Lab Chats: Atkins, AU

Name: Atkins Lab
Location: Kent Town, South Australia
Established: 1936
Film formats: 35mm, 120, 220, 5×4, 7×5, 10×8 ( sheet film E6 and C41)
Scanners: Noritsu S4, Fuji Frontier SP3000, Kodak HR500, Kodak 4050, Imacon Flextite

Who are we chatting to?
Name: Paul Atkins
Position: Managing Director
Film stock of choice: Kodak Portra 400
Camera/lens of choice: Mamiya7, 80mm
Please share your favourite piece of work.
The below photo is a recent favourite, although not taken on my favourite camera. It was taken on a 1936 ContaxII, with an uncoated 50mm Sonnar f1.5, last year in Hobart.
Quirky fact: I’m addicted to metadata, I want every photo in the world to be properly tagged and described. Phone photography brings the ultimate metadata to each picture, I want to see more of this carried over to other digital systems and film use. I’m chasing this dragon!

Atkins is over 80 years old! Tell us about how the lab came to be.
My Grandfather WG Atkins was a general photographer with a passion for horse racing, he made a good living photographing horses by selling framed prints to owners. From this beginning we were running a lab, but it was my Dad with his technical leaning, and Mum with her organisational skills that really set the lab as the main focus in the 1960s. It was Dad’s skill with colour that brought in the work. We grew like crazy through the 1980s, and it was only digital that slowed us down. It’s taken me 20 years to recover from those transitional years where digital became king. Now thanks to my wife Kate’s product design skills and brilliant marketing, we are growing again. And thankfully the years of judgement are past, where people were saying ‘digital is crap’, then it was ‘film is crap’, and now we get to choose, we have wonderful choices. Film is here to stay, just like oil painting.

How many team members are at Atkins?
We have around 16. Not all full time, but all in love with the industry. The average time of service must be heading towards 20 years. Most of the crew have followed us through the years, sometimes leaving and returning. They all understand a good picture, and good colour.

What makes Atkins different from other film labs?
We’ve seen and done pretty much everything and yet are still starry eyed about it all. We have also a long history of trying out lots of interesting ideas looking to sustain the business. Our thinking has been around doing what we can to give to our clients a ‘leg up’, an edge on their own work. The gallery is a perfect example, it’s a space to promote our clients work, we align with all the major festivals and so provide a free professional space so those dipping their toes into exhibiting can do so safely. We also develop products constantly, we try and ensure our professional clients have products that meet the market. Our handmade paper is also a perfect example, we needed a print product that was really tactile and totally different. We developed a process by modifying traditional printing equipment, this attracted a Federal Government Innovation grant, and it’s been on the market for a couple of years now and is popular.You serve both the general public and the pros, tell us about your Atkins Pro service.
A few years ago we found it really hard to serve both retail and professional the same way. We found so much opportunity in the general public walking in with USB drives loaded with professional photographers’ work, that we wondered why the professionals were missing out on these sales. We knew people wanted print products, it is human nature to desire ‘things’. We found though, pros need to have a real margin for them to make a living, and we had to restrict some products for them only. We nutted this all out by having an ongoing series of interviews with our clients and the general public, it is all research based. Partnering with working professionals is how we see survive, we work together to make it happen. To become one of our pro clients, we have an application process, which allows us to control who we want to work with, it protects pros from having their pricing public. This is a relationship business, we aim for a 30 year romance.

All your products are just so…lush. How do you decide what’s next for the range?
Kate, my wife, our product designer and creative director, is a student of style and beauty. She looks outside the industry and designs with our clients in a relentless fashion. She loves this collaborative aspect of her work. As a production focused person, I find it a real challenge to keep up with her, but you cannot argue with the results, we are all learning to live with this constant change. Paul, was there ever a question of whether you would join the lab? Have you ever felt like you’ve wanted to explore other areas, or a different career path?
At 19 I felt the cross roads were close, I had romantic ideas of being in the Navy, or being a professional photographer, but the lab was there, looming large. I was always proud of my family’s business, and it was too easy to step in and commit. I distinctly recall forcing the decision, I never felt forced by Dad, but I wanted to be clear about the way forward. In hindsight, family businesses are tricky, and I’m not the most assertive person, but thankfully at 48, I’m finally feeling like it is mine.Being established in 1936 there’s obviously been huge changes in the business from its humble beginnings so long ago. What are the largest changes you’ve seen in your time, and alternatively, what remains the same?
Digital has been brutal. The concept of getting the reward for taking a picture, the moment you see what you made, has passed out of our hands. Our entire business was a necessity, and seemingly overnight became an after-thought. But in all that, for those that like their photography to go somewhere, we are needed. We make the ephemeral real with our printing, and we are great at it. There is still a demand for the picture as an object.

You recently announced a partnership with ShootProof. Tell us more!
The lovely folks at Shoot Proof reached out to us partly from pressure from mutual clients and partly from an accidental meeting. At this stage we are providing local printing for their standard product range, but they are showing real interest in some of our unique products, and I expect their offering will expand over time. They are such lovely and engaged people, they want the industry to bloom, just as we do. We also work with FotoMerchant and Pic-Time, and hope to partner with a few others. These companies provide an incredible service, they have the massive task of representing a physical, tactile product in two dimensions, and make it compete with some of the best user interface design that is all vying for the public’s dollar.Is there a particular body of work that you’ve processed/printed that is memorable?
I’m currently excited about working with Australia’s only Magnum represented photographer Trent Parke, on an E6 project. But truly we have been involved with some incredible work, Hilary Wardhaugh’s Die Like a Dog sticks with me, it’s a documentary exhibition of a cancer sufferer’s death over a weekend surrounded by friends.

Who should we be keeping our eye out for? What rising talent is coming through your lab that we should know about?
I am enchanted by the work of Alice Blanch, she works with a Box Brownie making panoramas by overlapping frames, the work is mesmerising.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting out shooting film, what would it be?
Take notes, be pedantic about carrying a small notebook and record the details for each picture. You could alternatively use an app such as PhotoExif that will grab the smart phone metadata and allow it to be merged into the scanned images. Successful film photography is about learning what works and repeating it.Lasting thoughts:
Many of us film photographers are perfectionists and chase the best lenses and the ultimate collectable gear. This is not a happy path. If it’s control and perfection you want, you’ll find it in digital. The magic of film lies more in its ability to evoke a feeling than create a replication. Spend time with old camera designs and prewar uncoated lenses, and relax and enjoy the results.

 

All product photographs © Mark Dohring – @bentinmarcs

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