What New Lab Meant to Us

Being the newest managing editor of the San Francisco APA chapter "Advertising Photographers of America" I had to come up with story ideas. This is the first story to be published and it is on the local E6 processing lab "New Lab." They closed their doors in May after 29 years serving the photography community with great service and friendship. I asked a number of photographers to submit their thoughts about New Lab. Below is the artical.


New Lab closed its doors last month. Its closing marked the end of an era here in the San Francisco photography community. The lab basically processed film, but what it meant to the community was more than that.

When I moved to San Francisco from New York City back in 1989 my experiences with E6 labs were typical of most New York photographers. We had all our film delivered by messengers and our communication was a short direct telephone call to an anonymous voice just giving processing instructions. Arriving in San Francisco I was informed of the two E6 labs in town that the majority of professional photographers patronized: Chromeworks and New Lab. I selected New Lab because they were on Cleveland alley, and closer to my studio at the time.

The local community did not embrace the concept of messengering film like it did in New York, I had to drive to the lab and actually drop it off and pick it up. Slowly, I started reviewing clip tests and asked the advice from some of knowledgeable people behind the desk. They were great.

Then New Lab moved to Bryant Street and had ample parking! More and more photographers and assistants started to linger and chit chat. We all became more familiar with Wendy, Paul, DanO, Lynn, Bill, Hugh, and Brian. New Lab had become the town square for photographers -- a place to unexpectedly bump into an old friend, or an assistant's opportunity to meet a new photographer. And for many years, they New Lab generously provided office space for both the APA and ASMP, in exchange for newsletter ads. They became a regional hub.

My friend Tom McAfee remembers going to the lab being one of the most pleasant parts of his day. "I know going to the lab was the highlight of (my dog) Sam's day -- he would somehow know and actually sulk if I went without him -- but who could argue with being fed treats by the likes of Wendy, etc.? They were always cutting the edge, and willing to share what they knew. A really, really great business model."

For Hector Herrera it was his first job in the photography world. "I really learned about professional photography. It was always an experience to look at the work of the best photographers, not only in the bay area but from all over the country,"

Richard Morgenstein aptly described some typical experiences many photographers have encountered at New Lab.

As I sit here in my digital dungeon, having just spent the past 3 hours retouching corporate portraits (NOT outsourced to India or Peru or Hungary), I am pretty sure that the closing of the New Lab marks the end of a photographic era.

While writing this, I am reminded of how much I miss from the film era. I especially miss the editorial portraiture world prior to the dot com bust. At the time, we knew we were having fun and making money, but only in retrospect is it clear what we have lost.

The death of the New Lab caps this loss. In San Francisco, there were basically two E-6 labs that catered to the professional, and the New Lab is the last to close. To say that they "processed our film" minimizes their importance to the photographic community.

I used both labs at times (remember cross-processing?), but due to the size and the physical layout of the New Lab, it was the easier place to socialize. I do not need to list the professional reasons that we used the New Lab, long considered one of the finest labs in the world. But instead I want to talk about having a place to meet other photographers, to see their work, to get and give advice, and generally to help build a community.

The average editorial shoot could take three trips to the New Lab (drop film for a snip test, come back to check the snips, and make one last trip to edit the film, package it and ship it off via Fed Ex). Since many of us were shooting upwards of 175 assignments a year, there were plenty of people to connect with at any of these stops.

This sense of community led directly to the formation of Editorial Photographers (EP) and its groundbreaking contractual deals with Business Week and Forbes Magazines. Many special circumstances allowed photographers to come together cooperatively in San Francisco, but without the New Lab as a catalyst, these things might never have happened. With the closing of the New Lab, we are reminded of our community's loss in the post-film world.

This is a belated but heartfelt thanks to the New Lab and, its employees and founders. We appreciate all of the support over the years. You will be missed, but never forgotten.

And finally Hunter Freeman felt comfortable enough to show his devilish charm in his remarks about the end of the New Lab era.

They were just the best film lab I've ever dealt with, including my six years in Manhattan.

Wonderful people to work with, always looking for perfection in what they did, and always ready to go the extra mile to help on any project. A hub of the photo community, you could always count on seeing other photographers there.

I played an April Fool's trick on them one time. I told them I was shooting a very important job, with very little time to shoot and test. I sent one sheet over to them for a super rush test, making sure that they would call me to give their opinion on the exposure - I had no time to go see for myself! :-) They called with horrible news, and said that there was "nothing on the film." I was shocked! :-) I asked if there was absolutely nothing on the film at all, "Not even a speck of anything, anywhere?" They dutifully checked again while I was on the phone, and said there was something small in one corner of the 8x10. I said, "Get a loupe and see what it is." That's when they realized what I'd done: In very small white type, in one corner of the 8x10, were the words "April Fool's!" They swore they would get me for that, though they never did get any payback - they were just too nice.

Super people, great service, great processing. New Lab was the best.

Personally, I remember one story about my trust in New Lab: while shooting a catalog in Arizona, a strange man came up to me and offered to process my E6 at a great price. I was suspicious, partly because he was wearing a black leather jacket and loafers in the middle of the dessert, but I just couldn't bear to have anyone else but New Lab touch my film. I simply didn't want to miss the secure feeling of coming home to a safe and friendly place, knowing there were people who cared just as much as we do about our film. New Lab was a community, a shared sense of professionalism; and it didn't have to be barked out loud for the whole world to hear. For those of us who walked though the doors, we knew we were entering a special place.