A brief 11-minute cinematic documentary titled “The Light Within a Hundred Square Feet” tells the story of Oson Chin — the last film printer left in Chicago — and his legacy of enthusiasm and knowledge of analog photography.
Located on North Des Plaines Street in Chicago, just a short drive away from the city center, CSW Film Systems is a film photography lab which welcomes photographers from all walks of life and experiences.
“Whether you are a first-year photo student or a veteran photographer with decades of experience, you will find nothing but the finest quality processing and printing, combined with service that goes above and beyond anything you thought possible,” Chin, who develops and processes film for his customers daily, describes.
When asked why Chin is still pursuing this business, his answer explains his life-long dedication to spend his days working with chemicals to bring photographs to life.
“It’s because it’s the only thing I know,” he says in the documentary.
Although the print lab has experienced its financial ups and downs — this type of business is heavily affected by any turmoil experienced in the industry and the general economy, such as job losses or major financial crises — the lab is still going strong after years of serving its loyal customers.
Chin himself refuses to turn to digital photography and his dedication to film has paid off. Many print labs are now competing for the same digital customers while Chin’s print lab can proudly say it’s the only one of its kind left in the area.
The business’s longevity is impressive not only because it has managed to survive throughout decades of competition, but also because its owner and film developer is colorblind and unable to see certain hues. Somewhat miraculously, this handicap still doesn’t stand in the way of his lifelong work. When Chin enters his darkroom, he says he loses all sense of time, but there’s only so much time a business owner can lose before reminding himself that he needs to come out, serve customers, and make money.
He has served thousands of customers and in the documentary, one of them — Sandro Miller, an expressive American photographer — shares his personal experience of meeting Chin 25 years ago and the experience he has had producing thousands of film photographs with him over that time. Miller looks back fondly on his time working with the print lab because Chin helped him produce beautiful prints throughout the years, as well as made sure that Miller is able to hit his commercial and editorial work deadlines with hundreds of prints awaiting to be developed.
Watching the trend of film photography decline throughout the years, Chin has noticed a strong sense of revival as more and more people turn to film photography. He believes that this type of photography will not go away as more people realize the joy of shooting with film. Although his friends are retired, he is not ready to leave his work quite yet and wants to continue to enjoy his passion for as long as he can, which is helped by the energy that young photographers give him when they bring him their film.
At the time of publication, CSW Print Lab had recently published that it would be closed for an unspecified amount of time for reasons that have not been divulged, but Chin does indicate that he plans to reopen the lab in the future in replies to the announcement.