Digital hurts camera shop

James Camera on Chapel Street, New Haven’s only photography shop, has been struggling to adapt to the diminished needs of today’s digital photographers.
James Camera on Chapel Street, New Haven’s only photography shop, has been struggling to adapt to the diminished needs of today’s digital photographers. Photo by Amir Sharif.

James Camera on Chapel Street — the only specialized photography shop in New Haven — has weathered the changing landscape of photography since the shop’s founding in 1949. But it may have finally met its match: the digital camera.

As technology and the economy catch up with the more than half-century-old family business, the store’s keys might soon change hands as fewer customers need James Camera to develop film now. Though some student and faculty artists interviewed still said they prefer to use traditional techniques in their photography, the number is hardly enough to sustain the New Haven photography staple adjacent to Paul Rudolph Hall, the shop’s video engineer Dennis Collesano said.

Today, black and white photographs of the shop’s three generations of owners decorate the counters of the little store, along with news clippings about the store from the seventies. Outside, passersby stop to look into the shop’s window, gawking at the storefront’s two vintage film cameras from the ’50s, which Collesano said were used to tape the football games of Yale’s legendary coach Carmen “Carm” Cozza through his 31-year career. Over the shop’s speakers, a soft medley of ’80s classics plays.

But there is a sudden interruption: “Remove red eye with just a touch.”

The voice comes from a bright yellow Kodak digital photo booth, which, among its variety of services, offers to print customers’ digital photos into a water-resistant calendar. The store’s co-owner, Anthony Onofrio, said James Camera began working with digital photography around 2007.

Already, the store’s limited offering of digital materials and services — including the Kodak booth — represent approximately half of the shop’s business, Collesano said. Emphasizing the growing demand for digital photography, he said the shop has had to turn away customers because of general inventory shortages, and the sales from film products have not been able to counter the revenue loss.

“Digital should be around 75 percent of our business, and film 25,” Collesano said. “But our budget can’t support the $10,000 to $15,000 needed to make the transition.”

It did not help the store that the digital difficulties began at the same time as nearby construction projects, which grounded business, Collesano added.

“The Architecture School renovations [from 2005 to 2008] made us lose about $50,000,” he said, adding that Yale compensated the shop for three months of rent, or approximately $6,000.

Now the shop is looking for potential buyers, and they have already received calls from a few, Collesano said.

But the potential sale of James Camera, which may involve moving the business, has come to represent the shrinking use of film photography, Collesano said.

“We’re more of a hobby store,” Onofrio added. “We service more of a niche now.”

This niche, Collesano said, is made up in large part by Yale students and faculty who either need help developing film for analog photography classes or are looking for chemicals and paper to print their own photographs.

Indeed, a handful of students passed through the store in a period of 40 minutes yesterday afternoon, with Onofrio busily developing film for students who needed images for classes that afternoon.

School of Art darkroom manager Benjamin Donaldson ART ’01, who is also a lecturer at the school, said he has seen a spike in interest in both digital and film photography in recent years.

This year, analog photography classes drew twice as many shoppers as there were available seats, Donaldson added.

James Camera was founded by James F. Antonio, the great uncle of the shop’s current co-owners, Michael and Anthony Onofrio.

Comments

  • Arthur

    It’s funny that the writer uses the verb “tape” to describe filming football games.

  • Townie #47

    I stopped by the camera shop not long after their relocation several years ago.

    It was around Christmastime and I wanted to do some shopping and to patronize the local merchant. They weren’t even open for holiday business.

    Another time I stopped in for help finding a particular sized lens cap. I was the only customer in the store. No one came to assist me. Two telephone calls were taken before I was acknowledged. And when I explained the item I was looking for, I was literally laughed at and the clerk turned away from me.

    That’s all I can say.

  • Moderately Cheerful

    I can second Towny’s experience. I went in there twice to buy film. The first time, the clerk berated me for disrupting his lunch hour and the second time no one came out to help. The phone calls were too important. Its not the digital age that puts stores with this kind of customer service out of business. Come to think of it, why *are* they still in business?

  • Townie2

    Must be the same clerk who was there 20 years ago when I was an art student and the shop was next to grancentral. Rude and expensive = I’ll just use mail order. I never went back.

  • customer

    i had photos developed there and they did a good job

    but ditto all above: the customer service is awful

  • TI

    Why *are they, indeed. They repeatedly refused to reimburse me when their copying service made a horrible, blurry print for me. When I asked for my negative back so I could have the print done elsewhere, the owner said he’d lost it. When I had the audacity to question him about the fairness and quality of the shop’s service, he shouted at me and literally threw my refund at me. They deserve to go out of business.

  • f/2.8

    Another of their dissatisfied customers here. No details needed, but the experience cost me substantially more than list price and I still await the promised follow-up. They won’t be missed.

  • Tanner

    Did the owners hear about the troubles Kodak and Polaroid has suffered through “recently.” Grumpy and poor customer service was somewhat quint when dealing with a local “artists?” His business probably started slowing down when their was a 1 hour photo (1 hour film development) shop on Chapel Street much less doing it yourself at Walgreen’s. Did he hear that New Haven once was a leader in Carriage Making?

  • Mack

    That’s Mike Onofrio for you… he doesn’t care about his customers or his buisness… therefore why should the customers care about him?

  • Bob

    It wasn’t digital photography that destroyed James Camera. It wasn’t even poor customer service. It starts with having a company where all your eggs are in one basket – a basket that’s broken. Anyone with half a brain is going to buy a camera at a place like B&H, or get a point and shoot off of Woot. From there they will buy their photo printer from best buy or get one on Black Friday. Or, they will send easily upload files to Costco to print at 13 cents each.

    They didn’t embrace the internet. FAIL. The internet killed James Camera.

    FUNNY – the article says the film cameras “taped”. And “analog photography” I suppose it’s technically analog, but a better word would be chemical. Celluloid vs Digital