Hoang apologises for the mess when I enter Croplab. There are negatives hanging from the wall, and bits of photography paraphernalia are scattered about the place. People in Vietnam are returning to film precisely due to its imperfections when compared with the polished experience of shooting on digital, and the mess here is somehow fitting.
Croplab is hidden down an alleyway in Phu Nhuan and stands humbly opposite a small hairdresser’s in a no-frills part of town. It feels a world away from the glossy high-end camera stores of District 1. Part of the quiet 35mm revolution that is happening in Vietnam, Croplab as well as other vintage camera shops, cafés and labs such as Darkroom Café and Llab have started to pop up around the city. A Facebook group that showcases analogue photographic talent, Film Photo Club, is growing at a rapid rate.
To say that Vietnam will soon be discarding their DSLRs and camera phones in favour of analogue would be plain wrong. Official figures reveal film makes up for less than 1% of total worldwide photography sales, which still places film firmly in the category of the niche, but these figures don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Young people might pick up their first camera from their parents’ attic, or buy it second-hand online.
A Developing Trade
Croplab is the hub for analogue photography in HCMC. On a normal day they will develop 50 rolls of 35mm and 120mm film, with the future looking only positive. Until recently, analogue film like vinyl records was seen as a relic of the 20th century. So for an enthusiast like Hoang, he opened Croplab in 2013 as a necessity.
“There was nowhere in the city to develop good quality film,” he says. “Since I opened Croplab, more and more young people are discovering film.”
What’s old is once again new, and Hoang guesses that business has probably doubled since the early days of Croplab. People send in their undeveloped rolls of film to the team from all over the country, with Hoang promising to get colour photos scanned and uploaded onto Google drive within a few hours, with black-and-white taking a few days.
The machines they use in the back of Croplab to develop the colour films are massive, and Hoang says this was the biggest difficulty when trying to establish the business. For an industry that has been pronounced dead so many times, where on earth do you get the equipment from? He struck lucky, and found someone who was selling a film processing machine in Cambodia. This makes Croplab one of the few places left in the entire country that can develop colour film.
A Different Image
To Nam, who works in Croplab, the colours that are created with colour film trigger an emotional response that is simply lacking in digital.
“The classic colours of film. I can’t feel anything when I see an image on digital. It’s a feeling.”
“Film is more difficult for sure, I’m still learning. One year ago I shot only on colour film, now I try shooting black-and-white and slide film — both are completely different. This makes it more rewarding. There are more surprises because film isn’t always perfect.”
Dominic is over in Ho Chi Minh City from Los Angeles, and is using Croplab to develop the film that will chart his journey up the country via motorbike.
“The whole process of film attracts me,” he says. “I have a digital camera but it just sits in the drawer back home.”
We are constantly told that life is now lived at a quicker-than-ever pace, and that includes photography too. A DSLR fitted with a 32GB SD card encourages a gluttony of quick-fire shooting. But with just 24 or 36 exposures per roll of film, Dominic believes you are forced to slow down and to really think about what you are shooting. “I like the fact that it’s not instant,” he says.
“I love how film renders,” he adds. “With the whole digital or film debate, to me, one is definitely superior. The imperfections of what analogue gives is what makes it for me.”
Image and Movement
Over in District 3, Duy started up Darkroom Café in mid-2016. He is part of the new younger generation of film lovers in Vietnam who are shunning digital methods in favour of analogue. They work together with Llab upstairs, which like Croplab, is a place to get your film developed. Darkroom Café is a dream space for DIY shooters and lovers of analogue, and vintage cameras decorate the walls alongside other 20th century artefacts like the transistor radio and portable television. Duy believes that it’s precisely this physicality of analogue that is behind its appeal to many of his customers.
“With film we can do analogue printing and we can do it all by ourselves. On digital, there is Lightroom, not a darkroom!” says Duy.
The décor on the second floor of the café has been kitted out to replicate a living room from the 1960s. It’s pretty uncanny, and walking in gives the effect of stepping into a time machine; it was clearly designed as a love letter to a bygone age. Two girls are sat at a table handling a vintage camera and they look deep in conversation about it. —“It’s a place where different shooters and their friends come and interact,” says Duy.
For Duy, however, his relationship with analogue photography is more than mere nostalgia. He wants Darkroom Cafe to help foster the analogue movement within Vietnam.
“I want to build an analogue community. There are two kinds of film shooters, some who learn from the past, then some who don’t like the past, they want to revolutionise film. They will use many new techniques, double exposure, multi exposure or they might use chemicals to destroy the film and create special effects.” For anyone hoping to wean themselves off digital and move into analogue, Duy stresses the importance of patience.
“We need more patience. In medium format there are only 12 exposures, 35mm has 36 exposures so you have to be precise. You have to calculate everything, from the light metering to film processing.”
The social media age has provided a new platform for those looking to share their work, as well as giving budding film lovers the opportunity to connect with fellow enthusiasts to learn more about the art form. Darkroom Cafe can also have your negatives scanned and uploaded digitally, meaning those craving that online ‘like’ need not to worry, with many of the photos developed at Croplab and Darkroom Cafe ending up on the Film Photo Club group on Facebook.
Part of the Club
Huy set up Film Photo Club on Facebook five years ago, and it has grown to have, at the time of writing, over 33,000 members in Vietnam. Most of its members are Vietnamese, and if Croplab and Darkroom Cafe is the bricks-and-mortar home of analogue in Vietnam, then Film Photo Club is its heartbeat up in the digital cloud.
“When we started, the community of film photography was not very big, there were some small groups of people who had done film photography for a long time — but it was quite a closed group,” says Huy.
“At first, with about 30 members, the evolution of the Facebook group was quite slow. But, we met offline every weekend. We would go for a walk and talk to each other in a café. Now we organise some events and invite those with more experience to discuss techniques and processing advice regarding film.”
From just a few members, the group has grown considerably, and for its creator this is a great source of pride.
“Among our thousands of members we have some highly experienced photographers as well as having young people with true passion, who are very enthusiastic and want to learn and study very carefully. The group has indirectly inspired many excellent photographers to return to film. I am proud of this.”
With the group continuing to expand, Huy sees the reasons behind 35mm’s revived popularity as simple.
“The film camera is both light, easy to carry, stylish and most importantly — cheap.”
“You get a feeling of butterflies as you anticipate the photo being developed in the darkroom. It’s one of the reasons that there are more people turning to film — go slowly, and live every moment in this fast and busy world.”
The community of analogue shooters in Vietnam is still growing, so for those daunted by the prospect of shooting on film, there is a solid community out there willing to help and advise newbies, or give tips to those who are deciding to dust off their camera after a lengthy absence away.
541/29 Huynh Van Banh, Phu Nhuan, HCMC
DARKROOM CAFÉ & LLAB FILM PROCESSING
30/1F Ngo Thoi Nhiem, District 3
FILM PHOTO CLUB
Photos by Mike Palumbo