Monday, December 20, 2010

Unintended victims of the digital photo revolution

I spent a bit of time last week with Blurb's newest employee, photographer extraordinaire and proponent of all things AgX, Dan Milnor.  While the digital revolution has been game changing for companies like Blurb, there are downsides as in all industrial progressions.

To Dan, it's the loss of some of the magic and art that make photography his passion.  To traditional photo labs it was really the end of business as they know it.  The latter is what I'd like to blog about today.

Between high school and college I spent some time in Dallas working for a high-volume photo lab, Snap Shots, Inc.  Snap Shots was a wholesale photo processing company, doing business with drug and grocery stores as well as camera shops.  My first job in the photo business was as a film splicer.

As the new kid, I got the hardest, most undesirable job--110 film splicer.  Back in the 70's the definition of a "compact" camera was one that used 110 film.  This was tiny stuff and was difficult to manage once you got it out of the container.  Oh, did I mention that when you spliced film you had to work in total, complete darkness?  No darkroom red lights like you see in the movies or from your college fine art photography program.  We're talking dark here.

So a splicers job was to batch up hundreds of rolls of 110 film into one big reel so it could be processed on a continuous-feed "cine" film processor.  The name came from a repurposing of the machines used to process motion picture films.  Your roll of Christmas shots was heat-spliced with a bunch of other irreplaceable memories by way of a less-than-one-inch piece of tape.  So if any of these splices long Grandma's house pictures from 1975.

It was stressful, sure.  But I developed skills that I still use today.  When you are in total darkness, just like if you are sight-impaired, your other senses take over, primarily your hearing.  I quickly got to the point that if I dropped a small, rolled-up, unprocessed 110 film on the floor among the menagerie of backing papers (yep,  you had to remove the backing paper for each roll before you spliced and many missed the garbage can), I could hear where it dropped and reach directly for it.  That prowess comes in handy in daily life believe it or not. I'm still really good about finding my way around in the dark.

The folks that were the best at this process were blind or semi-blind.  Any photo processing house worth it's salt had a few sight-impaired people that excelled in these kinds of jobs.  When I moved to Seattle and worked on the pro side, I had a film splicer, Juan,  that was great at his task.  And with weddings and other one-chance events, the level of stress was ratcheted up a few notches.  Juan was not only great for the company, he was great for the community.  Film processing gave him a job that made his lack of sight an asset and the opportunity to work in a creative environment.  I'm afraid that these types of jobs have all but gone by the wayside.

I don't always agree with Dan on the virtues of film.  I actually prefer digital from a pure imaging science standpoint.  But I do mourn a bit for the days of analog photography and the businesses associated with it.  And I do feel sorry for the Juans of this world who have lost an opportunity to participate in a visual medium.

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