By Rich Handley
Imaging Business Magazine
When Marc Weinstein went to work for his father more than 20 years ago, he could not have predicted how different their family-run photo lab would become in time. Back then, Color Group Inc. of Hawthorne, NY, made its profit–as photo labs everywhere did at the time–on film processing and enlargement. Bulky, clunky, equipment lined the place, and the concept of an all-digital photo lab that worked without film seemed a crazy idea to anyone of sound mind.
Color Group traces its roots back to 1946, when the original owner built a three person lab in his basement. “My dad bought it from another fellow who started it after WWll,” recalls Weinstein. “My dad was a photographer after the war, and he bought the lab in 1969. Then I came along in 1982. I was a photographer in New York City for 10 or 12 years, and I decided to try working with my dad, which worked out okay”.
These days, Weinstein is Color Group’s President, leading a digital lab that handles all phases of the visual, photographic, and graphic arts. The company contains a drive-in photo/video studio available for rental on a per-diem basis, which spans 2,000 square feet, has 22′ high ceilings and incorporates a corner cyclorama measuring 29′ L x 25′ W x 17′ H. Recently, Weinstein completed a renovation on the entire lab, installing two new Mediaphot/Colenta processors and two ZBE 50-inch printers to his cache of equipment.
Throughout its existence, Color Group has provided a variety of services. “We did all kinds of work over the years, stuff that doesn’t exist anymore, like slide shows,” says Weinstein. “Now, we’re into outdoor graphics and digital C-prints.” Their major clients include large corporations, trade shows, department store, chains, malls, restaurant franchises, clothing retailers and the cosmetics industry. In addition, they also cater to what Weinstein deems “quite an active street trade.”
When It’s Time To Change
Unfortunately, the 1990’s proved very difficult for Weinstein and his staff, threatening the survival of the second generation family business. As film development and enlargement gave way to the digital arena–with personal computers eliminating even more business by promoting an “I can do it myself” approach–many labs exposed their last frames. In the end, Color Group was one of the lucky ones to make it through the dry times.
Weinsein attributes Color Group’s survival to his staff’s determination to adapt to changing times by learning new skills and purchasing new equipment. “We decided it was time to renovate the business and get everything up to snuff,” he explains. Since the minilab had been slowly going digital for years anyway, it was a feasible task. “We had enough work in different parts of the business, so we decided to clean up the mess.”
Before the renovation, Weinstein owned one digital ZBE Chromira photo printer and a Kreonite model. Recognizing that the digital C-print business was getting very busy, he bought another Chromira and two processors, which proved to be a great boon to the business. “Scheduling was always a problem, he says, “but the second machine alleviated the whole issue.”
Realizing the same scheduling problems would would exist for the lab’s Kodak Duratrans, and for regular paper, Color Group pulled out its entire black-and-white department and put in a second Mediaphot/Colenta for processing 50-inch material. The difference was immediately noticeable. “Now, when doing a couple hundred or a thousand Duratrans, it doesn’t get in the way of our glossy and matte C-print work, because the C-print work goes on one processor and the Duratrans, at a different speed, on the other procesor.”
This alllowed Weinstein, an artist who attended RIT and the Pratt Institute to transform Color Group into what he calls “a kind of art-related business.” The company now provides fine-art printing, giclee printing, book production and prepress work, something that would not have been viable during his father’s time at the helm.
“In the past ten years or so, we’ve done about, I quess, five to eight full-blown-out books–we have printers print them, then binding and publishing.” The last book Color Group produced–and certainly one of the most fascinating-was Michael Stadther’s A Treasure Trove (www.atreasuretrove.com).
This gentleman wrote a book, illustrated it, had a million dollars worth of jewels commissioned, then hid tokens around the country,” Weinstein explains. “The book had all these clues in it. You’d figure out the clues in the book, you’d go to the location, you’d find the tokens and you’d get the treasure. The book got a lot of publicity from media all around the country.”
The digital revolution has been kind to Weinstein’s Color Group, reducing equipment needs, labor costs and job completion times. “The first itme I got into digital was 1984,” he recalls, “when the slide imaging business went digital. That worked well for quite a long time.” Still, for every clichéd silver lining, there’s a proverbial cloud, and digital imaging has had its own share of downpours.
The biggest problem for Weinstein was the obsolescence of 20 years’ worth of existing film equipment. “All those years, you’re on the cutting edge of stuff where you don’t know if it’s going to work or not work, and you try it out the hard way. By the time you start making money with it, the price drops and what you have is worthless and you’re on to the next piece of equipment, which you have to buy again.” When Color Group made the transition from totally film-based to primarily digital, he says, the hardest thing to do was figuring out what to do with all his old enlargers. Weinstein called several colleges, hoping one might want his obsolete equipment. Eventually, a client who was processing 8″x10″ film and attending Hunter College in New York City happily arranged for Hunter to accept much of the machinery for it’s students. “Whatever they didn’t take,” Weinstein says, “I gave to my kids’ high school.” Although he ultimately threw out half a million dollars’ worth of computer equipment–enough to fill two dumpsters–he was glad someone was getting to use and learn from the film enlargers he’d used thoughout his career.
Weinstein says he has always considered digital imaging a positve step in the evolution of printing and photography, waving off nay-sayers who thought it would be the death of film. “To this day, we still process film,” he points out, estimating that film now takes up less than 10 percent of his business. We don’t do as much as we did, but I have a feeling that there will always be some film processing as long as there is film to process.” Most of his lab’s work these days is for cosmetics firms, or for archiving purposes for individuals, companies and libraries. Scanning, he says, is still a very big business, despite the high level of attrition.
“Frozen food didn’t kill home cooking, and restaurants aren’t going out of business,” he jokes, “and video did not kill the radio star. As long as you’re a good shop and have a service to sell and there’s value to what you do, people will want to pay for it. Those are the people you’re there for.” The secret to Color Group’s success when so many others have failed to make the transition? “We’ve survived because we’re smart and have worked hard at it. You have to adapt–you have to keep figuring out what’s the next thing over the horizon.”