Homegrown labs today are the heart of the film photography process. It’s not just the film sellers, it’s not influencers, but a team of people with core processes that actually translate your work into a physical, visual output.
There is an urgent need for more experienced film shooters to advocate a standard of film processing (and printing) because it will set the stage for a lot of newcomers. It’s always great to put our best foot forward right?
Carmencita Lab is one of these champions that really encapsulate a professional experience for any level of film shooter. Even I from the Philippines have heard of Albert and his wonderful lab. So without further adieu, here’s a wonderful insight to his lab and story.
What and who’s the inspiration behind Carmencita lab? I feel like there’s a great story behind, “a lab made by photographers for photographers”
Well, I don’t know how great it is, but it is without a doubt a bit peculiar! The whole thing started basically because my partner Miguel was a wedding photographer in Spain trying to get the film look seen by many US photographers. He used to work in minilabs and since shipping overseas was quite expensive he decided to approach it with a DIY attitude.
We met shortly after that and to be honest, we initially met because he encountered many challenges such as setting up and running a scanner that was not really properly working.
We always stayed true to creating a level of service that was tailor-made for the needs of photographers like us
In the end, he figured it out and could scan his own work. However, I was coming with a background working for an international lab in the US. I told him, perhaps there was an opportunity to open the service to other fellow European photographers who seek quality scans…. and so we did!
From a garage to a room in a flat, to calling an old hairdresser’s space that was for rent in a small town our home for 2 years, our modest successes have finally enable us to move to the space where we are now: in the city of Valencia and fully open to serve the public 🙂
So basically during this process lots of things changed BUT, we always stayed true to creating a level of service that was tailor-made for the needs of photographers like us which eventually won us our own clients. And to be honest again, we never expected it to grow as big as we did, it’s been a blessing and a curse at the same time hehe.
Tell us about the early days of the lab and how experience has changed your processes and businesses.
Mmm… sometimes I feel we are always in the early days of something bigger! We’ve been constantly changing things to adapt to the new market demands, less than a year ago we had ½ the space we have now.
But I know what you mean. Sometimes I feel it was more fun at the beginning. Everything was much simpler, less risk and so on…but at the same time, looking at how things are now, it is an honor to be with a team of 15 people who are able to cope with a couple of hundred rolls a day while consistently delivering fantastic quality in their work.
Less than a year ago we had ½ the space we have now
It’s been a really big challenge and through it, I learned the sentence “to die of success”. Back in 2015 we had to make a decision: limit our services to handle 60-80 rolls a day for only select clients or make it big and answer to hundreds of photographers who were shipping film to us expecting the best possible service.
It was not easy and some things got lost along the process. It was a bit like growing up, really. We learned Santa didn’t exist, that we will not marry our first date, and there were lots of bills to pay at the end of the month. In fact, I honestly feel that this the year where we are becoming mature as a company (goodbye adolescence!) We made some mistakes along the way, some decisions out of passion, not reason, and some worked out better than others.
Mistakes were made but that made us who we are today 🙂
I am sure that you meet a lot of interesting people coming to Carmencita for your services. Can you tell us who usually walks through your doors? How have they changed/affected/reinforced your commitment to film photography?
Yes, absolutely! But more than just customers coming through our door, there are people who ship us film from all over the globe! And in many cases, we ended up being friends with many of them. I feel in a way it’s because we put passion in what we do and that translates into the work they receive.
We know from feedback, that having a lab that you can trust and is constantly helping you become a better shooter brings extra motivation to pick up your film camera. Little by little this creates a sort of community.
Tell us how your typical day unfolds. Introduce us to the Carmencita team. The funny thing is, a film lab can be procedural at times, has your team found ways to keep things creative and fun?
I wish there were more typical days at the lab honestly! Lately, we’ve been involved in so many projects, technical updates, and team meetings that we get complaints about not having a set routine.
