Developing a Knack for Developing
By Michael Chin
In the back room of Pro Photo Connection, a photography store and processing lab in Orange County, the employees who process film go through hundreds of narratives each day without even realizing it.
It is perhaps not out of ignorance to the images that flash on their screens; it is more out of necessity for the job.
“When I’m looking at these photos, I’m checking for color and exposure,” Danny Goodman, who is in charge of scanning the film, said. “I want the photographer to be able to see the photo and use it as-is, without having to go back into Photoshop and correct it again.”
His eye, like the eyes of the rest of the crew at Pro Photo, has been honed after years of working in the photo lab. Goodman, an average-sized 5-foot-6 Asian man, has been working in labs since 1993, back when Photoshop was still relatively obscure and people still used darkrooms to process film.
Goodman wears an anti-static glove on one hand that prevent his fingerprints from appearing on film. He picks up rolls of color 120, a type of medium format film (medium format is preferred by professionals because the negative is bigger than the standard 35mm, thus allowing more detail to be captured), and inserts it into a machine that sucks the loose film in like a child would slurp up a giant fettuccine noodle.
The images then appear on the screen next to the machine, negatives that have been digitally processed to appear as they would had Goodman used a darkroom and an enlarger to print on photo-sensitive paper. They still use the paper, but it isn’t what you’d imagine –– gone are the days when professional labs would use darkrooms and enlargers, those imagined scenarios burned into antiquity of workers dipping paper in solutions and hanging them to dry.
Gone, too, are professional labs like Pro Photo.
“Not too many labs scan film anymore,” Goodman says. Most photo processing happens digitally now, with computer applications like Adobe Photoshop paving the way for consumers to do the work that Goodman and the rest at Pro Photo had been trained to do for decades based on their eye.
“I’ve seen the transition into digital from film,” Goodman said. “It’s fascinating, but it’s still good to see film’s making a comeback.”
Film’s return to prominence is, in part, due to a recent trend of young people who in a frenzy for postmodernity are returning to tangible mediums like film photography and vinyl records. Though one can inevitably always see a few hip young photographers hanging around the storefront of Pro Photo, this might not wholly explain the phenomenon.Whatever the reason for photographers coming back into film despite digital photography’s extraordinary convenience, Goodman insists that 90 percent of the film they process is through mail order, from other states or other parts of California.
Film processing begins at a different part of the lab, across the room where there are machines about the size of office photocopiers with tubes exposed on the right side. Carrying names like Noritsu QSF V50A, this is where the film actually gets developed.
Jim Davis, one of the Pro Photo managers with a goatee and long bright orange hair pulled back into a frizzy ponytail, uses a deft hand when handling rolls of film that come to the lab to get processed. Instead of the old methods of spooling film onto a reel in absolute pitch blackness (even in the red cast of a darkroom, undeveloped film will be ruined), he uses a tiny dark box to unwind film from its roll and places the wound film into a cassette with a leader he places into one of the massive developing machines.
Opaque paper that comprises the backside of 120 film, which does not come in a lightproof cartridge like 35mm, litters the ground, discarded after Davis removes its emulsion-coated underbelly into the black processing cassette.
From here, once the film is processed, it goes to Goodman. And once it’s scanned and in the computer, Goodman handles these photos with the exact same kind of cold precision as Davis –– not looking at the photos themselves, per se, but at their objective qualities: color balance, exposure and framing. He corrects these with matter of fact keyboard patter on the computer at his station.
What he misses in the job –– or what he chooses to ignore, for the sake of a deadline –– are the narratives that pop up on screen every time the scanning machine runs through more film. He goes through them, click by click: a toddler taking a few steps, then realizing a camera is on her, sticking her tongue out; flowerpots and cherry blossom trees whose delicate leaves are being blown away by a strong breeze. A woman dipping her hands into the edge of a lake, then turning to the photographer in the next frame, smiling like a lover would, then looking distantly to some object on the left.
These imagined narratives, hundreds of them a day, pass through the hands of Goodman and Davis. For how long is uncertain, a concern outside the mind of Goodman as he taps a key to correct exposure on the smiling woman.