Updated: Mar 10
Since the development of digital cameras, the use of film has declined significantly. Why would somebody wish to spend hours developing, scanning and [sometimes] printing in the darkroom when they could accomplish a final product in a fraction of that time shooting digital? To not only answer that question but bring to you one of the best photographers I know, I reached out to the film connoisseur out of New Jersey, Ben Krueger.
Ben is an emerging photographer whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design. As one of the most prestigious art schools in North America, it naturally attracts the best photographers from all over, putting them into a competitive learning environment. That said, Ben found a way to stand apart and make his name known. His work with the lens and deep knowledge of film is prodigious. For the way Ben can shoot and manipulate film, the digital sensor seems obsolete. It is no wonder his work has been exhibited at a "Here & There" curation in New York featuring ten international photographers, Foreign Correspondents Club show in Hong Kong, and many others.
Widely admired for his eye, his passion for the trade doesn't stop there. In 2018, Ben started Gelatin Labs. Since its launch, Gelatin Labs has become one of the leading film developing labs on the east coast. In fact, it has grown so much that he was currently upscaling to a larger space when I spoke with him. Thousands of photographers as far as Hawaii and Alaska can attest to the trust and assurance found in the superb service Ben provides.
Born and raised in South Orange, New Jersey, Ben's innate introduction to the arts began early. At just 3-4 years old, he made collage illustrations the old-fashioned way, cutting and pasting drawings with scissors and glue. Also attuned to technology, he digitalized these creations using his father's flat bead scanner and repeated the process. "Like Photoshop for a toddler," he described it.
While traits do not come randomly, it is no surprise that this creativity runs in the Krueger family. Ben's grandmother, Doris Krueger, devoted her whole life to her work. Talented in many mediums, her prestige came in the form of sculpture and gathered many patrons.
During Ben's youth, Doris regularly encouraged him to draw, but more importantly, taught him a fundamental truth that has stuck with him, as its nature pertains to all art forms. "You have to learn to see, before you can learn to draw."
Taken further, Téador de Wyzewa, a Polish art critic during the turn of the 19th century, explained a particular tangent to this notion in greater depth. "To see, to hear, is to create appearances within oneself, thus to create life."
While Wyzewa anticipated the development of abstraction in this writing, the theoretical principles remain the same. Creation is the perception of that, which one seeks. If one does not seek, they cannot create. And to create, they must seek, and find, that of which is within. In a more viable and progressive sense, Ben put it this way, "[I]n life you have to learn to see," "[Y]ou have to be, and that can take a whole lifetime."
While Ben adopted much of what he learned from his grandmother, one of the things he cherished most was her adherence. "She was never done with her research and development, [there] was always another conversation to be had," he said.
Additionally, both of Ben's parents are also creatives and respective business owners. His father, Douglas, is a theatre designer and his mother, Caryn, is an art curator. Ben originated his fascination for the camera because of his father's hobby: photography. At a young age, he would always be picking up cameras he found lying around. In his parents' response, they gifted Ben his first camera on his fifth birthday. "My untrained eye in combination with kid curiosity was drawn to things I wouldn't think about today," Ben said in reflection.
While he went on to find an interest in filmmaking well into high school, it wasn't until a summer camp in 2016 that he was given a proper introduction to film photography. Thus changing the path he has followed years since. As he stated, "The darkroom rekindled my love for the still image." Defining it further, he described it as having a "living [and] breathing quality."
"Not only are you working with materials that are that kind of [the] start, there's a history involved, we started this process, but you're making the decisions that will finalize your image."
He went on to contrast the comparison of film and his previous digital experience with a broader impression regarding timeline and evolution. "Within the grand scheme of things, digital is still young compared to analog. It's still in its early years. You know, photography itself is 90% analog. Just 10% at that end, that last 10% is digital. So being a part of that 10%, for me, just isn't as interesting. It's a tool, but I don't see it as being the way to learn and regularly practice."
