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Film camera loyalists fear their days are numbered

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Once dedicated to film photography, Times Square's camera stores have now largely abandoned it. (Photo by James Yolles/CNS)

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Julia Reyes, seen here loading film into a friend's camera, now shoots film only on special occasions. (Photo by Neil Harris for CNS)

For eight years in the back of the dim showroom of Embassy Electronics in Times Square, a Nikon F-10 film camera collected dust without a single taker. When salesman Elliot Maname finally sold it three months ago, he was shocked.

“We used to sell a ton but now we might get two or three people that ask about it a week,” he said. “Occasionally we get people that study film. But regular film—it’s out, man.”

For most amateur photographers, the film camera has gone the way of the daguerreotype. In an era where new digital cameras are introduced nearly every week, few seem to have noticed the sudden decline of film production, and stores that provide that service. But for purists who still believe that film offers a unique and superior quality, its relative absence has hurt them.

“It’s all about commerce, about camera companies wanting to sell cameras,” said well-known film photographer Mary Ellen Mark. “It’s a life choice—and I’m just not willing to give up my life choice. And let me tell you—there’s a lot of pressure.”

New York-based photographer Margaret Morton ran into similar pressure last year when her two longtime print developers gave up the trade because of a lack of profits.

“They felt the business had slowed down too much to keep it up. If they didn’t switch, what would they do? I still haven’t found a replacement for them, and it’s really sad,” said Morton, who also teachers photography at the Cooper Union, an arts college in New York City.

And because film development is harder to come by and more expensive, the habit is harder for many amateurs to pick up or maintain.

“A lot of the places to get it developed have closed down,” said Tyko Lewis, a printer at Laumont studio gallery in Manhattan. “A young photographer might find that road really tough today.”

Julia Reyes is one purist who has found that road too time-consuming and expensive to continue on a regular basis. One of the treasured possessions in her family is the 25-year-old Pentax camera that still takes beautiful, clear pictures. The 30-year-old Weehawken, N.J., resident and her brother share the camera and value the experience of taking pictures and getting them developed the way they always had. But recently, even Reyes has changed her ways, using film only on special occasions.

“It’s just not how it used to be,” Reyes said. “The process is much less enjoyable. I would open the packet in the store and couldn’t even wait to leave. I think digital cameras really take away from that moment.”

Reyes changed to digital after she moved away from the neighborhood drugstore that used to develop her film and now finds the process too expensive. The experience of being stranded without a nearby developer is one Reyes shares with many film users.

“In another five years, we won’t see the day-to-day film development service at all,” said Danny Mah, a clerk at Pro Image Photo on New York’s Upper West Side for 12 years. “In 1997 we were getting 1,000 rolls of film a week. Now, we’re lucky if we get 10.”

Pro Image is one of the few camera stores that still develops film in the neighborhood, Mah said.

Illustrative of the changing times is a Ritz Camera store eight blocks down Broadway. The national chain that once peppered Manhattan with branches now has just one store in New York City.

Even areas most dedicated to helping picture-takers spend money cannot be bothered with such an antiquated practice. Once the virtual center of the universe for film camera shopping and development, Times Square’s dingy, grime-splattered rows of floor-to-ceiling electronic goods stores have moved on.

The simple question, “do you sell and develop film?” garners blank stares and laughs.

“That’s an easy question to answer,” said Bob Levy, a salesman at Digital Cameras and Computers. “We don’t do that no more.”

A fading yellow sign at Uniworld Connection—“We Develop Film”—offered hope.

“I think we need to take down that sign,” said Sandra John, a clerk there.

And at Adorama, a photography and electronics haven in Chelsea that was once almost solely devoted to film, the development section has been pushed to the back of the store, where two clerks stood idly by as the store teemed with customers on a recent weekday.

“What’s film?” joked Martino Corto, a floor salesman at Adorama.

That sort of attitude troubles professionals who have made film photography their life’s work.

“With digital, you’re only as good as your Photoshop technician,” Mark said. “He’ll take heads off bodies and switch them around. It’s a totally different medium.”

As Mark and others make clear, there is still significant demand for film. Many professional photographers have set up individual labs for printing. Others, like Morton, have noticed the scarcity of film printing paper and have hoarded huge amounts in fear that it won’t be available for long. There is even a “retro” camera, marketed especially to film users, made by Rollei, a prestigious German camera company.

Though many professionals have found ways to stay with film photography, amateurs without the resources, like Reyes, cling tightly to old ways but acknowledge realities of modern life.

“It’s almost impossible for someone like me to keep it up nowadays,” Reyes said. “It’s all digital now, and it sucks. My brother and I—we’re a dying breed.”

E-mail: jwy2103@columbia.edu