Pictures in the Dark

Flanked by three cell phone accessory stores whose stark white lights mask the hidden alcoves of apartment entrances, My Own Color Lab relies on its reputation and word of mouth just to find its place of business. With no visible signs indicating its presence on the third floor of a Flatiron district apartment complex, the photo lab differs from the competition in the area. Other studios in the Flatiron district, where many photo labs are located, have a clean and overtly clinical presentation. To wandering window shoppers, even the wood-panel charm that some studios aim to capture mirrors the carefully laid out neatness of a magazine photo shoot.

But upon exiting the elevator and entering My Own Color Lab’s studio (encompassing the entire third floor) and photo lab development complex, one is immediately greeted by the sharp horizontal layout of the entrance. An arriving guest is greeted by two choice of paths: the left path houses stacks and walls of tubed photographs and worktables; the right path leads to the studio’s traditional dark rooms and development facilities.

The lab’s owner is 46-year-old Gerard Franciosa. Working for years as a commercial photographer, printer and lab assistant, Franciosa took over My Own Color Lab from its previous owner, J. Paul Yafcak, in January of 2002. Established in 1978, the lab was the first color dark room rental facilities in New York City. This dark room aspect has become a point of pride and hardship for Franciosa as modern advancements in both print development and customer demand have made running his particular lab a balancing act.

Though walk-ins are a rarity, Franciosa relates that one advantage of the digital age is better word of mouth. “Our clients aren’t just in Manhattan, they’re around the tri-state area now mostly, and we rely on word of mouth.”

Franciosa claims that most of their business comes from custom digital work and that dark room rentals only make up a small percentage of demand. The lab’s previous owner had only done dark room printing, so Franciosa was charged with a complete modernization of the lab, bringing in computers and employees familiar with both dark room and digital photography.

“The biggest problem with my business plan is that the part that takes the largest amount of real estate is the part that generates the least amount of profit,” says Franciosa.

But why keep the dark rooms? What makes them so different from modern digital tools to merit their continued existence?

With eight dark rooms to maintain, Franciosa admits that the effort can be a disproportionate amount to devote to when compared to the business and revenue that dark rooms generate. Franciosa justified the continued existence of the dark rooms as a unique identifier and that their commitment to maintaining them sets the lab apart from other studios.

While the lab’s devotion may set it apart, it is not the only studio within Flatiron to offer dark room services. Situated on West 23rdStreet is Duggal Visual Solutions. The studio makes no bones about its image, style and clientele, as a picture of Jimmy Fallon and a host of other celebrity portraits greet customers walking into the studio. Devoid of material clutter, what permeated throughout the studio was the seemingly endless line of employees and customers that ventured to-and-from the studio lit backrooms and offices.

Speaking with Duggal Project Coordinator Ashma, she noted that while Duggal did offer dark room services, they were restricted to employee use only and clientele could not use the room to work on prints themselves.

“They just aren’t that in-demand,” said Ashma. “And it’s expensive, so employees handle the print work for dark rooms.”

When asked about Duggal’s pricing, Ashma printed out a prepared document with standard listing prices for print work according to options such as size and coloring.

In contrast, Franciosa preferred not to list standard prices for My Own Color Lab’s services. He prefers to discuss the project with clients and arrive at a mutual price.

Professional photographer Matthew Wilson is one of those clients whom Franciosa has a regular rapport with — Wilson visits the lab every week.

“In 2009 I had a solo show and was looking for a dark room to print color as the one I’d been using for years closed down,” said Wilson. “I spoke to the owner of Primary Photographic and he told me of My Own Color Lab, saying it was the best in town.”

When asked about the significance of Franciosa’s Lab and its dark room facilities Wilson said, “The inevitability of the closing of the dark rooms is something that Gerard and I have discussed many times, but in truth as much as the lab moves with the times Gerard maintains a passion for old school analog photography and I believe the dark rooms there will be the last to go in New York City.”

Speaking about the difference between Franciosa’s Lab and other, more digital-focused labs, Wilson noted My Own Color Lab’s unique vibe “To walk into a place like a stranger and to feel at ease,” said Wilson. “I’ve found that really rare; there are very few places where you feel at home.”

One could mistake customers like Matthew Wilson as employees when first entering the photo lab. With intent faces staring and cutting prints or clicking and dragging on photo software all over the studio, the lab gives the impression of a bustling workforce. In reality, My Own Color Lab currently only has three people officially working under its roof — Owner Franciosa and employees Nathan Bajar and Andrew Carlson. Franciosa says that he mostly relies on contacts at colleges for recruiting interns and employees.

Clients like Matthew Wilson may be unique to My Own Color Lab’s consistent customers. The type of repeat business among Franciosa’s clientele often involves elaborate or time intensive work — the type most individual clients only have for a short length of time. “Customers would come into the lab to work on prints for a whole month, then not come back for three years, says Franciosa.” However, Franciosa says that without these “big” jobs for clients preparing for a gallery show or a print book, the lab would not be able to sustain its business.

Ultimately, Franciosa likes to compare his passion for the dark rooms to the state of vinyl and how it has found a small but dedicated audience. “To audiophiles the sound of vinyl is very different from the sound of CDs; it’s a much more organic sound. It’s much more nuanced.”

Matthew Wilson offered his perspective, saying, “I simply consider digital and film as different mediums and believe they should be treated as such. For me, the tactility involved in producing a physical C print becomes part of the essence of the work and so the physical nature of printing my own work is of major importance.”

When asked if he would ever see a need to get rid of the dark rooms, Franciosa answered, “I hope not. If the books dictated they had to go then they would’ve been gone a long time ago.”

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