Billy Grubbs has always been tech- and science-minded. Even when he was a wedding and portrait photographer for years, he recognized that other local photographers “were more artists at heart,” he said. He liked the technical aspects of working with film.
So Grubbs opened State Film Lab, a boutique film processing lab located on the corner of Barrett and Baxter avenues, in 2013. He had already created a lab for developing his own film, now he opened himself up to developing the film of other professional photographers.
He hasn’t been able to make this his full-time job. His wife is in nursing school. During the day he works at RedTree Albums, a company that prints photo albums for photographers.
But he has been able to make the business a part-time gig for two people, himself and Andrea Koesters, who has worked with Grubbs for years and is his new lab manager. Recently, Grubbs has given her more hours so she can be almost full time. Their volume demands it: they are processing from 10-50 rolls a day, but the lab’s capacity could be as much as 100 a day.
That’s why he’s applied for a $6,000 Kiva loan— to make sure Koesters’ salary is secure during this very seasonal business (December to March is the slow season). There’s a little more than a week left in his loan-raising period and he still has a ways to go.
Grubbs does do developing for more than just professionals — hobbyists, students and regular consumers also use his service, which starts at $11 a roll.
Processing film comes with a lot of liability. If something goes wrong— some dust, an abrasion, a smudge on the negatives — you’ve ruined someone’s wedding photos or portrait shoot. So gaining clients’ trust is critical, he says.
Clients largely come on by word of mouth, so State Film Lab has pockets of clients from all around the country. Once the professionals know they can trust Grubbs, they share the word. He said that there are not a lot of film shooters in Louisville. Most have moved to digital.
So why film? Grubbs doesn’t even print the photos (although he’d like to add that service down the line); he develops them and scans them and sends the photos online.
“The look,” he said. Grubbs actually likes those digital filters that make digital images look like they came from your parents’ Polaroid or 1970’s Cannon. He said that it keeps film in people’s minds.
He also said that shooting film is all about the process. A wedding photographer can shoot as many as 2,000-3,000 frames at a single wedding. “With film, you are paying for every shot,” Grubbs said. So film photographers pay attention to each individual shot. “It slows you down.”