Focus on Imaging Lab Profile: Rocky Mountain Film Lab Home of the One-Year Photo
by P.J. Heller
In the “I-want-it-now”
world of photofinishing, Steve knows exactly where his lab
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up at the Rocky Mountain Film Lab, which bills itself as the “world’s premier developer of antique, esoteric, vintage, outdated and old film.”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.
“I’m not certain if anybody does every film ever made, which is basically what we do,” he says.
Rocky Mountain Film Lab didn’t start out to be a niche player in the imaging business. It actually began as a typical lab, offering all the current services just like its competitors.
“During the late ’70s, when everything was going from Process C-22 to C-41 and from E-4 to E-6, our machinery allowed us to do both,” he explains. “We just held over doing it, and as more and more suppliers and labs dropped the older processes, we hung on.”
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 yet.”
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 industry.
Some 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
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 Washington.
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 was recovered.
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.
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 says.
“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 made of.”
Rocky Mountain Film Lab is on the Web at www.rockymountainfilm.com.
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.