The Carmencita Team is made up of 15 members at the moment including Miguel and I. We have two people from local photography schools doing training, too and we expect to grow to 19 team members this coming summer.
we try to find time to do something out of the lab once a month, eat a paella together, or go support someone’s exhibition
Usually in the mornings, we have a quick look at the emails. If there is something that requires immediate attention then it gets answered first where hopefully it can be fixed within the day. The scanner chief is in charge of redistributing work, making sure workloads are doable, and the more sensible rush orders or complex looks are done correctly.
There are seven different departments at the lab and most of them are self-sufficient. They have their own routine and it’s key to make sure everything runs like a well-oiled machine. That being said, we try to find time to do something out of the lab once a month, eat a paella together, or go support someone’s exhibition 🙂
Running a film lab is a balance of technical professionalism and providing creative inspiration to fellow film lovers. How do you think your clients perceive the Carmencita brand?
Good question. I think in a way exactly like you said it. I believe the era of the traditional film lab is gone. Today, either you are a Film Lab 2.0 or you’ll struggle. The reason being is that there is no real need for anyone to shoot film (don’t kill me please, wait for my answer hehe).
Being a Film Lab 2.0 means that if someone takes the effort to buy film, use a film camera, go on a trip, create some work, and give it to you to develop, the lab should be at least equally committed to film photography as the photographer is. That’s why you can not “just develop film” but in a way curate it’s colors, tones, consistency, and final result to help the artist/photographer go forward.
There is no real need for anyone to shoot film
We help, help, help all the time because again, that’s the service we would have like to have received back in the days when we started using film. We really try to work side by side with the photographer and for us, a film fab in 2019 cannot be otherwise.
What efforts does Carmencita Lab go to do to keep their customers engaged?
Feedback, Quality content, Community & Feedback.
Did I mention feedback already? 😛
There is no way I could conceive top quality service nowadays without active communication between the supplier and the customer. I believe, with all the tools available in this digital age we live in, not using them is missing out on their advantages. This is also a blessing and a curse btw 😛
There is no way I could conceive top quality service nowadays without active communication between the supplier and the customer
On a less than usual basis, we try to open the lab doors for anyone who wants to come in and visit, know how film is processed and scanned, give workshops (Carmencita Meets), and give something to photographers that choose film as a creative medium. You can check the workshops we did in the past at carmencitafilmlab.com/workshops.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your customers and how has it defined your business?
[!] CLICHÉ ALERT – “You reap what you sow.” Both the good and bad.
Empathy is a great companion but at the same time, you need to be fair with everyone. Growing meant going from taking one or two big decisions a week to one or two a day! I really share Bresson’s mentality in business also: you need a perfect alignment of head, heart and eye.
Film Processing is an art. Many have claimed that it is dying art. Do you believe that to be true? What do you foresee in Carmencita’s future and its continued role in advocating and preserving the art?
I feel we’ve entered in the era of the “revenge of analog” (you should read the book by David Sax) and are, kind of, in a digital hangover these days.
Everything has been digitalized, from love to bureaucracy. The mentality of “there is an app for that” has caused our inner selves to crave for something analog because life is not 1s and 0s.
Looking at history, I feel we are living in a similar time as when photography was invented. Painters thought it would put them out of business and that would be their end! Nevertheless, photography freed painting from the needing to be hyper-realistic. This gave birth to movements like impressionism, fauvism, etc., which blossomed from that.
Film photography has allowed us to dream and represent reality in an honest way
Today, hyper-realistic paintings are not so popular, and when you think of a painter you think about Rothko, Picasso, Dali, Monet, Matisse…artists who interpreted reality thanks to the tools that the freedom of painting gave them!
Ok, ok, I’m not saying it’s the same thing but in a way, I feel digital photography freed film photography from having to be perfect and represent reality at it’s best. Instead, film photography has allowed us to dream and represent reality in an honest way.
That is what I feel gets us hooked like junkies to these tiny capsules with 36 doses inside.
Any great stories regarding past film projects that you are particularly proud of and embodies the Carmencita brand?
