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Bromfield Camera in Boston has changed with the times

Posted by Christina Jedra  March 13, 2013 05:15 PM

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Owners say that today's customers come in for different reasons than they did in the past.

Bromfield Camera’s cash register pops open with a nostalgic “ching” while, just a few feet away, an employee patiently demonstrates the intricacies of a hefty digital camera to an eager twenty-something. The shop, situated at 10 Bromfield St., has housed one camera store or another for nearly a century.

Since 1918, when the first camera store opened in this location, camera technology has evolved from being measured in millimeters to megapixels. But according to Russell Centamore, whose family has owned Bromfield Camera for the past 48 years, the art of photography hasn’t changed so much as the business has.

"Ten years ago, when you saw a digital picture, it was all pixilated and grainy,” he said. “Today, “when you send out your film, it’s digitally printed,” Centamore said, and the difference is imperceptible. “Unless,” he said,“you’re doing it yourself and doing it with chemicals, which few people still do.”

Centamore said he misses film for another reason: “What I miss is the people coming back with their film. We’d see them when they bought the film, we’d see them when they dropped off the film, we’d see them when they picked up the film. So it was a great relationship.”

Frequent visits from customers made Bromfield Camera a community hub. “We used to rent movies,” he said. “We would do a flier where if you dropped off a roll of film you’d get half-price off a movie, or rent a movie and get ten percent off your film processing.”

Today, film makes up only about 2 percent of business at Bromfield, so customers stop in much less frequently. “People will come back every couple years to update their cameras, or they’ll come in for an accessory,” Centamore said. “We don’t get the same customer coming back 20 times a year like we used to, or more.”

Time has also brought increased competition from new media and technology, but Centamore embraces it. “Before, people would come in, and I’d have seven cameras out on the counter.I’d teach you what to buy,” he said. “Now, most people go online and they kind of do their homework and they come in with a couple of choices, maybe, and it’s simpler for us.”

He said he appreciates the accessibility new technology has brought to amateur photographers. “The product just keeps evolving and getting better and less expensive and faster. It’s pretty cool,” Centamore said. “I never thought I would see this in my industry in this time. And I kept saying, you know, ‘I’ll be gone by the time this comes.’ And it’s already come and gone into a new phase.”

Few people have witnessed as much changing photographic technology Bob Richmond, a photographer and artist of over 50 years who has worked Saturdays at Bromfield for 12 years. But he says he doesn’t keep the job for the money.

“I’m a very poor businessman,” hesaid. “Essentially my primary interest has always been the arts, and I think being here keeps me connected to the so-called real world.”

Although he was formally trained as a large-format photographer and now pursues street photography using 35 millimeter film, Richmond, too,embraces digital imaging. “The photographers here are using a modern medium, but the vision is still involved with the old-school tradition,”Richmond said. The art has changed over time, he says, but not because of equipment. “There’s so little street life left due to television and air conditioning,” he said with a laugh.

Owner and employees alike insist it’s strong customer relationships that have helped Bromfield Camera stay open long enough to witness such drastic changes in the field of photography.

"The biggest thing we offer is service,”said Kevin Macomber, a portrait photographer as well as an employee of 12 years. “We’re not like a Best Buy where people don’t know what they’re talking about. When people buy a camera, they can always come back and get help and advice. If they have a problem, we help.”

"People come in here, we sit them down on our computer, we teach them about digital,” said Centamore. “But of course, that’s the personal touch.”

The personal touch has been working at Bromfield Camera for 48 years.

"We’ve outlasted Kodak and Polaroid. That’s kind of funky,” Centamore said.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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