“Just spin the door, step in, and swing it around,” Gregory Veizades said, stepping into the black and white darkroom’s round revolving door. He gives it a spin to demonstrate, disappearing from view within seconds and entering the windowless room on the other side.
Spin. Step. Swing.
Inside the small darkroom, the mix of scents from the unique blend of chemicals used for developing film are pungent, a permanent part of the room. It’s a familiar scent to Dirk Hatch, one of the owners of a four-year-old West Oakland business that offers Bay Area residents what some would call a last-century service: it processes, develops, and sells photographic film.
Hatch got his start in film photography back in high school during the ‘80s. “I immediately fell in love with the darkroom and making my own prints,” said Hatch, who six years ago was managing a San Francisco photo lab called Light Waves. There he met Jesse Hitchins and Matt Osborne, who in 2019 joined Hatch in opening Underdog Film Lab.
“Oakland had been vastly underserved in the photo community,” Hatch said. “In hindsight, it was the perfect location for us.”
By “the photo community,” Hatch means photographers who still like shooting with film cameras—the kind whose images must be coaxed into view through photographic processing inside places like Underdog. The lab he helps run is just one of five dedicated photo labs remaining in the East Bay. There are still handfuls of such labs scattered across the country; although they’re scarcer today than they were a few decades ago. Choosing one depends on what a photographer wants done with their film, and what kind they have: not all film can be developed at every photo lab, and not all labs offer physical prints. Some digitize film only without returning the negatives, others may be able to take disposable Kodaks, but not black and white film rolls.
Above: A collection of photo prints acquired and captured by staff hang on the walls inside of Underdog Film Lab on Apr 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz
Above: Developed film hangs to be identified by staff at Underdog before getting picked up by customers in Oakland, Calif. on Apr 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz
Hatch and his partners knew what they were looking for when they began scouting a location for their lab in 2017 after Light Waves closed: a place where photographers, professional or hobbyist, could develop their photos without breaking the bank. Osborne had some old film processing equipment he had saved from another shuttered lab, and as they pooled their resources and began exploring, the team visited more than 100 potential spots around the Bay Area. They originally had their sights set on San Francisco, but it was just too expensive. After two years of searching, they finally found a narrow two-story building in West Oakland that once housed a saloon.
“If more people had the understanding of how to use a [film] camera, they could take better photos, even with a cell phone,” said Veizades.
For film photography enthusiasts, photo-finishing labs like Underdog act not only as a way to find and keep like-minded community, but to slow life down, letting photographers document their lives using the cameras their parents and grandparents used. Veizades, who has worked at the lab for almost two years, remembers both his parents shooting film when he was growing up and visiting Costco with his mom to pick up supplies and dig through the alphabetized negatives for their prints. He’s a millennial who got his own start in photography using a digital camera. But in 2018 for an upcoming vacation, he switched to film. He said he enjoys the experience of being more present with a film camera, instead of worrying about what the image looked like in a digital camera’s tiny viewfinder.
“I grabbed my film camera, a Canon AE-1, and took that to Europe for 10 days and shot roughly 10 rolls of film,” Veizades said. “It was my first real experience shooting for myself—and I really liked the process, the freedom of shooting where I can experience what’s happening around me. I take the pictures but I’m not constantly looking at a tiny screen. I live in the picture.”
Anya Kamenskaya (they/them pronouns), a Moscow-born Oakland resident and Underdog customer, said they also grew up surrounded by film photography in their family’s home in Russia.
“My folks had a makeshift darkroom in their bathroom that they would set up,” said Kamenskaya. “They developed photos in the tub sometimes. And then, you know, there would be photos drying on these papers around the house. Sometimes I’d help them trim the photos.”
Above: Inside of the lobby at Underdog Film Lab, where customers can pick up their film after their order is finished in Oakland, Calif. on Apr 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz
Neither Veizades’ nor Kamenskaya’s parents were professional photographers. They were just people who liked to take photos. Kamenskaya’s stepdad was an experimental filmmaker who also had a fondness for film photography, and after moving to the United States, Kamenskaya grew up going to various Bay Area film houses and seeing films with friends over the years. They even found their very first film camera on the street by chance.
“It was a Pentax K 1000,” Kamenskaya said.
These days, Kamenskaya shoots with a camera they received from their grandma in Moscow while visiting family a while back. “I have this old Soviet camera called the Kiev 6S,” Kamenskaya said. “My paternal grandmother used to work for the Russian space program and was one of their in-house photographers that would shoot their equipment. I love that camera for portraits—it’s got a great depth of field.”
Generational connections to film photography and the delayed gratification that comes with developing film have helped ensure that its popularity will be around for years to come. Still, the future of film is at risk as the machines and equipment that develop photos—and film cameras themselves—become older, more expensive to purchase and maintain, and harder to obtain.
Veizades’ previous experience in repair work helped land him his current job at Underdog; he maintains and repairs the lab’s photo scanners, film processing machines, and other equipment. “I was originally brought on because the machines are old,” Veizades said. “The newest processing machine we have is from ’97, I think. And that’s about as new as they come.”
He said it’s often hard to find an original user manual for the machinery. At best, there are PDF scans on Google of some of the manuals to look at for guidance. At worst, it’s careful guesswork.
Above: Gregory Veizades, who works at Underdog Film Lab, poses for a photo at the shop in Oakland, Calif. on Apr 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz
Fixing dated equipment may be a hassle, but replacing it altogether isn’t really an option. Well-functioning photo processing machinery, no matter how old, can cost a photo lab like Underdog up to $25,000 to replace.
Another challenge for labs like Underdog: scores of companies that once produced film cameras and replacement parts have gone out of business, leaving photographers unable to restore old cameras or purchase new ones.
Without the development and release of new film cameras and film processing machinery, the price of film, camera and film-development machinery repairs, camera lenses, and camera bodies will continue to rise in price and scarcity.
“Every camera, with a few exceptions, is 30, 40 years old,” Veizades said, referring to film cameras. “They don’t last forever. Some of them are more durable than others, but without new, inexpensive, high-quality cameras.…” he pauses.
“I would like to go back to the way it was 20 years ago. But that is a very strong ask. What’s most important right now in order for film to grow is new cameras.”
It sounds daunting now, but Veizades has hope for the future of film. In 2022, Ricoh, a Tokyo-based camera company, announced it was considering rolling out a new Pentax film camera model. Veizades is optimistic that other camera companies like Olympus may follow suit.
In the meantime, he’ll be at Underdog, helping keep the film community afloat for new and seasoned photographers.
“Our customer base is growing,” Veizades said. “And for a lot of them, this is their very first roll.”