Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Freestyle Photo
Today we interview the original darkroom outfitters as we launch our Photogenic x Freestyle 75th Anniversary Collection
In 1946, just as the United States was emerging from the shadow of World War II, Sam Fatman and Irving Resch founded Freestyle Sales Company in New York to sell surplus military film supplies. Within a few years, the company had moved to Los Angeles, where it began an unprecedented run as a multi-generation champion of film photography.
Truth be told, Freestyle Photo have been the original Darkroom Outfitters for the past 75 years. Based in Hollywood, California, they have been supplying photographic paper, chemistry and film to photographers around the US for decades, and when during the dark days of the mid-2000's, it seemed as if film photography would completely die off - a sudden casualty of digital technology and cameras - Freestyle doubled down and helped save the industry.
Historic Freestyle Catalogs from over the years
To celebrate their 75-year commitment to supporting both the art and science of film photography, we worked closely with Freestyle to create 4 original t-shirt designs. You can view this limited-edition collection here, and it’s also available in their brand new Hollywood store.
We sat down (virtually) with Patrick DelliBovi, the Senior VP of Sales & Marketing at Freestyle Photo. Patrick has been with Freestyle since 2001, and he’s seen the film industry wax and wane, and wax again. We asked him a few questions about Freestyle, for those who might not be lucky enough to have come across them before.
We know a bit about how Freestyle Photo started, and all the many years it has served the film photography community in the United States. Can you tell us a bit about what the modern Freestyle does now? What kind of products or categories are you focused on in the 2020s?
Absolutely! We have been and continue to be focused on film photography and printing, whether it is in the darkroom or using an inkjet printer. We continue to seek out new suppliers and work with existing manufacturers to keep our medium going strong. We are so pleased to see the increasing popularity of film and will do everything we can to keep this going. In addition, we see more photographers getting back to printing and our goal is to help educate them to be the best they can be!
A selection of films offered by Freestyle. Photo courtesy Freestyle Photo.
We know that the Freestyle store moved recently. Can you tell us a bit about your new store, which opened just last month? Are you still in Hollywood, CA?
After 50 years in the same retail location, we decided to make a move to a smaller footprint. Our existing 15,000 sq. ft building used to not only be a retail store and offices, but it was also our warehouse prior to 2003. That was when we moved into our current 30,000 sq. ft Distribution Center to handle all shipping and warehousing.
We had been discussing a move to a more efficient retail space for a while. During the pandemic, it became clear that we did not need such a large space for offices, so we relocated our office staff to our Distribution Center offices and moved our Hollywood retail store to a 3,000 sq.ft. space, only 4 blocks away from our old home. We love the new space and are incredibly proud of our team for putting it together with everything else going on. Based on comments from customers, they love it too!
Over 400 Types of Film
Freestyle is clearly a driving force in keeping film photography alive and thriving. Can you give us a sense for how big Freestyle is right now?
We don’t like to think of ourselves as a big company. We may seem so, but only because the Photo Industry is a rather small pond. Like us, most of the industry’s long-standing suppliers and institutions owe their existence to being small and nimble, as traditional business models and forecasting is nearly impossible for traditional photography supplies.
We do acknowledge that we are a very large part of the World of Photography and hold that responsibility in the highest regard. Our focus on consumables like film, chemicals, darkroom and inkjet paper, and mounting supplies means we’re not a traditional “camera” store...
Our team manages over 6,000 products; we list over 400 products in our film category alone – that’s counting just film, not even including accessories or chemicals. We try to have the best and widest selection possible. We want to be the best one-stop-shop for traditional photographers and photographic printmakers possible!
Tell us something about Freestyle that most people don’t know?
One of the most iconic buildings in Hollywood is the Amoeba Records building. Funny enough, Freestyle built that building 20 years ago. The musical scale on the top was going to be a film strip! Then, right before the move, we found our current warehouse and decided to stay at our legacy retail location.
Amoeba Records’ owners bought the building from us and, in a very short time, made it a Hollywood landmark! It is one of the most famous record stores in the country. We loved that the space was going to be taken care of by some analog (record) lovers.
