An Analog Swan Song

E-Six Lab in Atlanta

At the beginning of the year Atlanta lost its last E6 lab, which was named (with great imagination) E-Six Lab.

(If you don’t know, the E6 Process was the photographic means of processing a piece of transparency film, which is commonly referred to as a slide. I have many fond memories of the late 90s, working as a photo assistant, driving my craptastic 1974 Volvo 164E over to E-Six Lab and picking up gorgeous 8×10 chromes for a photographer who specialized in shooting bottles for Coca-Cola. He wasn’t a cheap skate, and lunch always fricking rocked, a not inconsiderable luxury when you’re a broke ass photo assistant. Note to current photo assistants: if the photographer makes you buy your own lunch, it’s time for a divorce.)

Then, in April, Showcase Photo/Video closed their film processing and printing lab. They were, as far as I can tell, the final analog photography business to fall in Atlanta after a decade of change that has truly rocked the photography world.

To give you some perspective on just how much has changed, and how quickly, we can rewind to 2003, just ten years ago when the first affordable digital cameras came along in the form of the Canon 10D (which hit the market on Feb 27, 2003) and the Nikon D100 (a few months earlier).

Black had white labs had of course existed for almost a century, although most professional photographers chose to do the processing themselves. With the proliferation of color negative technology in the 1960s (which was considerably more difficult to process and print in house) the commercial pro labs were born.

For decades there were dozens of mom and pop wedding and portrait labs all around the country. Their business model was to sell film to the photographer, then process it, proof it, and make final enlargements. For the photographer this meant endless trips back and forth to the labs, tedious sorting, filing and storage of negatives. Retouching was rarely considered except in extreme cases or for clients like magazines who had staff pros to handle the work.

This was a business model that remained unchanged for decades. Shoot film, drop at lab, pick up proofs, edit proofs, order enlargements. Lots of manual labor to help employ other human beings.

The digital era dawned in the late 1990s, with cameras that cost a ton of money and produced marginal quality images. Fast forward to 2002 when digital SLRs hit the price and performance standards of most working pros. All of the sudden, wedding photographers were using inexpensive 6MP cameras that equalled the quality of their beloved Hasselblads.

Now, even if you loved your film, the advantage of a $1500 digital camera over a $20 roll of process and proof was obvious: no cost of sales (except for labor, which has to be included in either equation but which digital photographers seem somehow willing to absorb without compensation). You could make 100 photos as easily and at far less cost than you could make 10. Make a ton of pictures, take a ton of chances. Don’t like them? Hit the delete key.

Four layers of profit for the Mom and Pop portrait and wedding labs had just vaporized: film sales; film processing; proof printing; and, ultimately, enlargements. Their whole business model vanished inside of two years.

In Atlanta c.1999, there were five color labs less than 10 miles from my house, each employing about a dozen people. By 2005, they were all gone. There were many, many more around Atlanta, now all gone as well. I would estimate the number of people put out of work by this tectonic shift to be close to one thousand, just in the Atlanta metro area. Globally, it must have been millions. A very few of the clever labs merged and invested in new equipment to take all these digital files and make prints. (More on this later.)

The lab which had previously handled my processing and printing was calling me, literally begging for rolls of film. In 2002 they had made a huge investment in a state of the art Mitsubishi machine that processed film but could not output from a digital file. They were probably lucky to get five cents on the dollar for it two years later when they closed their doors. Brutal.

We all tend to get a bit misty when we think about humans displaced by technology. It seems terribly sad, unjust, and what if we are next?

Let me ask you this: when was the last time that you rented a video in a video store? It’s probably been years. When was the last time you even saw a video store? I’m sure a few still exist, but most of them are long gone. You know why? It’s because you and virtually every other human in America found an easier way to rent videos. It’s called Netflix, and they managed (along with the iTunes Music Store) to slay Blockbuster, the one time Goliath of music and video.

I’ve got many more thoughts on this revolution in photography, which I will share with you some time soon. Thanks for stopping by!