Industry Insight: Spectrum, UK

Introduce us to Spectrum.
Spectrum is a Fine Art Print lab based in Brighton, England. We specialise in photographic printing offering traditional darkroom printing as well as digital darkroom print and archival inkjet services. To complement our print services, we also offer finishing services for exhibiting and selling your work.

How has Spectrum changed over time?
Spectrum started out in the mid 90s as a processing lab where we processed E6 (transparency film) , C41 (colour negatives) and black and white film. Alongside our processing darkrooms, we also housed two darkrooms for contact printing and hand printing and during the heyday of our wet lab years, had 6 De Vere enlargers and two full-time hand printers that busily worked long hours to keep up with demand – each working on three machines at a time.

When did you stop processing film and what was the reasoning behind this decision?
In the early 00s, when commercial photography was taken over by the digital movement, we saw our E6 processing line disappear overnight. We went from processing 300 films a day down to 3 if we were lucky. The C41 lasted a few more years as people stayed with film to work on personal projects but we saw fewer and fewer commissions being produced with film and as we had a dip and dunk processor the volume of work going through just wasn’t replenishing the chemicals enough and we were dumping chemicals more and more making the whole process very expensive. With a very heavy heart we dismantled the machines in 2011. Along with another colleague I (Paul) set up an independent processing lab, End Frame, with the old machine and carried on processing for another two years before dismantling the machines for good.  

Paul, you’ve worked in photographic wet labs for years, tell us about your journey into this side of photography.
My first job in photography was assisting a photographer for Country Life magazine. After each shoot we would return to the studio with 40 exposed 5×4 film sheets ready to process and it was then my job to process and contact print the film for editing before printing the final shots to send to magazines. All of this was before the digital revolution so everything was done by hand. All E6, C41 & B&W film was processed using hand lines. After this job I moved to Australia and worked as a colour hand printer in North Sydney for a year before heading back to the UK to work in a busy London lab. Here, I worked as a film processor and C-Type printer and these services were in high demand. During my shift I would print at least 100 contact prints a day. Moving to another lab in the 90s I continued film processing and hand printing for commercial clients before being made redundant in 2000 when the company I was working for folded. On a weekend trip to Brighton I found Spectrum and popped in to say hi. After several chats I was hired as a hand printer and ran the darkrooms for the next 16 years before eventually buying the company in 2016.

It’s fascinating that you still hand print in the darkroom for clients, tell us more about this.
Hand printing used to be the norm in photography but now it’s much more specialised. We still have several customers that will only print directly from negatives and are not keen to digitise their work. It’s a different experience to be in the darkroom rather than behind a monitor, and you feel much more involved in the creative process. I have a great nostalgia for the hand printing process and still get very excited for every order I process in the darkroom. The interaction with analogue photographers is very different, and each hand printer will have their own individual style. Traditionally, photographers had strong bonds with an individual printer as they trusted the printers skills to produce an amazing print whereas digital printing has diminished this experience with on-screen corrections. 

Do you still shoot film photography yourself?
I do occasionally shoot a roll of 35mm on my Contax but I rarely find the time these days as I am mostly in the darkroom. 

It looks like you’ve worked with some incredible photographers over time, tell us about a particularly memorable involvement Spectrum has had with a film photographer.
I’ve have built up great relationships with many of my clients over the years but my most rewarding experience has to be working with Tom Wood, whose work I love and who has always been so supportive of Spectrum. When we took over the lab a few years ago he suggested we should put on an exhibition of his work to celebrate. Not only did I print the show but I also curated it and this was a fabulous experience. This show was held during the Brighton Photo Biennale and had an amazing footfall and propelled Spectrum into its next chapter.

There appears to be a current resurgence of film photography; we’re seeing Kodak reviving past stock and an uproar when Fujifilm announced they were ceasing Neopan production. Do you see Spectrum returning to film processing in the future?
At this stage we don’t see Spectrum making the step to becoming a processing lab again. In order to run the best processing line, you need to process a lot of film and unfortunately we would not be able to offer a cost-effective service from the amount of film we would process. There just isn’t the demand that there once was, and we would rather recommend a busy line (to keep it going) than attempt to resurrect what we once had.

As you no longer process film do you have a particular lab you recommend to photographers?
We recommend bayeux because they have the best and busiest dip and dunk processing facilities in the UK and know what they are doing. By recommending this processing line we are trying to make sure it continues running and isn’t closed like lots of other labs around the land. It seems silly for a lot of people to be doing small amounts of work when the best results can be had from a well replenished processing line. 

Spectrum’s parting words;
Although our only involvement with film is now only hand printing and scanning we are very much on board with the resurgence of film photography and support the movement wholeheartedly. In a commercial context film photography is not always the best choice but we are even hearing of jobs being commissioned with the budget to shoot on film and this warms our heart. Websites like The Art of Film lend themselves to keeping this wonderful process alive and relevant. Thank you. We love film and long may it continue.

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