Thursday, March 26, 2009

Saying goodbye to an old friend

It’s the end of an era. Whether we like it or not.

Last month, my friend Brian (not his real name) who I’ve known since the early 1980's got word that the chain which runs the camera shop he’s worked at as a salesman for almost a quarter of a century was declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This meant that his store would be closing at the end of this week. It not only means that Brian is now among the many thousands trying to set up a livelihood in the current economy, it means that the town his store was located in, a college town with dozens of photography students, will now be without a proper camera store. Consider what that loss means to a student who needs materials or equipment for a project that’s due in a few days, a professional who needs extra gear for a particular job, or anyone who needs technical advice from someone other than the salesman in the big-box store who was selling running shoes or toasters the previous week.

When I bought my first digital camera, I went to Brian’s store. I knew that I’d be paying a bit more than I would if I shopped online. I also knew I’d get something from Brian that I’d never find at, or anyplace else in cyberspace - solid, personal technical advice. Advice from a man who has been working with cameras since his teens, who has observed the transition from film to digital. Who has seen which brands and models of cameras come in for repairs most frequently, who could look at a problem picture and immediately tell you what had gone wrong and what could be done about it. Who knew which kinds of digital media were reliable and which were to be avoided. When my digital camera developed problems with its image sensor, it was Brian who informed me that the manufacturer was recalling that particular model and walked me through the recall process. When I wanted to have my old film camera fixed, he referred me to a local camera repair shop (itself a rare and dying breed).

Lots of chain stores, drugstores and supermarkets still have film-processing labs where you can get prints and enlargements made of digital or conventional photos. Trouble is, the self-service print-making kiosks all operate in idiot mode. They all are programmed to function as if everyone who uses them is a rank amateur who needs to have all of his or her work “enhanced”. This can be frustrating for good photographers who have a certain kind of image quality in mind and don’t want their pictures messed with. The teenaged minimum-wage-slaves behind the counter can’t override the idiot-mode programming and will not hesitate to tell you so. Brian knew how to make the print makers behave. I've had him make exhibition-grade prints for me. Obviously he cannot provide me with that service any longer.

Personal service in retailing is being superseded by “customer service” from a back-office halfway around the world whose employees often know barely enough English to read the printed scripts pertaining to the most common problems. If your particular problem isn’t listed on any of the scripts - lotsa luck. Point-of-sale technical assistance? Forget it. The way things are progressing, genuine technical advice will only be had by logging onto web forums such as No one bothers fixing digital gear when it fails not only because the mediocre build-quality of much of it leaves little “fix” in it but because a new and improved model is always one mouse click away, for less than the cost of the repair. We have finally arrived in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which it is always better to end than to mend.

Photo Creative Commons 2009 by PMG.
Non-comm, attrib, no derivs.


1 comment:

urgeking said...

The reality of what you're pos(i)ting is starting to hit home now that I've gone out to check out some local "photo labs." Most of the drugstore photo departments I've seen this week consist of little more than one to three instant-photo kiosks at a counter. At the CVS across from Wegmans in Ithaca, they do have an actual minilab, and they still do film in-house. But the store manager-- who spent most of the time in a back room while photo customers waited and waited-- advised me to use the instant printer in the yellow Kodak kiosk for my digiprints, because "it does better-looking prints than the ones we can make in the lab. Oh, definitely." (!!) And, sad to say, the "Digital One-Hour" advertised by a prominent electric sign on the front of the Kinney drugstore in Dryden is nothing but ONE insta-kiosk. Just a couple of years ago, there were a lot of actual develop-'n'-print minilabs to be found in stores like this, and I naively assumed that there still are. The times, they are d-volvin'...