Vintage North Park camera shop’s new owners celebrate resurgence of old-school film photography

Like many photography buffs, Rob Cowan bought a digital camera as soon as they came out a couple decades ago. He loved its instantaneous results and the freedom it gave him to shoot unlimited images until he achieved the perfect shot.

Then about six years ago, the 39-year-old San Diego resident got bored with digital photography for the very same reasons. Where was the challenge, the thought process and the artistry? So he returned to traditional film photography and never looked back.

“It has its own feeling,” he said. “It’s tangible. You can hold on to it and see it in front of your eyes.”

Cowan is not alone. Over the past five years, millions of Americans have re-embraced or newly discovered the old-school art of film photography. Sales of Kodak roll film doubled from 2014 to 2019 and the value of used film cameras has skyrocketed. Now Cowan and his wife and business partner, Caitie Boreliz, are hoping to feed that growing community with their newly expanded North Park business, Camera Exposure & Safelight Labs.

Camera Exposure & Safelight Labs co-owner Rob Cowan, left, stands in the North Park store

Camera Exposure & Safelight Labs co-owner Rob Cowan, left, stands in the store while sales associate Diego Jimenez helps customer Tobi Gary, at right.

(John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The busy shop at Adams Avenue and Oregon Street sells film, cameras, lenses, chargers, enlargers, flash attachments and cases. It also offers film developing services and camera repairs. But the couple’s dream for their business won’t be realized until next summer, when they plan to open a do-it-yourself community darkroom and workshop, photography studio and public gallery where aspiring film photographers can take classes, learn lab techniques and have their own exhibitions.

“We want to be an integral part of the community, the art community, the film community, the photography community. It doesn’t matter what you shoot, what your cup of tea is, we want to be here to support artists, however they’re going to create their art,” Cowan said.

On Tuesday afternoon, the shop was bustling with customers ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s shopping for cameras and lenses. Boreliz said she has had parents come in with their 11- and 12-year-old children to buy them their first film camera. Other customers dusted off their old 35 mm cameras during the pandemic and started shooting again to fill their solitary time. And another segment of customers are curious young people in their 20s and 30s who recently inherited their grandparents old cameras and have never explored film photography before.

“The younger generation grew up with iPhones and the Internet. They’re looking for something different, with a more vintage feel. They live in such a fast-paced environment. This is a way to slow them down,” Cowan said.

Cowan and Boreliz met 10 years ago while working together at a Starbucks in Northern California. Six years ago, they moved to San Diego, which was about the same time Cowan rediscovered film. He prefers to shoot only in black and white. As his passion grew, he asked Boreliz to support his dream of opening a community photography shop and darkroom, as there are only a handful of places in town where photographers can develop their own film.

With her support, Cowan launched Safelight Labs in their San Diego apartment in 2018. A safe light is the red bulb used in darkrooms that won’t expose undeveloped film. A year later, he opened a retail space, darkroom and gallery in downtown San Diego. Then in March 2020 the pandemic hit, forcing him to close the retail and gallery side of the business and transition to no-contact developing services.

Rob Cowan displays the camera tattoos on the fingers of his left hand.

Camera Exposure and Safelight Labs co-owner Rob Cowan shows off the camera tattoos that reflect his love for photography. From left they depict a speed-graphic, a rangefinder, a single-lens-reflex and a point-and-shoot camera.

(John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Then in the summer of 2020, Cowan started doing film processing for Kenneth Kahan, the longtime owner of the Camera Exposure shop at 2701-03 Adams Ave. Kahan bought the store in 2008 from its original owner, who opened the doors in 1988. Kahan said when he took over the business 13 years ago, digital photography had already wiped out much of the film camera business. But eventually sales began creeping back up.

“I guess it was about five or six years ago that I noticed film photography started taking off again. I’d have 300 cameras in here ready for repairs,” Kahan said.

Then in fall 2020, Kahan decided to retire and asked Cowan and Boreliz if they would consider taking over the shop’s lease. Cowan said it wasn’t a difficult decision. The 3,000-square-foot 1920s-era building has a 33-year history as a camera shop, plenty of room for all of their plans and the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood has lots of foot traffic.

A drawer filled with roll film for sale at Camera Exposure & Safelight Labs in North Park.

A drawer filled with roll film for sale at Camera Exposure & Safelight Labs in North Park.

(John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A few months ago they renovated and reopened the corner space as their new Camera Exposure retail, repair and development services lab. In the coming months, they will relaunch Safelight Labs with a large darkroom and workshop area for do-it-yourself developing and classes. And by next summer they hope to open a studio and gallery where Cowan said he hopes to give many local photographers their first public shows.

Business has been so good in recent months that Cowan and Boreliz have hired several employees, including Caiti Borruso, who runs the developing lab, and Kahan, who came out of retirement to help with camera repairs. Their biggest challenge these days is an industrywide shortage of color film.

Boreliz, who runs the retail side of the business, said she is still relatively new to film photography herself, but she loves how it has changed her perspective on life.

“There’s just something I love about the process of photography, where you take your time to frame the shot and focus on what you’re doing. It’s a whole experience,” she said. “And I also love how photography brings people together.”

Camera Exposure & Safelight Labs staff Rob Cowan, Caitie Boreliz, Caiti Borruso and Diego Jimenez.

Camera Exposure & Safelight Labs co-owner Rob Cowan and Caitie Boreliz, left, with lab manager Caiti Borruso and sales associate/lab tech Diego Jimenez outside the North Park store.

(John Gastaldo/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Robert G. Mull

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