I do. You could call it long hair, or you could call it an afro!
I do. You could call it long hair, or you could call it an afro!
At Santa Cruz HS, I took a class from a wonderful teacher, Mary Duffield, about mass media. I had to do a video for that class, Super 8, and I wanted a still for the video. The best way I could think to do it was to make a print of a photo and video that.
They had a darkroom there, run by Andy Anderson, he handed me the keys so I could go in at all times. I took some stills, made prints from them, and got addicted to photography and the darkroom.
When I was 18, I worked with a local photographer, Trini Contreras, and went to Cabrillo College. I took art classes but I couldn’t draw or paint to save my life, so they let me just do photography.
After about a year and a half I started shooting regularly, and then started doing photography for money — portraits, wedding, architectural. In Santa Cruz you had to do a little of everything. I started getting contracts, like the Miss California Pageant. I was the official photographer for 3-4 years, senior photographer for Santa Cruz High School and a local college…and I always processed my own work.
I lived in different places in Santa Cruz, and wherever I lived I built a dark room. I had a studio downtown and at the time, they were modernizing Santa Cruz, redoing Pacific Avenue into what they called the Pacific Garden Mall.
I had a gallery on the side of the Cooper House, the old courthouse they restored, exhibited landscapes mostly. Photographs were center-mounted on glass and a hanging block was mounted on the back so they floated. They were beautiful, but because they were on glass I don’t know if any of them survived over the years.
Then I decided I wanted to travel and take pictures. I got my VW van all loaded up, took off for 3 months, and realized traveling and doing photography on the road was what I wanted to do.
I found a storage spot, put all my stuff in it, and thought I might as well build a dark room in the storage space. I put up a 2x2 framed wall, covered it in black Visqueen plastic, and I never left.
We kept processing work in there and took over the entire building. Bay Photo kept going from there. That was 1975.
So you stopped taking photos?
Yes, I started shooting less and less. I gave the contracts away to Steve Kurtz. Shooting was always a lot of fun, but I liked the processing. Once you start making 20 x 24 Cibachromes, it’s so spectacular.
You could do it anytime, no appointments to keep… Being a portrait and wedding photographer was hard for me. Not that printing was easier; there’s a lot of technical research and expertise that goes into it.
Back in the film days I’d do something crazy with photography like constructing a studio in our home to photograph the boys. Then I’d have to drive 50 miles to Bay Photo where I’d sit in the lobby to mount negatives in cardboard sleeves and write instructions for cropping.
One of those photos was taken with the three boys in Taekwondo outfits. I hadn’t exposed the background enough to make it as white as I wanted. I don’t know what you did but it turned out beautiful and hangs on our walls all these years later. It’s one of our favorite photos in the whole world.
We must have dodged it a bit. Great photo.
Here is the Bay Photo team circa 1988. Wearing blue in the middle (along with her dog Walter) is Nancy Edgerly who was instrumental in Leadership, Customer Service and Finance until 1996:
So you had a film lab and this is where things took a dramatic turn, because things could have gone badly when digital started to emerge. It put hundreds of regional film labs out of business.
It happened very fast. There’s a lot of technology with printing film but it began to merge with digital. Luckily, I’ve always liked technology and computers, so I kept in touch with that world.
My first computer in about 1980 was a Radio Shack TRS-80. I remember getting the first color monitors. By 1990 we were scanning and printing digitally on a limited basis till about 1999 when digital printing accelerated rapidly. We were using printers like the Fuji Pictrostat and Sienna digital printers.
We did skip a popular technology of the time which was a Lucht Repri, a digital retouching machine. Instead we kept with the old pencil retouching technology and also scanned and used Photoshop.
When you run a film lab, there are a lot of technical things like internegatives that require a lot of expertise. From 2001-2003, when digital really started to take off, we had the challenge of keeping our film lab going, while at the same time, with reduced revenue (especially from these highly technical things) building a digital lab.
Not many labs survived the digital revolution. The people who owned and worked in labs like me, were in their 50’s or so. Some of them put a mortgage on their home to afford new equipment, or they sold their buildings and left the space entirely, but we kept on plodding away. We had some great people and they were ready for the challenge.
We were fortunate enough to have a 2,000 square foot space in a building that was completely empty and near the original lab. So we started our first fully digital lab in that location.
There were many financial struggles at that time, but we were lucky. Some of the equipment we had to purchase was $200k-$300k each; we were fortunate to have made some good equipment decisions.
