Longtime Jamaica Plain resident Omer Hecht's CatLABS is back in Jamaica Plain after a five year hiatus in which he needed to move the business out of the neighborhood.
CatLABS began in 2010 in a Brookside Avenue building that served as a collective for artists. Sadly, that building was sold, razed, and the property was redeveloped. Unable to afford the new building, CatLABS moved. And on February 23, Hecht moved back into the neighborhood, opening a new location at 3514 Washington St.
Hecht answered questions from Jamaica Plain News about why the business is called CatLABS, analog cameras, developing film, and more.
Q: Why is it called CatLABS?
Hecht: Well, one day when the work going on at the lab... it was apparent we needed a name. We love cats, and the best brainstorming session came up with Cat Labs, and so it was.
Q: What is the Boston Film Lab?
Hecht: CatLABS is building a new pro film lab. We will offer a comprehensive film processing service for all film types and formats, as well as scans. At the moment we do not plan to offer any printing services, but this might change in the future. For now, our develop and scan service will offer modest scan and contact sheets with a 24-hour turnaround.
Q: What services does CatLABS offer?
Hecht: CatLABS is one of the world's only all-analog camera stores and is probably the only place in the world where one can walk in and buy any type of film camera, lens or accessory, as well as film, chemistry and the equipment to process it themselves.
We specialize in large and medium format camera equipment but also sell 35mm and Cine Cameras and lenses as well. At any given time, we have more than 30 4x5 cameras available to choose from and at least 10 different medium format cameras on the shelf.
CatLABS is the U.S. distributor for Jobo (darkroom and film processing tanks and machines), Filmomat (automatic compact tabletop film processors), Dev.a (automatic film processors) and Heiland fototeknic, a company that specializes in modernizing photographic enlargers and high tech darkroom devices that really bring the darkroom into the 21st century. We also sell enlargers and all other darkroom equipment, from tongs to safelights and timers, alongside film, paper and chemistry.
We also fix and refurbish Deardorff cameras (originally Chicago-made mahogany wood large format cameras), as well as build all new ones from new and old parts.
We also make our own black and white film! We do not take in customer repairs, but we do repair and service all of the equipment we sell, mostly in house. We love rescuing old camera gear and many of our local customers are people who bring in old camera equipment for advice, or just to sell it, we buy most film cameras and related equipment. If we can't buy something, we can usually repurpose it, which is the best way to keep things out of the trash heap.
Q: The business does Jobo repairs. What is Jobo, and why is the business focused specifically on Jobo products?
Hecht: Historically, Jobo has been a major part of CatLABS. By pure chance, my training was such that i had gained a deep understanding of the Jobo system. When CatLABS was started, Jobo had just emerged from bankruptcy following the digital upheaval of the early and mid 2000's and by yet another chance, it so happened that CatLABS was able to help Jobo back into the US market and re-establish a long lost presence.
CatLABS is one of the only remaining service stations for Jobo machines in the world, and certainly the only one in the US. Jobo is a third generation family owned company, located in central Germany, about 1 hour from Koln, which is a pioneer in "daylight" film processing, that is, film processing tanks that allow you to develop film in the light, rather than in complete darkness as was done previously. Jobo's presence in the world, albeit quiet, is ever present throughout recent history.
When the Aswan Dam was being built, UNESCO was in charge of documenting the Abu Simbel Temple, a world heritage site, before the dam flooded the area. The photographers used Jobo equipment on site to confirm the films were exposed correctly. The images from the first moon landing of Apollo 11 were processed using Jobo machines after they were returned to earth. Legend has it the MIR space station had a specialized modification of a household Jobo film processor onboard for processing film in space, apparently, on the earth replica of MIR used for training in Baikonur, where every switch and cable of the station in space was replicated on earth, there was a Jobo processor as part of the equipment that was replicated from the actual space station.
Q: Are your customers professional photographers, hobbyists, filmmakers, artists?
Hecht: All of the above! Our customers span the gamut of ages, backgrounds, professions and interests. Historically, CatLABS has always been mainly a mail order business, with more than 99% of our customers outside of Massachusetts and about 50% outside of the US. Since moving to our location in Roslindale in 2017, which had an actual storefront, we have had an ever growing interaction with our customers who would come in to stock up or just for a chat or advice. Over the years we have met people from all over the world who made a point to stop at CatLABS while they were in Boston. Our new space has a much more welcoming dedicated customer area and we hope to see many more of there.
Q: The business is dedicated to being an analog camera store. What does that entail?
Hecht: This is a big one. We often get asked if "people still use film" or "can you still get film for that" and so on. From our window in the world, photography only happens in analog formats and people only use film, which is also what we answer when people ask if "film is coming back", because from our perspective film never really went anywhere.
Some people are amazed to hear that not only is film readily available in almost every shape, size and type, there are many companies that support its existence, film manufacturers, camera and lens makers to accessory makes as well as small and artisanal companies supplying smaller scale products like hand crafted film holders and custom machined accessories.
In a sense, we are a store where you can buy most things you can't buy at a supermarket or Best Buy. We are a real specialist store, with highly trained and knowledgeable staff who have a lifetime of hands-on experience with the tools and materials of analog photography.
Aside from that, we have been fortunate to be able to maintain a comprehensive inventory that answers the demand for analog photography equipment. A lot of our work revolves around restoring old, used gear back to working condition, but we also sell brand new equipment, made today, especially for this market. This means forging relationships with others in this field. At the end of the day it is indeed a small world and we work closely with many manufacturers and other stores.
Q: CatLABS offers a gender-wage-gap discount. What is that, and why is it being offered?
Hecht: As a whole, our industry is largely dominated by men and despite some progress in recent years, the gender pay gap is still a thing across all fields and practices. In the world of photography this is exceptionally apparent where so many judging panels, competition finalists and industry leaders seem to have a massive gender imbalance. We see this in our sales and social media interaction as well as in various global surveys conducted by other companies.
This can create a challenging environment for all those who are not, or do not identify as men. Add to that the substantial wage gap, and it becomes even more detrimental to diversity. While we know that this limited discount offer will not change the gender imbalance in the photography world, we hope that it at least creates more awareness of it, and encourages other retailers to consider how they might be able to take part in this conversation.
Q: What else would you like people to know about CatLABS?
Hecht: We're so happy to be back in JP and hope to see all of our neighbors, friends, customers in our new location soon. We're open weekdays only from 9 am to 5:30 pm.