If you spend any amount of time surfing the bevy of analog photography hashtags on Instagram, you may have come across Omer Hecht and CatLABS. While he may be recognizable by his distinctive forearm tattoos, there’s more behind the smiling cat logo than some killer ink and a flair for vintage cameras. As one of the few remaining American dealers in photographic lab gear and large format equipment, CabLABS is helping to shape the brave new world of the post-digital analog film market.
“Ten years ago when I explained what we do, people were surprised. And perhaps we were too, a bit.”
I was lucky enough to catch up with Omer in his Jamaica Plain shop, a wonderland of vintage photographic tools and ephemera. We talked about where it all started for Omer, his passion for traditional photographic methods, and what the future might hold for film.
First I just want to say, thanks for speaking with us. I’m excited to get into it. How long have you been operating CatLABS?
CatLABS started in its current format in 2011.
How did you get your start in the photography and lab supply business?
I went to school on the cusp of the digital revolution, which meant I had a very rudimentary digital technology education, as digital was only emerging, but I did get a fully immersed education when it came to traditional photographic technology.
By the time I graduated, however, the market had completely shifted. Many of the service providers for the traditional photographic world seemed to have retired, closed down or just disappeared as a result of the “digital revolution.” Though the large market forces had shifted, there were still many students, enthusiasts, and working photographers who had built their art and practice on film and relied on the commercial film photography infrastructure. This incongruity created a niche demand for people who had my knowledge and experience. I worked in a camera store part-time through college to help pay tuition, and that experience, combined with my education, made the transition to what CatLABS does today feel natural.
What was it like working in the industry during the commercial transition from film to digital?
It was mostly a sad time of decline. Digital cameras replaced the physical logistics of film with a new medium — the digital sensor — that fit neatly into a computer-based workflow. But this speed and convenience was really all it had over film. The actual image quality of the first professional digital cameras was far inferior to film, and improvements in digital quality since have been very incremental. With that said, digital did open the door to many new young photographers, in photojournalism and art, who before the advent of affordable digital cameras may have been technologically excluded. Film is inherently slower and requires special equipment, and learning to shoot film — especially in a fully analog, darkroom-printing environment — takes time and resources which may have been altogether unavailable to them to even get started. From my perspective, though, the industry never fully transitioned to digital, other than perhaps the “consumer world.”
“The challenge for future analog photographers isn’t film, it’s cameras. At one point huge global corporations were throwing everything they had into film camera R&D, employing legions of engineers who were building on decades of embodied knowledge. We will never have that again.”
I think of 2005 — the year Canon’s EOS 5D was released — as symbolically marking the turning point, but was the writing on the wall for labs earlier?
One of my college professors used to say the end of the film era was the day consumer-level photographers, that is, tourists and avid amateurs who walked around with cameras dangling from hootenanny over their bellies, discovered digital and stopped buying slide film. Slides, transparency film, was a whole thing. People would go on a trip, shoot slides, and then couldn’t wait to get home and huddle with friends and family around the slide projector in the kitchen so they could reminisce about where aunty Edna leaned on a doorway, or where uncle Bill just had to pee behind some tree, and how funny was that waiter who didn’t understand what we ordered? — oh, and look at that silly face the kids made. And people very much couldn’t wait. To the point that the commercial demand for processing was able to support one-hour photo booths and kiosks in every neighborhood. One-hour photo shops were more prevalent then than Starbucks are today.
But, as soon as consumers stopped buying slide film, they also stopped rushing to the one-hour service shops, and from there on it was a fast decline to oblivion. The consumer market was the largest buyer of film, and when they disappeared the market went away with them. Pros and commercial photographers might have been important customers, but in terms of volume they were meaningless. Digital did sell into market segments that previously might not have ever owned a camera, kind of like the iPod did, but in the long run, it seems like it failed to create a lasting sustainable market, with sales of dedicated digital cameras plummeting year after year from their peak some years ago. Perhaps this is in favor of smartphones. Whatever the reason, traditional photography seemed to have a dedicated customer base who not only stuck with it, but who were able to attract a whole new crowd, a crowd which largely grew up after the digital revolution and had no recollection of a world where analog photography was a mainstay. Much like for Kodak and Polaroid, indeed, the writing was on the wall for everyone to see. In my experience, I saw three types of labs and photo industry people:
- Inflexible people who were too set in their ways to move with the times, they went away very fast.
- People who abandoned film right away trying to jump ahead of the trend, and just said: film is gone and never coming back.
- People who kept film labs going, on a low burner, and never expected it to be a major part of their business, but did it anyway. Obviously, today, they are thriving, as are others, who are interested in providing this much needed service.
Businesses that were too big and required thousands of rolls a day to maintain a sustainable cash flow were doomed. The world is different today. But Fuji, Agfa and Kodak in their wisdom, did in fact anticipate this brave new world, and all throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s came out with lab machines that could easily run with smaller and smaller quantities, yet maintain a massive workload capacity should the need ever arise. Sadly, only a few of those machines still survive, but where they do, you can see a new wave of business and sustainability. In fact, the bottlenecks of todays “analog industry” are in supplying enough films to buyers and having enough capacity to process all this film professionally or supply all the home processing needs. The demand at the moment appears to outstrip the supply in many aspects.
