CLARKS SUMMIT – Most of the photographic film brought through the door for Kevin Wells to process at c shows contemporary Clarks Summit and other familiar locations. The exposures, usually on 35mm stock, could have been made only a day before the roll was dropped off.
The film that arrives in the mail is normally very different. It comes from other states or outside the country, and in strange or forgotten formats, like disc and cartridge film. And the images on these films frequently contain moments in time from decades ago.
“I feel very privileged to be able to do this for people,” Wells said recently, while inside 1137 South Abington Road in a house that has been converted to house the business. “People find this really old film in their homes, or when their relatives pass and things get found in cabinets and drawers.”
Rapid Photo Imaging Center provides other services, such as passport photos, digitization of photographic prints and slides, the printing of digital photographs, restoration of old photos, and converting videotapes to DVDs, but a significant portion of its revenues is derived from old film. Wells processed film from the 1950s last year, and has made prints or digital images from rolls dating to the years around World War II.
Specialized photography work allowed the business to survive the great analog-to-digital shift of 2001 to 2003, when demand for photographic films and cameras plunged as consumers replaced them with digital cameras.
“This used to be filled with film,” Wells said, pointing to a store wall where only a few boxes of Fuji 35mm film were displayed for sale. The rest of the shelving now holds a collection of film cameras. “The change was very quick.”
The machines used for producing prints of analog photos – those taken with cameras loaded with film – cannot be used to make prints of digital images. Rather than invest $125,000 to $150,000 for new equipment, Wells said, many small processors closed instead of adapting to digital photography.
Rapid Photo Imaging Center has a hybrid machine that makes prints from analog or digital sources. Due to the paper and the inks used by the device, Wells feels the output gives customers a product that resembles traditional photographic prints.
“This is still a chemical-based picture, even though it’s printed by laser,” he said. “It not only looks like a traditional photo, it feels like it.”
Wells said a large number of his old-film customers are more interested in obtaining digitized versions of the images captured on film over the hard copies. This makes it easier for people to share the photos with others.
In 1978, Wells opened a photography studio in Clarks Summit. Under the name Photography by Wells, he shot photos for weddings, schools and assorted public relations assignments for clients, including colleges. Nine years later, he bought film-processing equipment and changed the name of the business to Rapid Photo.
In 1998, he purchased the building at 1137 South Abington Road and moved the business from South Main Street. The name became Rapid Photo Imaging Center the following year when Wells formed a corporation to hold the assets.
Photography services are no longer offered. The owner said he lacks the time to leave the shop for assignments. Wells is the only employee, and some activities – including photo restoration and film-to-DVD transfers – are painstakingly slow to accomplish.
Wells is not a film snob. When he uses film for photography, it is to test store equipment. He is impressed by the detailed imagery recorded by many digital cameras.
“This is incredible,” Wells said, lifting a wide, rectangular photograph printed on heavy stock. Used as a prop to highlight the store’s ability to make prints up to 96 inches wide, the image showed horses about to enter the starting gate at Churchill Downs prior to a recent Kentucky Derby.
In the blue sky above the brown track and the green grass of the infield, Wells pointed to some small black lines. “I thought they were imperfections in my printing,” Wells said, “but those are banners being towed behind a plane. You can read them. And this was taken with a phone.”
Processing very old film is the favorite work activity for Wells. If the film wasn’t baked or frozen during its long period of storage, there is a good chance he can successfully process it. And, like the people who tender the film, he is unsure of what scenes will be revealed by the imagery.
The disc film sent in by a 45-year-old mother of adult children could show a family vacation she took to Florida 30 years ago. The 1950s roll film from a Brownie camera sent in by grandchildren now in their 80s may contain records of forgotten times and previously unseen relations.
“You see old cars, and some relatives of theirs you know have passed,” Wells said. “They’re not going to have many pictures of them. Possibly, they may be the only pictures they have.”
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