Mmmm… let me think! There have been a lot of things over these six years! We had the great opportunity to participate in many workshops around Europe and collaborate with photographers. They saw us as part of the creative process and we answered.
One crazy adventure was setting up an exhibition in Moscow in collaboration with Yaroslav and Zhenya, two photographers who were Carmencita customers. We wanted to gather the community and open ourselves for questions and answers to help the film scene in Russia. But I think the story that sums it all has been the festival of Traveling Light that takes place in the north of Barcelona. For the past 2 years, we’ve gathered film photographers “offline” for four days. We held talks, workshops, and meet-ups to share and connect. That was truly an experience! I’ve never seen more film photographers together under one roof!
They saw us as part of the creative process and we answered.
Aside from that, I’m a firm believer that we are able to participate in thousands of little stories every month from completely random people. I feel if we can keep people in love with the process and the results that already makes everything worth it 🙂 We all need a little magic from time to time and film photography is one of those last magic tricks in which we still can believe.
Markets evolve, customer expectations evolve… What are the major challenges you face and how have you addressed them?
I feel that questions just hit the bull’s eye, everything was so different six years ago, now expectations are much higher and the information that is available is much more accurate.
I think working in such a niche makes you pay extra attention to the pulse of the industry. It’s difficult not to fall in a niche inside a niche because film photography, like vinyl records, has been highly democratized in the last 4 years. There are people shooting all over and while reaching everyone is impossible, we try to show that film does not need to look “lo-fi” with dust and a bunch of green grain all over the shadows. (Unless of course, it’s a look that you are aiming for it).
The challenge for Carmencita is, making the most out of your negative. And THAT is what we are all about 🙂
Are there any film photography trends happening in your city that is unique?
We see a lot of personal projects being developed. Especially in Valencia. There is a very young photographer named Francesc Planes that has been working with film for the last four years and he’s bringing it to really extreme places. Make sure to check him out! (I actually think by the time I’m writing this his IG account got deleted, but you can check him on tumblr)
I am sure you are a film photographer yourself! Tell us about Albert the photographer!
Ha! Yes I still am! Funny enough, when I’m going to events to talk about the lab and so on, I always bring my camera (usually a 6×6) and try to take portraits of people face to face.
This is a very bad habit that my mentor Jonathan Canlas planted on me haha. People usually get surprised about my enthusiasm when I feel I got the picture I wanted! I started a bit here and there moving from engineering into photography after the big real state crisis of 2008. But I was 20 by then, I knew nothing about life (not that I know much more now) and decided someone had to take pictures even if everything goes to shit, so why not it be me.
I think photography is a very therapeutic kinda thing, not that I use it that way, but it helped me understand myself through the years. Photography also makes you be curious and I have not met any photographer that is not curious. For me, Henri Cartier Bresson represents the paradigm of a photographer. I always admired his sense of composition and playfulness in his images. Soon I realized the images that he captured were no longer really possible in our age where everyone is so self-aware about their own image. It’s quite disappointing, to be honest, but on the other hand, I feel nowadays we should use that to our benefit, flip the coin, and embrace those who want to be in front of the camera. Use that in our favor and capture things that were only possible with actors or models back in the day.
I think everyone has something to tell and portraiture is a good way to open a bit of the door to those stories. I don’t think there is any picture that unveils anyone completely (unless is someone incredibly shallow and there is nothing more than what meets the eye to that person :P). What photography does is open a door for a second to the life of that human being and it opens all sorts of questions. I find that lovely.
Am I good photographer? That’s a question whose answer I may not know and perhaps don’t want to ever know 😀
My last question to Albert was, “WHO IS CARMENTCITA?!” and he said, “Carmencita is not a person but a state of mind”. I laughed. But come to think of it, that would be a fitting attitude towards an establishment who has inspired a lot of people in our little movement. So all I can say is, the Carmencita State of Mind simply is: Passion for Film, Love of the Process, Dedication to the Customer.
Thanks for reading,