Hillvale: More Than a Photo Lab

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Located in the backstreets of Brunswick, Hillvale shows how photo labs are not only relevant to today’s photographic community, but thrive with the right guidance. Founded by Jason Hamilton and Andy Johnson, the business grew from a single scraped processing machine kept in a garage into one of Melbourne’s most dynamic and forward-thinking photo labs.

Words by Hudson Brown

Wander down Black Street, Brunswick and it won’t be difficult to spot where you can get your film processed. That’s because Hillvale is marked with a giant Agfa film box, which was saved from some dismantled advertising hoarding that stretched along the corner of Lonsdale and Russell Street in Melbourne CBD. Founded in 2014 by long-time friends Jason Hamilton and Andy Johnson, Hillvale is a full-service photo lab that caters to professional and beginner analogue shooters alike. It was back in Jason’s teenage years when he got his first processing experience working in a small country town photo lab.

“I started working in a photo lab as my first job when I was 15 years old. This is what grew my interest,” says Hamilton. “In a small country town there isn’t much to do, so another friend got me into shooting, skating and riding, which is what got me into photography in the beginning. Everyone in the lab was really supportive of us young kids working there and that enabled us.”

The beginnings of Hillvale came when the photo lab Jason was working at made the decision that analogue processing was dead. Having thrown out their C-41 processing equipment, Jason and Andy got together and salvaged the machine, quickly having it on a trailer and en route back to Melbourne. After sourcing the chemistry needed to have the machine functioning again, Jason and Andy’s hobby for film processing swiftly transformed into a viable business idea. “We began developing our own film in Andy’s parents’ garage before we started processing film for friends. Then it began to snowball,” describes Hamilton.

“The duo came up with the idea of installing drop boxes throughout Melbourne’s cafes, bars and like-minded organisations.”

As the film processing business began to grow, but with Jason and Andy still working regular 9-to-5 jobs, the duo came up with the idea of installing drop boxes throughout Melbourne’s cafes, bars and like-minded organisations. Collected on specific days of the week, the drop boxes provided a simple solution for customers as Jason and Andy gradually got closer to committing to Hillvale full-time.

“The business was built on being affordable and accessible for as many people as possible,” explains Hamilton. “The benefit of having drop boxes that are picked up at certain times during the week ensures that we get a load at certain times of the week to work on. This creates less downtime in the lab and enables us to be as efficient as possible which in turn lets us keep our prices down.”

“In 2020, the Hillvale Project Grant will open up to the Australian public, with a panel of judges selecting a project that needs a little extra help to reach its conclusion.”

Hillvale’s array of professional-quality equipment has made them one of Melbourne’s go-to photo labs for photographers who need premium prints for display or publishing. Featuring a Fuji FP232b film processor for the development of C-41 colour film, Hillvale also has a Focus dip-and-dunk for processing black and white film. For scanning, they use a series of Fuji Frontier SP3000s and Noritsu HS-1800s for optimal workflow.

With the lab functioning like a fine-tuned machine, Hillvale goes above and beyond the offering of your standard photo lab. One such initiative is the Hillvale Project Grant, which has provided prominent photographers such as Sarah Pannell and Ryan Cookson with the opportunity to complete long-term documentary projects in countries such as Iran and South Africa. In 2020, the Hillvale Project Grant will open up to the Australian public, with a panel of judges selecting a project that needs a little extra help to reach its conclusion.

“The grant began a few years ago to support people who were working on projects, but needed that little help to drive it to the next level,” explains Hamilton. “It was a way to help people finish projects we thought needed to be seen out in the world. Sarah Pannell’s Tabriz to Shiraz series has had a great response from around the globe.”

Jason and Andy also opened Hillvale Gallery in 2017, making the most of the extra space in the warehouse where they keep their dip-and-dunk processor. After recruiting some friends to help give the space a fresh coat of paint and to construct a portable wall to section off the lab, the gallery was launched. Over the last two years, Hillvale Gallery has hosted group and solo exhibitions by the likes of Dysturb and Sarah Pannell, plus Hillvale’s own Flat Film Archive. Before the end of 2019, Hillvale Gallery will exhibit Ryan Cookson’s images and a short documentary on the South African subculture of ‘spinning’, a type of street racing that has grown into a legitimate motorsport.

“We support the photography community in any way we can, either by offering our services for causes or activating spaces for exhibitions so people can show work,” says Hamilton. “We will also be opening up expressions of interest for shows to be held [at Hillvale Gallery] in 2020 before the end of the year.”

“It’s an exciting time to see so many people experimenting with different ways to take photos.”

Just as Hillvale was finding its feet, many of the smaller labs were calling it quits. Jason even remembers some of the suppliers of processing chemicals saying that they were crazy to even try and get their rescued machine back in commission. But having survived through film photography’s darkest days, Hamilton has noticed a dramatic uptick in the scene – not only in Melbourne but also around the globe.

“There has been an increased demand with younger people now having a go at using film cameras, who may have started on digital, or even just their phones. It’s an exciting time to see so many people experimenting with different ways to take photos,” says Hamilton. “More demand for photo lab resources means the companies supplying consumables, films and chemicals are experiencing higher demand compared to when they were on the brink of collapse ten years ago.”

“It doesn’t matter whether your image is shot with a film camera or a digital camera, people still have a desire to see the printed image.”

Only a few years ago, a photo lab launching and not only surviving but also thriving would have been considered nearly unthinkable. In November of 2018, Hillvale celebrated their fifth birthday, marking the occasion with a massive exhibition of projected photography, entitled ‘Keep The Fire Burning’. Holding public submissions of one image per photographer, Hillvale received more than 600 photographs. The exhibition was not only a celebration of Hillvale’s success, but also of the photography community and its ongoing support of local organisations and creatives.

“It was really encouraging to see so many people attend the exhibition, as well as show so much support from the local community,” says Hamilton. “If there is one thing it showed about the photo industry, it doesn’t matter whether your image is shot with a film camera or a digital camera, people still have a desire to see the printed image. In this case, more than 100 projected images onto muslin cloth.”

The film photography industry has re-established itself in Melbourne over the last five years, with Hillvale at the centre of this dramatic turnaround. “It’s great to see people taking an interest in what can come from photography and where it can take you,” says Hamilton.  With a healthy mix of photo labs and darkrooms offering Melbourne’s analogue photographers plenty of processing options, the future looks bright for film photography.

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Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.

2019-10-28T04:27:39+00:00 Categories: Interviews, Photography|Tags: , , , |