As you may have noticed, it is 25 years since we set up in business on 1st April 1992 and this milestone provides an opportunity to reflect on the many changes in the photographic trade over that time. With today's proliferation of all things digital, it seems extraordinary that in 1992 we didn't have a computer with imaging software, only an Amstrad for invoicing that had to be loaded with the running software from a floppy disk. Our first Apple mac was a LCII with a 40Mb hard-drive and Photoshop 2.5!
The core of our business was transparency processing for a busy local advertising sector as well as a national postal service. The two services complimented each other very well by keeping the process busy. Because we ran a tight ship in process control, we had a huge amount of work duplicating transparencies, particularly 4"x5" sheet and that helped us expand the business into other services we needed to provide.
The next step was C-41 film processing and C-type hand printing to add to our existing BW printing, so that we seemed to sprouting darkrooms from our base close to the centre of Cheltenham. Nevertheless, we didn't want to lose control over quality, preferring what might be called boutique services rather than factory.
Then came digital!
The change in 2002-3 was pretty startling. In the space of a year we went from 100 duplicate transparencies a week to zero, from 100 rolls of transparency film a day to 20 and our long list of professional photographers, who we used to see every day, evaporated, leaving only a few photojournalists. For laboratories everywhere it was a time to hold your nerve, cut costs and look for new markets. New technologies promised a digital nirvana to laboratories but too often, high investment costs in experimental solutions were not supported by the shrinking print market and many labs went bust, crippled by either exorbitant servicing costs or near-instant equipment obsolescence.
It was a great shame that so many talented printers and technicians lost their livelihood, but technology is a cruel mistress and the photographic trade was playing catch-up with the hot-press industry that was decimated by desktop printing a decade previously.
The Darkroom survived because of its ascetic attitude and ability to quickly change from its professional advertising market to the high street. Amateurs who had only dreamed of owning a Hasselblad could now pick one up for a couple of hundred pounds and they needed a reliable lab to process their film. We already provided a postal service for E6 processing, so we included C41 and BW services as well.
Our next step in 2005 was to buy ( second hand! ) a minilab printer and more importantly, recruit an experienced technician to operate it. This was a Noritsu 3001that allowed to print up to 8x14 and began a successful partnership with their equipment ever since. By this time we had also bought a ( new! ) Epson 9800 printer that expanded the range of services that we could offer to a growing list of fine art clients. We had finally arrived in the digital er,a but the timing was right for us - driven by demand not by equipment manufacturers' hype or leaps into the unknown. Both these technologies allowed our expertise in colour reproduction to make a difference and it was a delight to learn new skills built on that knowledge.
This print technology uses laser to print onto conventional photographic paper and speed and accuracy are paramount. To improve these we replaced the 3001 with a faster 3011, but this still restricted us to eight inch paper. Finally in 2016, we were able to upgrade that Noritsu technology to 'dry-lab' that is free of chemicals and allows us to print, with photographic style, up to 12" x 18" and beyond. Combined with our original Epson printer, there is little that we cannot tackle in terms of print size or paper type and with the benefit of reduced prices for medium sized prints.
Over the last decade we steadily increased our presence in the art world, by building on our reputation for colour reproduction. In 2005 we still depended on large format transparency film to photograph paintings up 2m x 2m and even today we use film where large prints are needed. Giclee prints, distinguished by using archival inks and traditional cotton rag papers, are now widely accepted by artists and galleries who are able to print-on-demand instead of having to order 500 litho prints at a time!
In 2015 it was difficult to see what our next step would be, but as ever, this was dictated by demand. A number of our artists needed greetings cards to compliment their original works at exhibitions, so suddenly we had to learn about this! There are no shortcuts in producing top quality print so our first guillotine wasn't up to the job and quickly ended up on eBay. Likewise our first card creaser was OK, but painfully slow and has since been replaced by something more automated and accurate. What hasn't been supplanted is our Intec printer, which has proved a great investment, producing everything from envelope overprinting to 400gsm card prints.
One of the originals directors, Barrie Roberts, stepped back from the business in 2016, though some might call it retiring! Fellow director Alistair Baird continues, supported by technicians Christine and Shaun, and can now even be seen featuring on YouTube and elsewhere! What happens in the future remains to be seen, but I can guarantee that it will be in response to what our clients need.
Thank you for the last 25 years of infectious photographic enthusiasm and artistic inspiration.