Photographer and Club 1888 organizer Doug Sweet takes a quick photo on iPhone of the film cameras used during the club’s photo walk around the Menil on Sunday October 10, 2021.
Photo: Annie Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Contributor
Like vinyl records before it, shooting on film is back in the cultural landscape. There is now a growing Houston-grown subculture that has gained popularity in recent years, in part thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riley Ansa didn’t see the wave of excitement coming for filming a movie, even though Ansa is immersed in the scene. Nurturing a love for vintage cameras (“nothing newer than 1985”), Ansa created what has become a beacon of manual camera movement in Houston with Riley’s Camera & Repair, first in rented space on a declining flea market northwest of Houston and now on the second floor of Reel Quick Film Lab north of downtown.
But COVID changed everything, sparking renewed interest in the slow, laid-back way of taking and developing photos, a tactile, hands-on art form that digital photography had largely replaced.
Ansa, who prefers them, doesn’t consider themselves a photographer, but with training as machinists and welders, they know how to fix things with gears. They even make once irreplaceable camera parts using a 3D printer.
“During COVID, I couldn’t find a job to save my life, so I decided to start this shop,” says Ansa, which opened Riley’s Cameras in November 2020.
It has become “a bit of a passion”, says Ansa. “I went there a bit blind. I was surprised at how many people were interested in film cameras and everything with the resurgence (in film photography). Cinema is hot right now.
During one of the last weekends at the store’s original location, Javier Gomez, a local photographer, dropped $145 on a vintage camera lens. It was more than Ansa expected, but it saved Gomez from having to scour eBay. “I think he’s the one who cleaned up well,” Ansa tells him of the goal. “I don’t see any mushrooms or anything.”
Ansa hands the small camera lens to Gomez, who beams. It’s a typical exchange at Riley’s Camera, one of the few informal community spaces where people can go and talk about manual photography and ask questions. That’s a big part of why Ansa opened the shop, a meeting place for other photographers, in the first place, to offer people a way to keep their cameras.
Build a community
While fixing the camera is one thing, having a time and place to practice shooting the camera is another. Enter Doug Sweet. The longtime photographer is part of Houston’s analog film community, and in 2019, months before the pandemic, he launched the 1888 Club. It’s a way for him to promote local photo walks for film photographers. And it’s a way for him to bring together friends and other moviegoers.
“Most people I do in photography and film call me ‘Gateway Doug’,” jokes Sweet, a freelance photographer whose work has appeared in the Chronicle and fashion publications like Fienfh magazine.
His photography walks have taken groups to Williams Street (near downtown), the Texas Renaissance Festival, and Parc du Menil. Sweet says shooting a movie in Houston never stopped. What has changed is the building of the community around this specific way of taking pictures.
If you’re watching or aware, there are several places in Houston to develop film shot with analog cameras. Gone are the days when you could bring a movie roll to a big drug store and pick it up in an hour. (Now, some places like CVS will take your disposable film or camera and ship it to a lab. The process can take one to three weeks to get the physical photographs and a CD of your digital files. Generally, people who visit a local pharmacy chain will get prints of the digital photos they take on their phone or upload to social media.)
Jessi Bowman remembers those hour-long photo days well. That’s why she started running a local photo development lab, FLATS, from her home before growing it into the business it is today, operating from an upstairs office. in Montrose. It is one of the most popular photography companies to have emerged with a focus on film and analog photography culture. With a grant from the City of Houston, Bowman was able to turn his business into a photography learning center that offers analog photography classes and teaches people how to develop their own film.
Bowman, who studied photography in college, says she felt the need to step up after noticing how Houston was becoming known as a city with lots of creative people shooting images on film but few, if any. , local photo labs to support culture. His drive to set up a photo lab began in his own home, but a move to a location entirely dedicated to the photography industry came just in time.
“When the pandemic hit, there was definitely like a giant spike, like people were just like, ‘I need a hobby!’ But, I think it was already there. I think the pandemic kind of helped to go a little faster,” she said one afternoon at the FLATS office.
Bowman is a 2011 University of Houston graduate who managed exhibits at the Houston Center of Photography. Her business, which has sponsorship from Fresh Arts, is an extension of a series of exhibitions she used to do in people’s homes.
The first clients she had for her film development business were people she knew in those circles. Now, with the current wave of film shooters, she admits she’s less likely to have ties to those filing films for development. She receives more than 40 deliveries a day.
It can get overwhelming, but it’s part of the job. Bowman says she hopes to offer photography master classes through FLATS, as well as other film photography programs.
John Dekerlegand’s Reel Quick Film Lab is also well known in the community. Dekerlegand has other photo film drop boxes in a few places around town, including a trendy downtown cafe called The Tipping Point.
The 26-year-old says he always wanted to work in the photography business, but never imagined he would make a living developing films. “It’s a bit surreal. I remember the one-hour photos,” he says, referring to the traditional way of getting films processed in drugstore kiosks and photo departments. “The fact that I’m running a company that belongs to something that seemed like a bygone era, it’s surreal I would say.”
Its services include some of the same things as the rest. It charges around $12 to $15 to develop a roll of film and digitally scan the negative film after it has been processed using a chemical bath. The result is a digital version of the image taken on film, as well as negatives. For an additional fee, he’ll even develop the film so that the final image retains those little cog holes on the side that you usually see on social media filters.
“Instagram has helped, it helps people grow a business. People shoot a movie for the first time and they want to share it,” he says.
So why bother with all that? Well, there’s a soul to analog photography, and the texture of the image jumps out when it comes from a well-exposed image, say the film’s proponents.
Digitally shot photos are captured using an electronic sensor, whereas in film photography, light is passed through a lens to create the image on a film frame, which must be chemically processed to reveal an image. .
“The digital is cold and calculated ones and zeros, the film is flawed and unpredictable, which in my opinion makes it better,” says Sweet.
With the cost constraints and limitations of shooting film (you only get 24-36 shots per roll), digital beat it in efficiency. Bowman says she doesn’t like the comparison question, though. With editing software, digital images can be manipulated to achieve the color tones and warm qualities of analog shots. But there are purists who still think analog has an ethereal quality to how cameras capture light.
“I think analog has a greater depth, the way the light is captured. It’s not as flat of an image, but if you’re talking, like shooting weddings, you need digital because you can capture more,” admits Bowman.
“I think he might die a bit,” Dekerlegand says of the interest in filmmaking, “but there will always be a broad base that he’s built over the years of people who adore him. J love photographing this medium, and I think it will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Camilo Hannibal Smith is a Houston-based writer.