As Genevieve Yue writes in the March 30, 2015 online issue of Film Comment, “there are roughly 65 film labs left in the world, of which around 20 are in North America. These ranks, along with the number of film stocks being manufactured, dwindled as digital technologies have saturated the realm of production and studios have moved away from film. When it comes to labs that process 16mm film—a mainstay of experimental film—and small-gauge stocks, only a few commercial options exist, mostly in the United States: Cinelab, in Boston; ColorLab in Maryland; Deluxe in New York City; Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas; and Fotokem in Burbank. One of the most recent casualties of this technological shift has been Pac Lab, which closed in New York, screening its unclaimed films at Anthology Film Archives.
The decline in commercial film production, however, has been countered by a rebirth in the phenomenon of artist-run film laboratories. What in the early Nineties was limited to a handful of cooperatively owned, independent labs, mostly in France, has grown into an international network of over 30, many of them formed within the last several years. The decline of film processing created a surplus of cheap, unwanted equipment that, in the right hands, could be repurposed for the smaller-scale operation of an artist-run lab. Saved from the scrap heap, many discarded contact printers and processing tanks have begun a second life as artists’ tools.
For many, this historical juncture between film and digital media has been cause for lament. But among those in the growing artist-run film lab community, the view is considerably more sanguine. Many are younger filmmakers drawn to the creative possibilities of hand-processing in workshops at places like Mono No Aware, in Brooklyn, or Big Mama’s Cinematheque in Philadelphia. For these artists, film offers a range of textures and expressive possibilities not available in digital formats. Others are drawn to the ‘home-brew’ DIY spirit that celebrates the autonomy of artist-run labs. Josh Lewis, who in 2012 founded the Negativland lab in Ridgewood, Queens, describes it as ‘a more involved way of being a filmmaker. You can’t rely on an industry that serves Hollywood. You need to be a technician and a filmmaker.’
For filmmakers like Lewis, the current moment offers the opportunity to sever cinema from its industrial tether. In many ways, this is the culmination of the avant-garde dream to become fully independent. Experimental film, at least at the level of materials, has been invariably tied to the commercial conditions of the film industry at large, though its output may have more in common, aesthetically and culturally, with the types of objects that circulate in the art world. Now, in response to a collapsing apparatus for the production of film, avant-garde filmmakers are developing the means and momentum to adapt and design their own methods of making films.”