Duluth camera store caters to shrinking market

First Photo Along the busy road of Central Entrance, fast food chains line up in neat succession. Kitty-corner from a cell phone store and 24 Hour Fitness resides a camera store, First Photo. Inside, glass cabinets house the sleek, new digital cameras that reign supreme over the used 35mm film cameras that collect dust in the lower case. These photo relics once fueled the store’s growth but now are just reminders of the past.

“If you look at privately-owned camera stores, we’re a dying breed,” said Mike Mennes, owner of First Photo.

“Early on, the quality of digital photography did not match film, and I think people kind of moved over for the convenience,” Mennes said. “I feel we’re a society of instant gratification, and they really liked the capability to see the image right away on the camera.”

First Photo of Duluth is the last remaining privately-owned camera store in town and one of two that still develops film. The other is True North Color Lab, a division of the Duluth Camera Exchange, that offers printing, developing and other film services.

According to a 1962 Duluth city directory, the city once was home to seven different photography shops. From Yoho Photo and Nelson Photo Supplies to Berg’s Millard Camera Center, Duluth had an abundance of shops to choose from.

By 1991, only three shops would remain, including Express Land Photo, Duluth Camera Exchange and First Photo. Today, only the two survive.

For the photographers who still shoot with film, these are the options that remain in the Duluth area.

“We cater to the student body, too,” Mennes said. “Whether it’s high school or college students that are taking photography courses that come in to buy their black and white film or darkroom paper.”

“Even with just the run of the mill consumer, some people still swear by film," Mennes said.

In the back of First Photo sits a plastic dome-like machine still capable of processing and spitting out 35mm filmstrips. Mennes offers C41 processing (for regular colored film) and sends other film that cannot be processed in-store to an outside lab.

Mennes is in the business of capturing memories, but memories don’t always pay the bills on time.

“When regular cameras were out, they were kind of their own ‘thing,’” Mennes said. “We never made a lot of profit on it, but enough to get by. When digital came out, it’s almost like the industry, and people started treating it like an electronics commodity than a photographic camera.”

The fall of film industry giant, Kodak, came when they filed for bankruptcy in early 2012 . According to a January 2012 article by the New York Times, Kodak plans to continue operating normally during bankruptcy but will also continue selling a portfolio of 1,100 digital imaging patents to raise cash for its loss-making operations within the company.

As the supply of film drops, the price for the niche film market continues to soar. For those aspiring photographers who want to save money, the choice is clear.

“It’s gotten to the point that the quality is as good as film,” Mennes said. “I think at times it makes it easier to catalog and transfer images. A lot of people save money by not having to make a print from every exposure. ”

Manager of True North Color Lab, Kevin Peterson, recognizes the need for film processing to remain, especially for film enthusiasts, regardless of the money.

“[Film] is definitely needed,” Peterson said. “It’s a truer, real situation.”

“You actually have something there with an image, digital you don’t,” Peterson said. “It’s too archaic to be a major thing, but it’s become more of an archival art process now.”

The shelves inside First Photo that once held hundreds of film rolls now hold square plastic flashcards capable of holding hundreds of digital images. As technology continues to move forward, Mennes wonders if he can keep up.

“I’m trying to keep my doors open, but it’s getting tougher and tougher,” Mennes said. “I hope I can keep my doors open for another 10 to 15 years now. We’ll see.”

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