Located near the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Hayworth Avenue in Beverly Grove, the Photo Center is a relic from the past, a time capsule stacked with Super 8 and 16mm projectors and envelopes full of developed photographs that were never retrieved by their owners. It also happens to be a vital lifeline for many Canadians and Brits living in Los Angeles who need passport photographs that adhere to those countries' strict guidelines.
Piled on shelves are faded-orange boxes of Kodak slide-projector carousels, projector lamps and a hexagonal section stocked with camera film. You know, the roll of black stuff you used to wind to the first frame, use 24 or 36 times, carefully remove and then have sent away to “finishers” at a distant lab. The man keeping this operation up and running is Marvin Meister.
Meister’s been working at Photo Center since 1967, when the store was located just across the street from its current location; he took the reins around 1980, the halcyon days of amateur photography. “We had seven people working then, believe it or not,” he says. “Now we’re an aberration.”
The store might be small, but it’s tidy and well-organized. Paper receipts are bundled, clipped together and boxed; envelopes of prints are alphabetized and ready for pickup; and there’s a small tool- and gadget-filled workshop in back.
The camera display case is basically empty though, save for the somewhat recent Nikon display pieces featuring Ashton Kutcher. “I stopped selling cameras because people can get them everywhere,” Meister says. “And of course people have smartphones in their pocket now.”
So how is this store still open when it seems as if no one uses film anymore?
“I’ve been hearing that film would be dead in five years for the last 20 years,” Meister says, though he admits it's been a struggle to stay open as times have changed. His work is split 60/40 in favor of digital, and nearly all his customers are amateurs and newbies — few professionals.
This part of town has been notorious for raised rents and his went up this year, but Meister has benefitted from being a holdout and continuing to offer services that other stores have abandoned.
“I offer personal service. The other places don’t know or don’t have time,” he says, noting that many don’t develop film anymore, and never black-and-white. “I haven’t been able to find a digital machine that does it right, so I still do it by hand in the darkroom,” he says matter-of-factly.
Marvin never throws anything anyway either, because someone might need it one day.
“It’s at least a year before I move any developed films into the back room, because sometimes people forget. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people come back a year later — more than that — and can’t believe I still have the photos. Sometimes they’re of family moments or of people that have died. And they’re still here.”
Behind the counter are small bins of empty disposable cameras and hundreds of the plastic black and gray film cans — the little pill-bottle-size containers people used to keep in the fridge — which he sends back for recycling. “They’re great for keeping screws in, too, and I gave 100 to a local school so the children could plant a seed in each one,” he says.
Meister also offers classes here. “Just the basics for film and digital, as there are so many features on digital cameras you don’t even need,” he says. He's a lifelong photography buff, as evidenced by pictures that adorn the walls. There’s a large image of the long-abandoned Fairfax Regent cinema in all its neon glory, plus close-ups of a bee and a butterfly. The photos are yellowed now, but they were all taken by him.
“When I was a kid, I took cameras and things apart, but it wasn’t the taking it apart — it was putting it back together so it worked,” he says. “I used to do weddings, bar mitzvahs and magazine shoots, too.”
He brings out a box of small cogs and components. “Most of the parts for the cameras and projectors don’t exist anymore — some of the companies don’t even exist — so I make my own.”
It’s his wizardly ability to repair projectors and cameras of all kinds that brings him clients from across the country — happy to pay the shipping costs for their heavy equipment because they know he can fix it (or he'll definitely try his best).
He stays up to date with technological changes thanks to the Society of Photo-Technologists, the Camera Association and other organizations for repairmen, though those insiders are slowly fading away, too.
Despite admitting that he feels film has more of a “personality” than digital, he proudly explains the working of his Agfa d-Lab.1, the huge, gray mini-lab at the front of the store that swallows up strips of film, scans and then digitally prints from huge canisters of matte or gloss paper inside, spares of which sit like ammunition on the floor nearby.
Marvin has had the 2,000-pound Agfa for nine years and it looks brand-new. He maintains and updates it regularly and his repair rep was the son of the original inventor, “though now I just call him or he ships parts, so I rarely see him,” Meister says. Camera and film reps no longer come around anymore either, and he misses that: “Some of them were wonderful personalities.”
Meister doesn’t have a nickname for the Agfa — even when it’s glitching — and it was years before he even named the two large goldfish that inhabit a small bowl behind the counter.
“People kept asking what they were called, so I chose Alpha and Beta. Alpha is the calico one.”
An L.A. native, Meister uses a variety of Nikons for his own photography and likes to gardenm too, though he’s behind the counter six days a week. “This is retail. I’m not allowed to be sick,” he laughs, adding, “If you’re in business and you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.”
Meister has maintained a regular clientele for passport photographs. “When the U.S. immigration lottery’s coming, that’s always a busy month for me,” he says. Also, British and Canadian passports have very specific criteria (no smiling!), and he’s one of only a few places left in California that can get the job done right.
“It used to be seasonal but now it’s year-round. I take the time to get the best picture,” he says, showing the hard bench that you sit on before staring into a camera and two large lights in order to get your travel mugshot.
On the wall is a sample of passport photos he’s taken, and among the diverse selection is regular customer and amateur photographer Jack, who's 100-plus and just got his renewed, and some famous faces, too — though he promised them anonymity.
He mentions that a quality print of a photograph can last 80 years or more, and that people “used to have a lot more fun with photography,” but he also knows people still want to preserve moments, and he wishes one thing for today’s smartphone snappers: “Please back them up, or better still, get them printed out. If you lose your phone, the photos are gone — and they’re gone forever.”
As if on cue, the phone rings: It’s a Canadian woman renewing her passport. She’s starting the 90-minute drive right now.