to Belgium, Spain and back to London. Always trying to stay true to early photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s maxim that ‘The image should reveal what you saw and felt at the time’, Adrian has created several important photographic essays that have been published as books and will be represented in his forthcoming exhibition.

In the late 1990s, Adrian started to take photographs of the people he met locally resulting in Fitzrovia Portraits which includes many faces that will be familiar to Fitzrovia News readers. Adrian’s love of Fitzrovia and his genuine interest in the people who live here come across in this large body of work, and he tells fond stories of his conversations with them.

He took portraits of the denizens of Fitzrovia and the small shops, several now gone but many still around and thriving.

One of those in the collection is Savvas, who used to run the chaotic looking cobblers on Cleveland Street, and had an informal drop in party every Thursday; and his successor Darren against the smart red livery of the eponymous Brodies, a transformation from its previous dishevelled charm.

He captured Christine in her New Cavendish Street convenience shop, which she cheekily re-named Christine’s Express when a ‘Tesco Express’ opened across the road, competing with the trade she was doing.

There’s Keith, the old school knight of the road who always had ‘all the time in the world’, and would think nothing of walking to the West Country, or even Fort William, and once made it all the way to Africa without a passport.

Henry, a much loved Fitzrovia character who lived in Holcroft Court, famous for his impromptu parties and his flower arranging skills and often to be seen pushing his shopping trolley around Fitzrovia.

Then there are the two Ranis who ran the much-missed artists’ supply and general store on Cleveland Street, currently being transformed into luxury flats; Paul Kitsaris, the tailor, and his colleague Chuck B, looking stylish and resplendent in their elegant bespoke suits; Bob the Builder standing smartly to attention, a legacy of his army service in Malaysia and Singapore, outside the front door of a Fitzroy Square mansion; and Darren the Bobby (aka Bobby Darren – geddit?) standing outside the launderette in Cleveland Street.

On the other side of the law he met and photographed Gangster Freddie Forman (the man who murdered Frank ‘Mad Axeman’ Mitchell) and three friends at The Grafton Hotel. Apparently this photo op came via Cliff, a former associate of the Kray Twins and pal of Adrian’s and who used to sell flowers outside Warren Street Station (and learnt his trade from great train robber Buster Edwards). Adrian recalls that while taking the photo, a car backfired and the assembled company all jumped out of their skins! Adrian attended great train robber Bruce Reynolds’ funeral and still has the medallion in the form of a mailbag that was given to all the mourners.

Another series of photographs is devoted to Fitzroy Square which he has been closely observing for around fifty years, and it shows in every one of the prints. His interpretation and vision as a photographer, and consummate skill in the darkroom has created a tonal tribute to the Square. Shadows are everywhere: sometimes sharply defined and angular, sometimes dappled and soft, they become as important as the objects that created them and contribute to the inherent mystery of the story Adrian is telling.

Not a soul to be seen, like a Giorgio de Chirico Piazza, the main characters are the buildings, the trees and the ironwork. The palette of velvety blacks and seductive greys combined with the cinematic framing and low viewpoints put me in mind of a storyboard for a Film Noir. I imagine a figure concealed in the shadows, perhaps, or a profile just visible at a dark window.

Adrian manages to capture the opulent grandeur of the Georgian architecture while suggesting an alternative narrative that isn’t immediately apparent, by finding chiaroscuro in almost every shot. Sun drenched buildings stand out against dark, ominous skies; Classical symmetry vies with the organic randomness of the flora; street furniture and railings create almost impossibly beautiful shadows; and of course, the quite wonderful juxtaposition of our beloved but clunky BT Tower (looking like a prop from Thunderbirds) with the graceful severity of an Adam façade.

His website has a gallery of his other work. In Monumental London he photographed London statuary, nearly all taken at night: dramatic images that make the city look like film director Carol Reed’s Vienna, in The Third Man.

During 2019 he took photographs at Varengeville-sur-Mer. This French town boasts connections with the painters Georges Braque and Claude Monet. Years of coastal erosion have caused rocks to fall from the vertical cliffs to the shore below and created a series of still lives, like so many Henry Moore sculptures, waiting patiently to be transformed into graphic works of art.

In Journey from East Clare he travelled from East Clare to the island of Innishmean off the coast of Donegal, Ireland in the summer of 1994 to photograph a suit in a wardrobe in a humble stone cottage, capturing the people and the landscape along the way.

Adrian told me that he has ‘always felt at home in this manor’, and four years ago he discovered a possible reason for this, that was previously completely unknown to him. In an interesting twist with a local flavour, he found out that his grandfather was born at 100 Great Titchfield Street. Not only that, but his great grandfather William ‘Billy’ Ensor, a greengrocer, was ‘indicted for breaking and entering a dwelling house in Putney’. A contemporary newspaper report explains that Billy and his cronies ‘were all well known thieves, and kept a fast horse to assist them in their robberies’.

Fifty Years On can be seen on Wednesday 30 June, and from from 11am to 4pm Monday 26 July to Thursday 29 July 2021, at The Fitzrovia Chapel, Fitzroy Place, 2 Pearson Square, London W1T 3BE. Entrance is free. See also adrianensor.com