The Second Act — Photo Finish

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It’s been almost 50 years since I was last in a darkroom. A darkroom is where you used to go to develop film and make paper prints of your photographs. I did some of my best creative work in a darkroom, exploiting the chemical nature of the process to enhance the contrast, enlarge the grain or randomly mess with the image using a process called solarization, all in beautiful black and white.

Times have changed. Snapping a photo and making a color print has become as simple as pointing a cell phone and then pressing a print button. No one spends hours in the dim red light of a darkroom anymore. With Photoshop and an inexpensive inkjet printer, who need chemicals?

So what, I wondered, was Photo Finish US, the business identified by the neon sign on the side of Highway 35 near Bigfork? Turns out the place is run by John Stalowy, a guy I’ve known for several years, so I gave him a call and he invited me over.

Apparently not everyone prints their photos on a $100 inkjet printer and the reasons are based in a bunch of technologies I didn’t know existed. John explained a lot of them, like the difference between sRGB vs. RGB vs. ProPhoto. And why it is important to print in 11 colors even when the digital file only contains three. And all about aqueous inks vs. solvent inks vs. dye sublimation. Then he gave me a tour.

John’s early career had been as a builder of high-end homes in Chicago. He got his start in photography by taking architectural photos of homes he had constructed. Word spread and he found himself taking photos of the homes others had built as well. Fifteen years ago he left Chicago and homebuilding behind and moved to Montana, where he got into high-tech photography as sort of a hobby business.

John began a tour of his facility in the showroom, which featured samples printed on a variety of substrates: paper, aluminum, plastic and birch veneer. He explained that the printing process can be direct or mediated; in the case of aluminum, he can print either directly on the metal or first as an image on a clay-based paper that is then baked onto the metal. Each approach results in a unique look, all different from what comes out of my inkjet printer.

John doesn’t limit himself to just printing other people’s photos — he takes images himself, but mostly in the controlled environment of his studio.

“This is a light table,” he says, pointing to what looks like a small stage, “where I can light from under the subject as well as on top, in front and behind.”

John shoots a lot of guns — photos of guns. “Right now we have a translucent cover on the light table, but underneath is clear glass.” He pulls the cover back to show an eight-by-eight-foot expanse of clear glass. “I did a figure study a while back. I shot a lot of the photos from under the glass.”

“And this light,” he says, “I helped design it. It’s full of LEDs.” He turns on a floodlight fixture and the room lights up like we’re outside in the bright sun. “I had the incandescent version of this and it had a warning to keep the subjects 25 feet away. I didn’t have 25 feet, but at 15 feet, the finish on the stock of the gun I was shooting started to smoke.” Hence the new LED design.

We continue deeper into his facility. The final stop is a wood shop, complete with a table saw, a radial arm saw, a bandsaw and a large format flatbed CNC router. “Much of my business is out of town and shipping was the big problem,” he said. “I was losing almost half of my prints to shipping damage. So I programmed this router to make custom shipping containers out of cardboard and styrofoam.” I look at the computer display of yet another workstation, this one controlling the router, and see graphic designs of the boxes he can now cut by simply specifying the height and width of the photo. “I haven’t lost a one since,” he says.

John has had employees, but now he’s doing all the work himself. “I was spending more time explaining how to do it that it would take me to do it myself,” he explained, “so I just simplified the process.”

When you run a business that’s a lot of work, it’s good to have employees. But when the work is something you love, well … It’s been said that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. John is clearly doing what he loves.

David Vale shoots photos with his venerable Nikon D80. He has Photoshop on his computer, but it’s kind of wasted on his bargain inkjet printer.

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