Nowadays, after five years of ardent passion towards the medium, Ben describes being drawn most to the organic nature in two key ways. "First, I find the image-making experience to be the best way for me to stay in a moment. The act of me pointing my camera at someone or something is me saying, ‘You're interesting’ or ‘That's interesting.’ I am complimenting the scene in front of me in the most literal, or I guess in this case visual, way I can express. I always have my camera on me. It is an extension of myself. The Jedi have their lightsaber, I have my camera. I'm not saying that photography is my religion, but it provides a long-term outlet for me to navigate life. That brings me to my second point, that a photo changes with time. The hope is that it becomes more important, poignant or timeless as time gets the best of us. Images do lose steam as well. Only a few will be cherished forever."
What I found interesting while speaking with him was the close relationship between what he is drawn to most in photography (as aforementioned) and how he describes his work, "explores the immediate world around me with a pictorial and colorful approach. I focus on long-term and editorial projects that play with timelessness, youth, family, and how we present ourselves in a public space." He doesn't describe diving into deep perplexed crevasses. He puts a light on the fervent light he has "learned to see" in a positive frame, freezing it in the immediate moment.
The Archival Ben
One of the larger projects that Ben is currently working on, and has been for three years now, is Archival Ben. Named not after him, it is a curate of photographs from his great grandfather's (also named Ben) negative archive, most of which are large format. It has a double meaning, as he describes it, "it's his archive, [but] it also is about me, because it's my family history."
Ben takes on this project in sort of family tradition as both his grandfather and grand uncle also all documented family in the form of photography. However, the idea was not foreseen. "I didn't really have much concept of this or any idea until I was handed a big box of negatives. [A]bout three years ago, my grandmother handed them to me. And then I talked to her brother, my grand uncle. The project started there." With there being thousands of photos, as his great grandfather shot most of his life, he was especially active for about 50.
"[M]y goal with that project is to eventually do a book, probably some sort of documentary. And really, give it the respect and the acknowledgment it deserves. [A]s I continue to work through it, I realize that he knew what he was doing, it wasn't just like pointing a camera randomly. There was a love for it. But also, he knew what he was working with. And he developed and printed all of his own work, except for later in his life when he just wanted to shoot, it's just quite interesting to kind of see that whole history unfold before me. [E]ven my grandmother hasn't seen a lot of this work. [It] inspires me now to be more conscious of my photography and photograph more often. Because, you know, my images could last another 100 years as his have."
While the project started as just his great grandfather, he has begun expanding it. "I don't know, if I'm even halfway through, it could take me another five years, depending on what else I find; there is a lot there. [I]t's not just my great grandfather now anymore. It's two other families' worth that starts to make a bigger picture here, [but] I don't have any intention of really merging those images. What I mean by that is, it's still going to be separate when it comes to the presentation of them."
To follow this body of work, go to Ben's Instagram page, @TheArchivalBen, where he shares not just his great grandfather's but his whole family's photographic history.
Ben is also currently working on a 365 project set to be completed by the end of May. This entails taking at least one photo per day, each day of the year. While it may be set to end on the 365th day, that does not necessarily mean it will end. "[The] project will come to a close whenever I really decide, I'm also considering never stopping."
"[T]here was an [NFT] artist that made one 3D work every day for like 17 years. Then sold it to like the Sotheby's auction. It was just some crazy unfathomable amount of money. I'm not planning on doing it for any monetary reasons, but I find a long-term project that's consistent to be interesting."
As so, he makes a suggestion that this project will not be stopping for him any time soon. "I don't know if it'll be on the same camera every year. But I think that every year, I want to do a 365. I started to realize that when you look at the span of the year, I would never have taken certain images if I didn't force myself into this construct of a project. So that's something I've been working on, and I might always be working on."
This work and others can be followed on his primary Instagram account, @B.Kru.
Ben Krueger & Clayton Stone
CS: Hey Ben, it's great to be able to speak with you! I'd like to dive a little bit into Gelatin Labs, so, first things first, what gave you the push to start Gelatin Labs?
BK: Hey Clayton, thanks for chatting with me today! Gelatin Labs was initially born out of necessity to develop all of the films I was shooting. My dad and I weren't impressed by the photo labs we were working with at the time and thought we could apply our combined experience to offer a better product to photographers like us. So a mixture of genuine interest in the process and passion for photography led to Gelatin Labs.
