That’s not always the case, but then,
what can you expect when customers have waited 30 or 40 years to get their
film developed and printed.
“You gave me 30-year-old film,”
Steve will often say to his customers. Then, with a smile, he’ll add,
“You’re in a hurry now?”
Those old films, often forgotten in
trunks, attics or basements, more frequently than not end up at the Rocky
Mountain Film Lab, which bills itself as the “world’s premier
developer of antique, esoteric, vintage, outdated and old film.”
“If you have it, we can develop it,”
says Steve, who started the company more than 30 years ago. “We do
everything that everybody else won’t do.”
Long-forgotten and unused developing
processes for both still and movie films—from Kodacolor C-22 to E-2 to
K-11—are still available today at Rocky Mountain Film.
These days, about 80 to 90 percent of
the work handled by them involves the older processes that are no
longer offered by most other imaging labs. Only a handful of labs
worldwide specialize in handling such old film stocks, Steve notes, adding
that he doesn’t know of any that handle every type of film like his lab.
Business has grown largely by word of
mouth, including recommendations from the major film manufacturers who
field questions from consumers looking for a place to get a long-forgotten
roll of film processed. Kodak, Fuji and Agfa have also provided him with
assistance with chemical formulas.
“I figure that someday, someone will
find the last roll of film,” he says. “But that hasn’t happened
If anything, Steve says the quantity of
film being handled by the lab continues to increase every year.
The lab is likely to pick up even more
business now that major suppliers have dropped Process C-41 support for
some films, such as Instamatic and disc negatives, he says.
“Those changes have brought what I
call ‘almost current films’ into our lab,” he says. “Having these
films was a first. We always used to deal with films that were processed a
long time ago or films that should have been processed a long time ago.”
Much of the film that comes to the lab
comes from individuals who for one reason or another never had their rolls
of film processed. Other work comes from the government and scientific
communities, business and industry, and the entertainment and film
of the long-ago film showing up these days comes from Vietnam veterans.
These veterans are just recently coming to grips with viewing images they
took while they were overseas in the 1960s, Steve reports.
They have also seen war images from
several other wars including World War II. Among the war images, Steve vividly recalls one of a Nazi soldier with his son taken in the 1940s.
He remembers, “I said to everybody,
‘This is a real picture from the ’40s of a real German solider with
his son. This isn’t a movie. This isn’t a costume. This is real.’”
Another photo from that same period
showed the burning synagogues by the Nazis in the 1930s.
“This is real history,” Steve says. “This really happened.”
What stands out most in his mind are the
images sent to the lab by the family of a man killed in a plane crash in
Although the small plane had crashed on
a mountain some 20 to 30 years ago, and the bodies of the victims had been
removed from the site, their belongings have remained untouched on the
mountainside since the accident. It wasn’t until the man’s children
took a trek to the site years later as adults that the film he had taken
The family members sent the
black-and-white film to Rocky Mountain Film, where it was processed and
printed. Among the images on the roll was one of the father and the pilot
shortly before they took off on the ill-fated flight.
“It was so cold on the mountain that even though the film had been
sitting out in the elements all that time, the pictures look like they
were shot and developed yesterday,” he says. “They look gorgeous.”
Steve cautions his customers not to
expect miracles with the old film.
“We find there is a small amount of
film—and we’re very happy about how small it is—that is so old and
so brittle or so poorly stored or so affected by intense heat that the
shrinkage on the film has made it just about impossible to handle,” he
“I always feel bad when I see stuff
like that. We get that to some extent. Most of the time, I’d say we can
pretty much handle 60 to 80 percent of the film we receive.”
In some cases, it may entail having to
backwind badly curled film for several weeks before it can be processed.
In other cases, Steve has put together chemicals to match or come close to
the original processing formulas.
Because of the large processing machines
that are used, coupled with the need to mix up limited amounts of
chemicals, Steve and his five-member staff prefer to batch orders of the
same type together to make processing the film more cost effective. Having
to wait for several rolls of the same type of film means film processing
orders can take weeks, months or even a year to complete.
For more general films that the lab sees
on a regular basis, turnaround time is often six to 10 weeks. Other
processes can take six to 12 months.
What makes the processing so laborious
is the variety. They estimate there are some 80 to 90 different types of
films and formats, and each type may come in different sizes. Resetting
the machine for each roll would be inefficient.
“There are 116, 616, 127, 620, 120,
828, 35 half-frame, 35 full-frame, 126, 110, disc,” he says. “All of
that takes a different setup on the printer and a little bit of extra work
in resetting the machinery. So if I can run a few hundred rolls of 620
square format, that speeds up production and makes me much more efficient.
“The thing that drives us crazy
sometimes is resetting the machinery and resetting the printing, not for
just C-22, but for the different sizes of C-22,” he adds.
“With some of the really obscure
processes—where in a year I may have one roll, half a dozen rolls, or a
dozen rolls of one type of film—I try to wait for as long as I can,”
he explains. “For me to set up and do it and run one roll is the same
amount of work and energy as to run a dozen rolls.”
Steve says people are not put off by the
long turnaround times or the cost of processing and printing, which runs
about $25 per roll.
“Sometimes I’ll get 50 rolls at a
time from people,” Steve says. “I don’t know why they’ve saved them
in a dresser drawer forever like that. Some people will say they didn’t
have the money at the time to process the film. When they hear our prices,
I bet they wish they had gone to the drug store 20 years ago.”
Even so, he says, the images his
customers receive back are often priceless.
“Usually they want the photographs
because they are memories,” he says. “It is the stuff that life is
Rocky Mountain Film Lab is on the Web at
P.J. Heller operates
Dateline, a freelance photojournalism service based in Santa Barbara,
Calif. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.