I was in Charlottesville VA recently for my son’s wedding. I had the morning before the festivities free and took a walk, stepping into what can only be described as a Time Machine, a portal that transported me back 50 something years to my first days in photography. The Time Machine is in the guise of Pro Camera, a throwback of a photography emporium on West Main Street.
I walked in the door and immediately realized I had to share this with you and write about this unique shop. I approached the young man at the counter and told him what I would I had in mind asking if it was OK if I took a few photos. He said he would find out and went to get the owner. I fully expected a “man of a certain age” (old like me) to come sauntering out of the back of the shop, and instead was greeted by Ryan Jones, the 27 year-old proprietor of Pro Camera. This is a film photographer’s nirvana. A look at the menu board will give you a hint of their support for analog photography, including scanning, printing and more. For me, this is great news, as I have medium format images on transparencies from the 1980’s and ’90s on that I would like to have scanned and printed. It’s surprising how few high-end photo labs nationwide have the equipment and ability to produce high resolution scans for large prints as Pro Camera does.
Ryan spent 7 years as mentee of Bill Moretz, the pro photographer who established Pro Camera in 1983. Bill trained Ryan in analog camera repairs and he now services high end film photography gear of all ages, from Matthew Brady’s day through the early 2000s. At any given time he may have up to one hundred pieces in house for repair and hundreds more cameras available for parts. I saw the back of the house, it is an impressive operation, but as Ron Popeil used to say during infomercials “Wait, there’s more!”
Pro Camera is more than a camera shop, it is also community center for photography with gallery space and exhibitions, clientele from beginning enthusiasts to professional photographers, and a coterie of international collectors and institutional clients. Film cameras of all age and format are on exhibit, and for sale, as well as three of Ryan’s fascinating camera part dioramas, which attest to his skill as a camera technician. He took them apart and can put them back together, fascinating. Everywhere one looks there is something to delight a photographer’s eye and imagination.
What good would this time travel be if you couldn’t find fresh film and a plethora of accessories? Buy fresh film here, shoot it, bring it back for professional processing and hand it to a staff that has deep knowledge of the special characteristics of film photography and is happy to share it.
Ryan worked at Pro Camera for six years before taking the plunge and buying the shop about a year ago. His decision aligned with a resurgence in the use of film, analog culture and the need for related services. I can understand it, I miss film myself. When I open a film canister and get the first whiff of acetate, it transports me back, way back. I liked all of the mechanical aspects of analog shooting, winding the film on the spool, using the film lever to advance one frame at a time, and the sound of the mirror slap when I tripped the shutter. To me, photography was more of a hand craft back then; we metered the light, set our exposure and focus manually and waited until the film was processed to see what we got. Considering the cost of film and processing, we had to be more deliberate in our shot selections as well.
Lest you think I am some sort of a photo Luddite, I have, for 16 years, used digital cameras exclusively. For my professional work, especially architecture with so many mixed light sources, digital capture and computer processing have been a blessing, and it certainly has its strong points. Is it romantic, like vinyl records or baseball? No.
I do have a film camera, a Minolta SRT 101, the first SLR I owned back in the mid-1960s. Now that I have a place to have film processed, I think I will load it, take it out and shoot some black and white film. I’ll savor the anticipation of waiting for the film to be processed and see if I still have the chops for good old analog photography.
Pro Camera is located at 711 W Main St, Charlottesville, VA 22903 • Phone: 434-979-1915