CS: "You were not impressed with the photo labs that you were working with at the time." What improvements do you implement into Gelatin Labs that contribute to its best success?
BK: You know, nothing essentially differentiates the gear that we're using because you have to meet a certain standard before you can come up with your own ways of doing, essentially a similar service. So the flair that we put onto our product, without giving away the secrets, is we really push for, what we call, a flat scan. If you're not familiar with what that is, but are familiar with digital photography, I like to say that our scan is the closest you'll get from a lab that is flat as a RAW file. A RAW file has a lot more information in it than a JPEG file. And so, we are providing TIFF format files and tuning our machine. We're not doing any edits to the files, but actually just adjusting the characteristics of how our machine interprets film. The standard that we find to be the best to edit. A big misconception is, "you're not supposed to edit your film." I disagree with that. I think that anything that you can do in a darkroom, you should be able to do on a computer in Lightroom, or whatever editing program you use, as long as it's not, you know, changing the essence of the photo, or the original negative, and that it's executing your original vision as he saw it through the viewfinder. So our scans set up our clients to do just that. You're not going to be losing shadow detail or highlight detail, because we're not crushing that information. So that's really one of the factors.
Another thing is being able to talk to somebody on the phone, being able to have a personal conversation, ask us questions. Problem-solve. If you're new to this, our services are very good. We're a small team, but we prioritize the communication side of things. We find that to be key.
And then we're also adamant about keeping turnarounds as fast as possible because we have professionals that are working with deadlines.
I think that those were the biggest frustrations we had that pushed us to start Gelatin Labs. It was the turnaround, the scans, the lack of communication. The feeling that I'm dealing with a massive enterprise of a lab. And scans were not adequate, or even worth the money I was spending.
I can confidently say that what we're offering is the best you're going to get at lab quality.
CS: It’s good to hear the stress you put onto the quality of the scan. I think a lot of people don’t understand how important that truly is. Now, as the prevalence of film has gone down dramatically since the introduction of digital, would you say the current demand for film has more or less flattened, still decreasing or maybe beginning to increase?
BK: I would argue that film is nowhere near done with the photography world. Since I have started my film photography journey about six years ago, Kodak has revived long dead film stocks, new photo labs have popped up around the world and camera repair shops are reviving thousands and thousands of analog cameras every year.
CS: Why would you say that is?
BK: It's a revolution most likely taking shape in reaction to a sterilized and technologically saturated time. Younger generations are finding an escape in picking up something tangible and mechanical as a hobby. Older generations are diving back in and rediscovering what they loved about film in the first place.
With modern advancements in scanning technology, network infrastructure to upload and download bigger files, and social media to share your photos with the community, film becomes the perfect blend of old and new in 2022, as long as your lab embraces these improved processes.
As film manufacturers continue to support the industry, more and more photographers will gravitate towards it.
CS: That's really great to hear! I think it gives many film enthusiasts peace of mind. With the introduction of Gelatin Labs, have you seen more people in your own community getting involved with the medium?
BK: We have new film photographers finding us every day, which is super exciting. To be able to move the dial bit by bit in introducing people to film is something I hadn't considered when we first started out, but is now integral to growing the community and keeping film around for the long haul. The existence of labs is essential to the resurrection of film.
CS: That must be rewarding, it is always good to see more people getting involved! What is your favorite part about running Gelatin Labs?
BK: We have an amazing community of customers and social media followers that are very interactive with our posts, stories and more. Knowing that they are finding new photographers and artists with similar interests via our business is a great feeling.
Zooming out as a whole, watching progress be made over time through new services, expansions and team members coming on board is the best. We are moving into our new commercial space currently, which will be open by appointment in spring 2022. I guess you could call it Lab 2.0, where we will be building on the business with new collaborations, services and projects I am stoked to talk more about in the future!
CS: That's splendid, knowing you, I'm sure you will find tons of success with it! I will certainly be sending in my film. Before you go, what is the best way for people to find you and inquire about sending in their film?
BK: The best place to find the business would be via our Instagram @gelatinlabs or our website gelatinlabs.com. I am on Instagram as @b.kru. My archival project is @thearchivalben and 365 project is living on @ricohmemento.