From there we started to have the technology to be able to print digitally in volume. The real turning point was Kodak. They had a product called DP2, a database that lets you manage images, graphics and corresponding data. But they had no great way to feed work into DP2. You had to do it manually or with Digital ProShots.
I thought somebody had to make an interface for it. At that point we were broke — AGAIN — and it took a lot to manage this whole thing, so I said “I’m going to find a DP2 expert to write an interface.” That’s how we found John Wengert and Don Tipton, who together wrote ROES (remote order entry system).
Customers with images on their local computers could crop them, choose the print size, set their quantity, and hit SEND. We’d get the high-res image zipped up with all the data to import into DP2. We had everything we needed to accept work in a much more efficient fashion.
We provided color correction by a human, and DP2 provided efficient tools for that. With the expertise that comes with being film people we had everything we needed to make great prints.
In that building we grew our digital lab from 2,000 SF to 4,000 SF. In 2003, after 25 years in the same optical location, we moved the optical and digital lab to a new 12,000 SF building.
However, when we selected that building we didn’t know what the future had in store. By the time we moved in, we’d already outgrown it. So right away we started looking for a new building and moved again into 34,000 SF. At that newest building we shed all our E-6, C-41 and BW film processing.
We moved one more time in 2013 into 120,000 SF. This was our newish lab, before the big one we're in now:
What I remember of the old lab was you were jammed in like sardines. I met you in the newish building when it was empty and it seemed so vast. You gave us the walking tour, gesturing where things would be.
Then you just exploded and filled up the building with giant industrial printers and produced professional leather photo albums for wedding photographers, tree ornaments, and printed on high-end surfaces like metal.
I worried about you because I thought the selection was overwhelming. There were so many options for everything — gloss, semigloss, 4 finishes for metal, 12 different ornament shapes, giant sizes…
I thought from a software and logistics point of view it would be killer, but I guess it turned out to be one of the ingredients of your success? As a customer, I ordered just about every option from your mind-blowing selection.
Yes, it was starting to become clear: versatility and diversification.
The big turning point was ROES. When photographers first moved to digital, they were struggling. A photographer could spend $5,000 on a camera and it would be out of date in a year, versus a Hasselblad from the 1950s being just as good all these years later.
ROES saved those photographers because now they could order easily. People were literally crying, saying we saved them. We didn’t make ROES proprietary, we made it available for other labs, and that’s when the competitive juices turned on. This was something that came out of my mind, so we wanted to lead.
How many film labs were there before digital came?
It depends on the kind of lab. Pro labs were regionally based. There were maybe 50-100 of those. Then there were the one-hour labs. We had 9 of them in the Bay Area. We did a lot of pro work, sending drivers to pick up and drop off, but we also had people coming to our door.
Our team and our customers included a lot of very creative, talented people. The whole Bay Area, including the Monterey Bay, attracts a lot of creative people. We were working with artists, the police department, a diversified collection of customers.
I had the impression your labs were little booths in parking lots and malls, not stores this big.
Not those little fotomats…we had full-on stores with machinery in there. We had 9 of them. Wolfe Camera had hundreds. Their’s were even bigger; we did not sell cameras.
You’d come in, the counter people would take your negatives, help you crop, and we’d print on site unless you wanted a larger print. They’d send those to the central lab who’d print them and send them back. That model worked well for us, and we served the community.
We still have 2 of those locations in Santa Cruz County! One of them has a wonderful guy and excellent photographer, Mike DeBoer, who runs both of them. We provide a very personal service.
There were hundreds or thousands of those processing labs. They were like Starbucks, they were all over. One Hour Photo. It was a cottage industry in the 80s. We would go to trade shows and Kodak, Fuji, Agfa and others were selling one hour lab equipment.
And then the Longs, Walgreens and Costcos started installing them which caused one hour labs across the country to close. In the early 2000s, they started to decline rapidly. The industry just went off the cliff fast.
Who are your clients?
Our base is professional wedding and portrait photographers. We provide them with great service and help them expand their offerings — framed photos or whatever it is they need. We regularly come up with new things we think will work for them and their customers.
We’ve also always had an affinity for landscape and art. We do a lot of that kind of work as well. And that helps us open up large prints.
The third audience is fulfillment using our API for companies like SmugMug.
This is our current building:
You were the first to make metal prints?