Lab: Negative Lab
Location: Los Angeles, CA, USA
Film formats: 135, 120, 220, 4×5
Scanners: Fuji Frontier SP-3000
Who are we chatting to?
Name: Brian Wertheim
Favourite film stock? Tri-X
Camera/lens of choice? Depends on where I am and what I’m shooting. When I shoot medium format, it’s on a Hasselblad or a 1940s Zeiss rangefinder, but I find myself coming back to my Contax G2 and 28mm Zeiss Biogon lately.
Who’s your biggest inspiration and why? I love everything about Bruce Gilden; from his work spanning his career, to his Brooklyn attitude, to the empathy and care that he has for each of his subjects.
Quirky fact: Scanning has caused me to lose interest in colour photography. Perhaps because I am more aware of its many imperfections.
Tell us about the history of your lab.
Negative Lab was born in winter 2016/2017. I was fed up with the cost of outsourcing my scanning, and decided to buy a Frontier scanner on a whim. One of the great benefits of living in LA is the robust Craigslist (American equivalent of Gumtree) culture that we have here. We also have a branding connection to the former Mammum Film Lab which was based in Denver. When Mammum ceased to operate, I took over scanning for their biggest client, Brumley & Wells. Jacob and I have been close friends for years and co-travellers on many a journey overseas.
What makes you different from other film labs?
At its core, Negative Lab is committed to an ethos that I believe will always make us stand out from other labs. Our desire is to serve our clients as fellow photographers, not as lab technicians serving photographers. We remain a small lab, and while things are steadily growing, I still handle 90% of all scanning that comes through the lab. We’ve also developed something of our own philosophy on scanning colour negative film.
How has Negative Lab changed over time?
The lab is steadily growing and we’ve gone from having one scanning tech (myself) to three. I hear time and again how photographers get inconsistent results from the larger labs, and one of the main reasons for that is the sheer number of scanning techs you’re dealing with. At Negative, if you keep your shooting consistent, there is simply one less variable to wonder about when you see the result in your scans. I run my Frontier a bit differently as well, which makes it much easier to guarantee consistent scans even when I’m not the one handling the order.
What is the biggest challenge when developing and scanning?
Scanning requires endurance. Starting a lab has given me a new-found respect for the nameless people in darkrooms around the world, working tirelessly to process the film of us photographers who refuse to let go of the medium. I always want to encourage my clients to communicate their preferences and ask questions when things don’t turn out the way they expect, because the folks in your lab are carrying an enormous creative burden for you. Even the best photographers make mistakes, and sometimes you can see the mistakes more clearly when it’s not your work. So, lab communication is essential. I can’t meet the needs of my clients if I don’t know what they are.
Are you noticing any particular trends in what you’re receiving from clients?
I think people are moving away from the trend of blown highlights. My personal opinion is that the light & airy trend was created by a happy accident. I think the Frontier scanner “wants” to scan images bright, but it requires a good driver to balance an image. I understand the aesthetic appeal, but I think there’s going to be a lot of rescans happening one day for everyone who opted for the blown highlights! With that said, I see a lot of Kodak film these days. Portra really shines when it is balanced properly in the scanner.
“Film shooters are not the stubborn ones who refuse to let go, I believe they are the bravest innovators in our industry.”
Is there a particular body of work/photographer that you’ve worked with that is memorable?
I thought twice about this question when I was in the midst of scanning a lovely batch of images from the Republic of Georgia yesterday! I believe it would do a disservice to the Negative community to elevate any one of my clients’ work above others. It’s not my place to do that. The most memorable body of work is whichever one I’m currently entrusted to process & scan. I am incredibly thankful to collaborate with a lot of talented photographers. There are photographers from all walks of life who send their film to Negative, and if you browse our Instagram, you’ll see some names you know, and others that you just don’t know yet. It’s a privilege to be trusted with people’s images and I don’t take it lightly. As a photographer, I know how hard it is to let someone see the depths of your creative process, and when you send your film to a lab for scanning, that is exactly what you’re doing! There are many photographers in our roster who I believe are just as deserving of a large platform as those I work with who have already achieved it.
Who should we be keeping our eye out for?
I love the work of Eli Defaria. He is a photographer based in New England who I believe will soon be a force to be reckoned with in the wedding industry.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting out shooting film, what would it be?
To someone just starting out, hold on for dear life! Film isn’t easier than digital–you really do have to love the process. In a way, the process is all we have, because everything else about shooting film can be incredibly punishing. If you don’t absolutely love it and feel like you could never touch a digital camera again, maybe it’s not for you! With that said, I’m not as apologetic about the film vs. digital debate as some people. Of course there are many people producing great images with digital cameras, but it’s a completely different medium. The two shouldn’t be compared. I really do believe that film is the only way worth making a photograph. If film ever goes away, I will probably quit.
And to photographers with experience shooting film, I know a lot of folks are testing the water with a different lab every few months, but I really do caution against that. Bouncing from lab to lab (as there are a lot of great ones out there) isn’t going to help your work. Find a lab that you can trust and collaborate with, and it will make being a film shooter that much easier. My clients are aware that their work is being handled by a photographer and not a technician. I treat everyone’s work like its my own, so it basically guarantees better results if we communicate.
I don’t believe that film is a sinking ship – I hope it didn’t come across that way. Film shooters are not the stubborn ones who refuse to let go, I believe they are the bravest innovators in our industry. Young minds are usually the driving force behind innovation, and the young have chosen to embrace the “old” medium. A lot of us grew up in the digital age, so the joy of shooting film and experiencing it for the first time is almost indescribable. I have seen this countless times with my clients as they dig deeper into the world of photographic film. If you’re shooting digital and have been curious about film – I encourage you to take the plunge! You’re in good company, and as soon as you get your first batch of scans back from the lab, you’ll be hooked. As the digital world continues to grow, I believe so does the value of making images on film. Millions of digital photos are made every day on smart phones, but film is still as close to forever as we can get.