Meet the photo labs bringing analogue photography to the modern day in Brooklyn, New York.
As a borough, Brooklyn is steeped in decades of history of art, culture and creativity. Before it became the birthplace of the modern-day hipster — after widespread gentrification — Brooklyn was an artistic enclave. Filled with and inspiring music penned by the Notorious B.I.G and JAY-Z, films helmed by director Spike Lee like Do The Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It, literature like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and graffiti as art form defined the New York borough as the perfect muse and breeding ground for art.
While artists of all ethnic backgrounds have hailed from the borough and continue to make it their home and muse, “Black Brooklyn,” as author Harold X. Connolly referred to Brooklyn’s Black population during his lifetime, is responsible for some of the most notable art to emerge from the borough. The formerly mentioned Biggie, Hov and Oscar-winning Lee have proven themselves to be vanguards, and up there with them is painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, actress Lupita Nyong’o, athlete Michael Jordan, and singer Aaliyah, among others. Black creatives have made Brooklyn their own, cementing it as a cool and storied birthplace for art with heart, no matter the medium.
Film photography, also known as analogue photography, in particular has found renewed life in Brooklyn thanks to Black creatives, not just because of the current internet-fueled nostalgia overtaking modern style and music, but thanks in part to the increased number of Black-owned photo labs across different neighborhoods.
“They come to us with a lot of levity and interest, and it makes me excited for us to keep doing what we’re doing,” says Sig Yurei, a photographer and member of the three-man team holding down the Pink Folder Film House in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Founded by photographer Dom Pooh from his home in 2017, Pink Film Folder House started as a passion project fueled by a love of analogue photography.
“[Photography] is one of the few things I can do that feels useful,” he explains, further stating that developing and scanning film as a business “didn’t feel like I was doing my art for someone else.”
For a time, Dom had loyal clients who trusted him with their film as he worked from home, but operations halted temporarily in 2018 due to a lack of equipment that would make his business more successful. In 2019, however, with the moral and financial support of Sig and friend Victor Fernandez, the trio worked together as a team to get the business up and running again. Two years later, in March 2021, the Pink Folder Film House found its current home in the basement of Brooklyn Blooms Floral Boutique in Bed-Stuy. It’s a move that’s been applauded by OG customers from Dom’s home days and greatly appreciated by neighborhood residents who no longer have to trek to Manhattan to develop their film.
“The number one response we get is ‘I’m glad you guys are here. I’m in the neighborhood, I’m around the corner, I’m just down the block,’” says Victor. “With older customers, they’re surprised [photo labs] still exist. And we tell them ‘Yes, we’re here!’ Where we’re at in Brooklyn makes us one of one. People know they can get film developed in Bed-Stuy.”
Twenty minutes across Bed-Stuy, closer to Bushwick, another photo lab made a name for itself last September when they opened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photodom, owned and operated by founder and artist Dominick Lewis, bills itself as a “Black-owned camera store in Brooklyn, New York” that not only processes film, but sells it by brand and type; stocks a variety of cameras to rent starting at $10 a day; sells darkroom supplies, including the necessary chemicals; and carries photography-related merch.
Like the origins of Pink Folder Film House, Lewis began processing film at home in his native Florida, then continued to do so out of his grandmother’s house in Flatbush in 2017. Photo processing in the basement and merchandise creation in his bedroom became too much, and the hunt for a physical space for a business began. “We’re in a neighborhood further from other labs, so the access for local artists has been great,” says Lewis. “And more artists every day are moving to the area. They notice our sign outside, and business continues to spread word of mouth.”
While photography has remained a popular hobby since the advent of the camera obscura in the 17th century, it’s admittedly uncommon for photo labs run by millennials to exist in New York City today; people shooting on film may resort to their local Rite Aid or Duane Reade, or a neighborhood photo lab run by an older owner who’s owned the business for decades. A love of analog photography, for both Photodom and the Pink Folder Film House, helped set the stage for the businesses: Victor grew up with disposable cameras, Dom took snaps of friends at the local skatepark, and Lewis, inspired by a friend, learned how to develop film on YouTube and did so in his mother’s sink as a college student.
“[Film] is a physical thing; it’s in your hands. It’s intimate,” says Sid about the lasting appeal of analog photography, despite living in a world where digital photography has existed since the 1970s. “Even though phones themselves are capable [of taking photos],” Victor adds, “it can make the process numb. There’s an intimacy with film. It’s a new area to explore. It keeps the film alive.”
Being artists themselves, and interacting with customers who continuously bring in different memories shot on film everyday, exposes these men to multiple narratives. As a result, they don’t feel the need to tell one particular story, despite being Black-owned businesses. “As an artist, not even just as someone who takes pictures, I never feel obligated to touch one specific subject,” says Sid, a sentiment Dom and Victor agree with via nods. “No matter what it is that I’m into or whatever it is I’m supposed to be boxed into, whether that be race or culture. A lot of the time, we’re in the abstract, artists even more so. It’s our job to give it some time structure and make it make more sense for other people.”
“I’m Black, so there’s going to be Black people in my photos,” Victor follows up with a laugh. “We’re a part of Brooklyn; that’s going to be a part of my photos.”
Lewis explains that he “never felt pressure” from friends or peers to shoot specifically “Black” art, but that as a Black man, his work will include other Black people. He references his current photography series “Document Brooklyn,” showcasing the changing face and culture of Brooklyn, as an example of this.
Photodom and the Pink Folder Film House — a year and nine months, respectively, into existence as storefronts — represent a learning experience for both customer and proprietor. “They ask if we can show their kids [the dynamics of processing film photography] and we say of course,” Dom shares about his clients. “They want to learn everything we have to offer.” And as a result, “I’ve learned so much about myself through photography.”
“People say there’s nothing like this where they’re from,” Lewis similarly muses about Photodom’s customers who come from many walks of life. “Sixty to seventy percent of customers just want to document memories. I’ve learned so much about this business at a tremendous rate this past year.”