The Key To Film Photography’s Survival

As major analog camera and film shops shut down across the city, one small store thrives.

Matt Osborne, left, and Gordon Szeto pose for a portrait at Glass Key Photo. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

The sleepy 400 block of Haight Street gets a some foot traffic, but it’s not window shoppers or those out for a morning stroll. Those who walk east on the Lower Haight’s main drag, past Fillmore Street, are usually on a mission: Kate’s Kitchen for a cheap breakfast, SPARC for a gram of OG Kush, Rooky Ricardo’s Records for a soul 45, or Glass Key Photo for a 50-year-old medium-format camera.

Even heading straight for the place, Glass Key is easy to miss. Its Dutch door is slightly recessed from the street, and its facade is small. Upon entering, customers must navigate among stacks of boxes containing camera parts to find the roll of film or lens they’re looking for.

The camera shop comes from modest roots, too. Owner Matt Osborne first launched the business in 2012, with a single desk and a refrigerator full of film in the back of Rooky Ricardo’s. After two years, business was thriving, and Osborne teamed up with 4×5 Gallery owner Gordon Szeto to launch Glass Key Photo — which, when it first opened its doors at 442 Haight St., carried film, a few cameras, and a gallery full of prints.

But over time, the camera and film business took off, and the open floor plan gradually filled up with boxes on top of boxes packed with gear. In the past few months, Osborne and Szeto rented out a storage unit just to hold rare supplies they bought from Adolph Gasser, a massive camera retailer that operated out of SoMa for 67 years before closing down in March.  

Osborne and Szeto sort camera parts at Glass Key Photo, May 22, 2017. (Jessica Christian)

 

Adolph Gasser wasn’t the only analog retailer to close up shop in San Francisco in the past few years. Osborne and Szeto came up with a list of seven others: Calumet, Action Camera, Ritz, Discount Cameras, Photographer’s Supply, Pro Camera, and Keeble and Schuchat — though the latter was down in Palo Alto.

“We’re the only one left that’s only film,” Osborne says.

Taking into account all the recent closures, it would appear that the analog camera industry is on its way out. Everyone who has a smartphone has a camera at their fingertips, and major film producers — such as Agfa, Fuji, and Kodak — have discontinued scores of products, reducing the stock of what’s left in the remaining film stores. For many professional photographers who’ve moved over to digital, the film era is over.

But in Lower Haight, Glass Key Photo thrives. As the bigger camera shops close up, customers are flocking to Haight Street for their supplies, and Osborne and Szeto are busier than ever. Some of this is due to decreasing competition, but that alone isn’t enough to survive. With years of experience behind them, and by keeping a close eye on what’s selling and what isn’t, Glass Key’s owners have carved out a niche for themselves in a community where it’s not unusual for someone to impulse-buy a $1,000 film camera.

“It’s trendy, everything is trendy in this industry right now,” Szeto tells SF Weekly. “A lot of people shooting, they didn’t grow up in the era when these cameras came out, so they don’t know a lot about them. They just know who’s using them. It has a lot to do with who’s seen using what.”

In recent months, Glass Key has seen a huge uptick in point-and-shoot film cameras.

“Contax 645, those are hugely popular because some top-end wedding photographer is using it, and all these other wedding photographers have to use it now,” he says. “Value-wise, it’s gone up enormously.”

Another item the shop can hardly keep in stock is the Yashica T4.

“Terry Richardson used it, so everyone uses that,” Szeto says. “It’s a little point-and-shoot that sells for $300 — it’s pretty highly priced for an automatic camera.”

Sourcing cameras and supplies has also become easier for the shop. Approximately 60 percent of the stock is stuff people have brought in to sell. (Glass Key is the only place in the city that will pay cash for gear, instead of selling things on commission.) And even with their buying outreach, they’ve gone Luddite.

“We have a guy that puts up flyers for us,” Szeto says. “Many of the people we’re looking to buy from aren’t going to be online, or on Craigslist. They’re going to be at laundromats, restaurants. It’s been great so far.

“We used to do estate sales, but it’s a lot of work and it’s not worth it,” he continues. “Now that we have more people coming in, we’re able to bypass some of that. That was our goal; we know it’s out there.”

The diversity of the crowds that enter Glass Key speaks to its wide array of stock — disposable black-and-white film cameras sit across the room from large-format, wet-plate cameras from the 1800s — but also to the vibe of the place. Someone who thinks they know it all can come in and be politely schooled by Szeto and Osborne, but neither are ever too high-and-mighty not to put down something they’re working on in order to show a teenage girl how to work their grandfather’s old Rollei. It’s a friendly neighborhood camera shop, and even as it becomes more of a destination for photographers across the city, it retains its charm.

A refrigerator full of film sits behind the counter at Glass Key. (Jessica Christian)

 

Luckily for Glass Key, the aforementioned trendiness of film photography also means that a fair amount of discontinued stock is returning: While most of the cameras they sell were made before 1990, film is making a big comeback, and people can’t wait to get their hands on new releases.

“As new stuff comes out, people get into it,” Osborne says. “A weird thing that’s happening now, that’s similar to vinyl — vinyl’s been having this issue where the pressing plants can’t keep up with demand. That’s happening with film. Cinestill [an experimental type of motion-picture film converted for still photography] has been on backorder, because they literally got caught off-guard and didn’t expect to be as successful as they’ve been. It’s weird to have shortages based on too much demand, instead of lack of raw material.”

And at $12 per roll, the new Cinestill film, which can be used for only 12 photos, proves there’s a solid business to be had just out of dealing in new stuff.

Technology trends do occasionally swing on a pendulum, and film photography does appear to be on an upswing for the first time in several decades. And in an era where adults average 10 hours a day looking at screens, returning to a tactile, analog activity can be a relief.

“I do think some people view film photography as an alternative,” says Osborne. “They think ‘I’m in front a computer enough, I want to do this another way.’ People like just going back into a darkroom. It’s a different thing. Why limit yourself?”

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