Interestingly enough, that building was recently bought and Amoeba has moved into a new space - both of our companies moved in the same year, 20 years after the first time!
In all the years that you’ve been at Freestyle, which year would you say was the “darkest” for film photography in this country? Tell us a bit about what it was like?
Well…right when I joined the company, digital was starting to pick up steam. I would say that a few years after, 2004 – 2006, were tumultuous times as there seemed to be a great divide of film vs digital.
“You still sell film? You won’t be around much longer.”
When Kodak declared bankruptcy was probably the biggest scare. I remember going to trade shows and having folks come up to our booth and saying, “You still sell film? You won’t be around much longer.” That used to drive me crazy and really motivated us to continue pushing and promoting film and darkroom.
Inside the legacy Freestyle Hollywood store. Photo courtesy The Cranky Camera.
What hard decisions did Freestyle have to make back then? What drove your continued commitment to film photography at such an uncertain time?
We always believed that there would be a place for film and that it would never go away. So we decided to double down on consumables and shy away from the swarm of digital products our competitors were flocking to stock.
If you look at history, the camera did not wipe out painting or drawing, it just took it to another place. We did not believe that digital would wipe out film, but just take it to another place - and we wanted to make sure to be its champion. It may have looked like a hard decision from the outside, but it made the most sense to us.
In your personal view, what is the most exciting thing about the renaissance that film photography is seeing? Is it more about going back to an existing technology with a new eye, having a new generation experience the wonder of film, or something else?
I would say all of the above, but watching a new generation not only experience the wonder of film, but really enjoy, understand, and get excited about it has been incredible! I have had such great conversations with young film shooters and just love the excitement that they have when describing a film or discussing a film. That is so rewarding to see.
The World's Largest Photograph
Tell us a really interesting story about something that you’ve seen during your time at Freestyle
In the Spring of 2006, Freestyle played a part in making the Guinness World Record Largest Photograph and Largest Camera. Six of our favorite photographers - Mark Chamberlain, Jacques Garnier, Rob Johnson, Douglas McCulloh, Clayton Spada, and the late Jerry Burchfield, - and around 400 student and like-minded assistants built the world's largest pinhole camera in an airplane hangar at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Southern California.
The final muslin negative measured 111’x32’. Freestyle donated the many, many gallons of liquid emulsion for the project. We really encourage everyone to check out the project in more detail at http://www.legacyphotoproject.com/the-great-picture/ .
Photo courtesy The Legacy Photo Project.
Where do you see film photography going in 2021, given the ongoing COVID-19 situation? We don’t see any change in what is happening with film. Demand for film products during the pandemic saw a dramatic increase, particularly in home processing chemicals. Film was on the rise before the pandemic, during it, and it will continue to be strong moving forward.
What about beyond? Does film photography exist 10, 20, 50 years from now?
Absolutely! Film is a refreshing break from technology. It is artistic and unique and exciting, especially to those that are experiencing it for the first time. New schools are being built all over with new darkrooms and the current interest in photography will only lead to more educated photographers sharing their passion. Supply chains may hiccup and materials may change, but traditional photographic processes will never disappear completely, and certainly not in the next several decades. #longlivefilm #longliveanalog
Just for fun: You guys have been based in Hollywood, CA for a very long time. You must have some fun celebrity stories from being on Sunset Blvd. Any you’d like to share with us?
Being in Hollywood for this long has definitely meant lots of celebrity customers like A-list actors, directors, and musicians, but one of the reasons they like to shop at our store is we don’t make a big deal and treat them like everyone else - including not sharing stories about our interactions! But, it is true that celebrity shutterbugs can be found roaming our aisles in Hollywood, on any given day.
Thank you so much for your time, Patrick. We have to make it over there soon to see the new store! You definitely have to come and check it out! I hope soon. Thanks for working with us on our 75th Anniversary collection and we look forward to doing more collaborations in the days ahead!
Los Angeles CA, 90027.