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Developing Memories the Old-Fashioned Way at State Film Lab

Upon entering State Film Lab in Louisville, Kentucky, visitors can find themselves transported into a curious blend of a dated process done in a way that feels entirely new.

The walls are adorned with huge photo prints, all shot on film. The room is lined with strips of film negatives draped over hooks. 

Boxes stuffed full of archival photos, some dating back to the 1950s, are stacked along the shelves, part of the lab’s way to help several local families honor their loved ones’ memories. 

Rolls of used film are piled on every countertop, each one containing one of their several hundred customers’ memories preserved just as they remembered them.

“It’s kind of interesting because you get a glimpse into people’s lives,” Madeline Hall, lab coordinator at State Film Lab, said. “They’re sending you their film, but they don’t get to see the process, you get to see the process. Getting to watch weddings and kids and all of these life experiences from vacations come in through rolls of film, it’s like you’re watching a documentary of someone’s life … it feels kind of sweet to get that look into their lives when they trust us to see those intimate moments.” 

Josiah Bice, the lab’s production lead, said he notices the differences between seeing photos shot in film and newer digital photos and how they connect to the moments themselves.

“I just love how tangible and full of life [film] is. It feels like it’s a true representation of what our memories are. Inside of our head when we think of them, they’re like warm and full of life, and I feel like it’s the closest thing we have to that versus digital,” Bice said.

When Billy Grubbs, State Film Lab’s founder, started as a photographer, he said film was almost exclusive to wedding or professional photographers. 

                                                                                                                                                                         Now, as digital cameras have surpassed film in the quantity and quality of photos they produce, there has been a shift — today, the lab rarely sees wedding photographers as clients and many of their customers are hobbyists and enjoy film on a personal rather than a professional level.

“It used to be about, ‘How could I take better pictures? What do I need to take better pictures?’ But that’s not really what it’s about anymore because you can do that with any tool,” Grubbs said. “I think that’s probably good because now there’s more of a drive for focusing on the content of the image. An image can’t just be good because of the tools, now it actually has to have some meaning or some process behind it.”

Each member of the team emphasized the intentionality and “slowness” of film photography, using it as a means to stay “more acquainted with the moments happening around [us],” Andrew Granstaf, the lab’s scan lead, said.

“For me, and I think for probably a lot of people that shoot film on a regular basis, it’s more about the process than it is about the end image,” Grubbs said.

Even though the photos themselves might not look amazing, Granstaf added, taking the pictures, using up the roll of exposures, not being able to see them and waiting for them to come back allows photographers to remember the moment even better. 

“It brings back a memory rather than a digital image,” he said.

“I love the slowness and I like keeping dust and scratches in my image [when scanning it] because it’s part of shooting on a physical medium, which I think can be lost sometimes, but I think it just adds to the storytelling of photography,” Hall said. “… It’s how photography was invented and I feel like it should be honored.”

Along the back wall of the lab sit several computers, all decades old but still miraculously set up as if they were brand-new, yet another instance of the lab taking visitors back several decades as soon as they walk through the doors. 

There are also the film processing machines, the group’s “diamonds in the rough,” as Grubbs likes to call them.

“They’re very very hard to find, but they’re essentially the best ones that were ever made, so we were really lucky to find those,” he said. “The big manufacturers that made the equipment to do all this stuff, they’re never coming back. You kind of just have what you have and that’s it.”

Still, among all the archaic objects found inside the lab stands a team of five young photographers-turned-film-processors looking to promote an old industry to a new age. Their mission is to make film accessible and cultivate relationships with their regular customers to help them hone their crafts, Grubbs said.

“I think the coolest part [of this job] is probably just watching photographers’ journeys, the people we work with on a regular basis, and seeing people develop as artists,” Grubbs said. “We tend to, being this small, know people’s names when we see them come through the lab regularly or start following them online and see how they evolve. That’s kind of cool to play just a tiny part in that evolution.”

What the team lacks in size it makes up for in connections formed with photographers. 

“If people have questions up front, I like to give them resources like different camera stores or different YouTube channels to check out if they’re having trouble with their photos or interacting with their camera,” Makayla Marlin, support specialist at State Film Lab, said.

Grubbs said a main focus he has when processing film is understanding the photographer’s style and vision for their photos. 

He said the thing about scanning (the process by which film negatives are digitized after being processed in the darkroom) that many people don’t understand is if the photo was well-exposed when it was shot, the lab has some flexibility in altering the final photo before returning it to the photographer.

It’s the same as editing raw files with digital photographs, he explained.

“So with a raw file, you can really change exposure left and right or you can really change contrast and still have a good quality image. But if you tried to do the same thing with a jpeg, for instance, you don’t really have very much room before it starts degrading in quality. And when you scan film it’s kind of the same idea because a negative has a ton of latitude and a ton of range just like a raw file would,” Grubbs said.

But he said once the film is scanned, “that’s what you get,” which can get stressful for larger projects that he doesn’t want to miss the mark on.

“Scanning is a very subjective process because I can look at that negative, but I wasn’t at the scene that you photographed, so I don’t know what you actually saw, I just have the negative and I have to interpret that,” Grubbs said. “And that’s where building that relationship and kind of understanding how a person photographs, following their portfolio online and kind of getting their vibe overall, that helps us over time make those subjective decisions when we scan their film and make sure it fits their brand.”

So after all, film processing, an industry that appears to be strictly scientific, actually encompasses some artistic elements. Or, it could be neither of the above, according to Granstaf.

“I think film is one of the closest things we have to — this might sound really cheesy — but actual magic almost, just because you’re capturing light on a negative and it’s going through these chemicals that … nothing’s there, and then all of a sudden something is, and it’s just really neat to be able to see the process,” Granstaf said.

In an increasingly digital age, the resurgence of the film industry has stressed the natural desire to slow down, live in the moment and “just shoot,” Hall said.

“There will be rolls that don’t turn out and rolls where you aren’t familiar with the camera yet, and that’s the only reason that you learn,” she said.

And there’s still something for hobbyists to enjoy as well.

“[Even] for the person that isn’t looking to better themselves as a photographer … it’s a fun thing to experience. To me, anything that gets you off-screen a little bit and engages you in your surroundings is a good thing for you,” Grubbs said.


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