Now that the dust has settled from the initial turmoil of the digital photography revolution, there’s a renewed interest in film by hobbyists and pros alike. Did this resurgence come as a surprise?
About 10 years ago when I explained what we do, people were surprised. And perhaps we were too, a bit. We called it an “emerging market” as if we were dealing with some Fortune 500-level business. But it very quickly changed. When people ask me today “is film is coming back?” or “do people still shoot film?” I answer that from where I am sitting, people never stopped shooting film, and everyone I come across shoots film. From my window into the world, there are only film shooters out there. Digital photography is a consumer market, something you can buy at a supermarket or big box store. It has little or nothing to do with photography.
With that said, vinyl, which was once doomed and lamented in the same way film was not long ago is now prominently displayed as a consumer product at big box stores and Amazon. In fact, it seems that many people who buy vinyl records didn’t grow up with a turntable. And let’s not forget that the best-selling film in history, Fuji Instax, is in fact being sold at big box stores as a consumer product. It made the leap from specialty fashion stores into the mainstream world. Perhaps this is in the future of film as well?
“There is a real need and desire for pro labs that could mimic the quality and capability of labs that were common 10-15 years ago.”
Economy packs of Portra 400 at Target. I’ll be there for that.
As long as people put their money where their mouth is, we will be just fine. Thankfully, the loud minority of lamenters and naysayers is a very small share of the people who use and buy film. I think the industry as a whole is a sustainable one which has healthy signs of growth.
When you look at the field, do you see room for new professional labs to open and grow?
Yes. Most pro labs are gone. Many small-time labs are coming in. There is a real need and desire for pro labs that could mimic the quality and capability of labs that were common 10-15 years ago. Some of that quality is not coming back — that’s just part of the new world we live in. And it’s fine because the expectations from most users have adjusted to what’s available. I have no doubt that a real “pro” lab that can capture the needed volume to justify consumer-level pricing would be a successful business in every aspect — processing film, scanning and making high-end consumer prints (gallery and fine-art sales quality prints are arguably a different beast). In the past 5 years we have helped set up several of these kinds of labs, which are thriving and increase their capabilities in quality and number of service offerings all the time.
I know you’re a proponent of home developing, specifically color negative film. What are some of the common myths about home developing? And what should someone who wants to home-develop know before they get started?
Sometimes we hear that people think that color processing at home is impossible, because the chemistry is toxic, or that the process is complex. Ironically, C41 processing is infinitely more forgiving than most BW processes, and the chemistry is far less noxious than most BW materials.
“Seeing film emerge from the tanks, with images, never gets old. It’s like science fiction, like black magic, each and every time.”
It’s true, color processing does require a temperature control system, which can be expensive, but it can also be done on a low budget using various methods. People who take these first steps and discover how easy it is to exceed even the best lab’s quality at home, end up investing a bit in their process. The cost savings of home processing pay back those investments fairly fast. Just multiply your average processing cost of a roll of film (say $10) with how many rolls you will shoot in a year. I shoot 200-300 rolls per year. That means that even at the lowest scale, a $4000 investment, would be paid back in as little as 2 years. If that does not make financial sense, I don’t know what does.
The other misconception is that home processing quality is somehow lower or lacking. The truth is that home processing with good gear and even basic capability, but careful work, will produce superior results every time, especially with some practice.
I know you move a lot of cameras through your site and eBay store. In your experience buying and selling vintage cameras, what is the best value out there right now?
That is a very broad question — in every field and every price range there is a best bang for the buck. Perhaps the universal best value is the camera you only need to buy once — instead of a camera you would need to “upgrade” because you might grow out of, or a camera that needs to be serviced and replaced.
Fair enough. What’s the most overrated camera, then?
Contax T2/T3. Also, all Leicas.
Somehow that doesn’t make me want one less. Sigh… When you shoot film personally, what camera and film combo do you reach for?
I use a Canham DLC 4X5 camera. I like shooting Tri-X 320 (a.k.a. TXP). I have been using this camera and film for nearly 20 years now, and I feel like it is an extension of my arm. More recently, I have been shooting a lot of CatLABS X FILM 80— shameless self-promotion :).
After all this time working in the field, what still excites you about film and photography?
Seeing film emerge from the tanks, with images, never gets old. It’s like science fiction, like black magic, each and every time.
Finally, in your professional opinion, what is the best album to turn up LOUD and jam out to while taking photos with a 4×5 large format camera?
Wow, this is a hard one.
In the past I used to listen to Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf in the darkroom, but never while shooting.
I would have to go with a Tangerine Dream’s Stratosfear for music designed for shooting LF.
About Omer Hecht
Omer Hecht is the founder of the Boston-based CatLABS photographic supply, specializing in traditional photographic equipment, cameras of every vintage and format, as well as film processing and darkroom gear. Check out their CatLABS X superfine grain film (available in 320 speed for 35mm and 80 speed for 120 and sheet film). Follow CatLABS on Instagram @catlabs.of.jp and visit their online shop for more of their latest wares.
This article originally appeared on flashpunk.org // Scott
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