By Clare Cameron
Anyone following the traditional format photography business might easily consider it to be in a hopeless position today. From the end of Kodachrome in 2010 to news this June that Black’s would be closing all of its retail stores, the world of film photography has not offered up a happy narrative in recent years.
On the face of it, film photography in Niagara has been on the decline like any other region; very few businesses in the area offer film developing services today, and most customers appear to be utilizing online digital photo storage and print services in their place.
Look closer, however, and one will find signs that traditional film photography is far from dead and gone; rather, it appears to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity as a new generation turns to something old that is inevitably new again.
Niagara’s natural areas, landscapes and historical landmarks have long been a draw for photography enthusiasts, and formal camera clubs have existed for many years in Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Port Colborne and Welland.
High school students at the St. Catharines Collegiate are still taught black and white darkroom techniques as a core component of art and photography courses at that institution, while Henry’s in St. Catharines facilitates the development of colour 35mm film via a Fuji facility in Toronto. A limited number of Shoppers Drug Mart outlets continue to offer similar services.
It’s in the niche market, however, that traditional format photography seems to be retaining its hold, and experiencing a comeback. The Niagara Artists Centre (NAC) has been operating a fully functional black and white darkroom for over five years, as a service available for artists to rent. The NAC also offers workshops using found footage on 16mm film as the raw material for new works. Stephen Remus observes that “when it comes to technology, the next thing isn’t always the best thing. Artists should be guided by their ideas, not whatever is being pushed as the latest must-have gadget. We try to keep as many options open for artists as we can.”
Tim from Frederick’s in St. Catharines has also witnessed a film revival take hold for a couple of years now, driven by natural curiosity and the feeling of novelty that customers experience upon discovering traditional techniques: specifically looking for traditional film equipment, even though these services are not formally advertised on the Frederick’s website.
“For people who have grown up with digital, it’s a new thing for them, going in to film. Some of them are exploring this area and like that it doesn’t cost a lot to get the hardware, and even for those who want to do a darkroom at home, it’s very inexpensive to do that stuff compared to what it was in the past.” Beyond novelty and nostalgia, customers are attracted by the economy of old ways; a basic 35mm camera can now be purchased starting at $20, with infinite technical variations possible through add-on lenses. Demand for black and white darkroom equipment has now grown so much that Frederick’s has started restocking development chemicals for the first time in years.
Tim likens the revival in traditional format photography to the recent resurgence of music on vinyl.
“It’s new creativity, it’s not just something that you do on the computer, and in some cases it’s an appreciation for all that manual, hands-on, full control” – but this is more than a demographic trend. While many of Tim’s new traditional format customers belong to a young generation that grew up surrounded by digital technology, he also has plenty of older customers who have kept their interest in traditional film alive through the rise of digital photography.
“Our business is definitely unique in Niagara, because there really isn’t anyone else doing what we’re doing, as far as taking the whole line of photography from the stage of darkroom equipment right to the digital, printing and restoration.” That unique concentration has attracted customers from Hamilton and Toronto who come specifically looking for traditional film equipment, even though these services are not formally advertised on the Frederick’s website.
Frederick’s has been in the photography business for nearly 30 years, and seen the industry change from the rise and fall of one-hour mini labs to the explosion of digital images, with many competitors come and gone in between.
Since the closure of Black’s, Tim has seen a definite increase in inquiries about photo finishing and other services. From his perspective, the critical factor in their survival has been how to recognize change, and respond to it quickly.
For Petar Mateiasevich, sheer frustration with a lack of traditional film photography services in Niagara led him to build his own darkroom at home, which he now uses for work as a photographer and motion picture artist. Word
of mouth has kept him busy too, with friends welcome to use the space for film developing. “I don’t know about turning it in to a business, but certainly for myself, and for anyone that wants to experiment with film, I have a whole
fridge full, so…”
On whether or not there is something unique about Niagara that has particular appeal for traditional format photography, Mateiasevich said, “it’s certainly an older city and an older area, as there’s a lot of history around here. As far as traditional formats, there’s nothing really extraordinary, this is so much like other places in Canada, the small towns – but it’s cool that we’re so close to the border and that millions of people come through this area every year. It has the feel of a bigger city, but in a smaller town.”
In recent years, Mateiasevich has observed an upswing in “independent creators” working in Niagara, who find themselves able to produce more with a lower cost of living compared to Toronto or the West Coast.
“When I grew up, this was a a blue collar town, there were factories and foundries, and now that so much of that is gone to China or Mexico, we’ve come to rely a lot more on tourism and there’s certainly a lot more creative stuff going on […] it’s good to see signs of new things happening here.”
Mateiasevich cites Giant Shoe Creative as an example of this resurgence, an independent creative agency located on St. Paul St. in St. Catharines providing smart design and photography services to a wide range of local and international clients.
On his preferred subject matter for photography in the area, Mateiasevich sticks to the classics: “my go-to place is the gorge; it’s a giant canyon pretty much.” The Niagara Escarpment and its many hiking trails provide a balance for his regular trips to New York City for more urban scenery.
Considering the future of traditional format photography and other creative pursuits in Niagara, Mateiasevich said it all boils down to attracting talent to this area, as so many people can be drawn to the bigger size and faster pace of Toronto instead.
With photography and film, “I’m going where the work takes me,” he explained.
“But eventually I do want to sustain myself in one spot and travel a bit…that’s the nature of the work,” he said.
Driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, Mateiasevich imagines that if someone is able to open their own traditional photography shop, they may be able to capitalize on this gap in services; as Tim has discovered, there is unexpected life in the world of traditional format film.
As for advice to those who are keen on film photography in Niagara?
“Take lots of pictures,” Mateiasevich said, “and research the greats. Get inspired by them.” In a little while longer who knows what will develop.