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(Editor’s Note: We get a lot of requests to write about new business models and success stories. While we have featured Neomodern in the past, there were several follow-up questions about the fine-art side of the business.)
New style retail store embraces fine-art photography
There’s a new retail concept on Union St. in San Francisco that tries to meld digital sensibilities with a classic fine-art aesthetic. Neomodern, launched by former Netflix and Adobe innovator Michael Rubin, is an art gallery, digital photography workspace, and frame shop, that has as it’s core a concierge photo printing service.
The concept is simple: Offer high-quality, high-touch photo printing, in a limited number of sizes, in a distinct mat-and-frame offering for a single price. Three “project” sizes – 11×14, 16×20, 20×24 – are offered in the service, which are bundled with concierge print optimization, archival printing, 4-ply white cotton mats, black or white wood framing, and museum-grade UV-protecting acrylic glazing (Other print options are available, starting with a $25 unframed 8×10).
“Neomodern began as a way for me to solve my own problems as a freelance fine-art photographer,” explains Rubin. “I had left my job at Adobe and really wanted to pursue photography, full time. I could print, but didn’t realize how complicated it was to get work matted and ultimately framed. I had no easy way to do it. And the easiest solution was to get some equipment and do it myself.”
Rubin soon realized his significant investment in framing equipment could be amortized by doing work for others, and he started looking into combining photo-specific printing, matting and framing services.
At first, Rubin expected that he would do all the production work himself; but in a moment that Rubin describes reverently, the esteemed RayKo Photo Center had announced it was closing, and Rubin was soon joined by Carlos Arrieta, the director of digital printing there for almost a decade. “The closing of RayKo was a real loss for San Francisco, “but it made it possible for Neomodern to be joined by someone as talented as Arrieta.” He concedes adding staff has expanded the Neomodern experience.
“I am a printer, and I have my own style,” says Rubin. “[Personally printing customer work] was my original vision, but the truth is, I need people who are way better than me. I don’t enjoy printing color, for example; Carlos and the rest of the team are color experts.” The staff are all experts in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, and are later trained in the framing, a streamlined process due to the limited product offerings.
Location is key
The walk-in consumer is the mainstay of the business. Customers make an appointment, and then sit with the “printmaster” to talk over the photograph and to bring out the vision of the photographer. This harkens back to the classic concept where a photographer would work in tandem with a printmaker to produce the image.
“You really can’t adjust some photographs until you’re talking with the photographer,” explains Rubin. “There are so many tiny variables. Remember, we’re about photography, and not just a print service.”
As mentioned earlier, Neomodern’s high-end real estate on Union Street is a necessary component.
“I need to be where people are out walking around with their phones,” says Rubin, whose prior retail experience includes 20 years building the “paint-your-own-pottery” retail industry. “If you have to a lot of inventory and floor space, you have to be somewhere inexpensive. By definition, that can mean sketchy parts of town.”
Rubin says a lot of long-standing photo stores – like RayKo – are dead or dying – because their businesses were “a combination of digital things, of camera sales, camera rentals, film, darkroom… there’s a ton of stuff of in that real estate.” Rubin’s work was to simplify the offerings, and focus the business.
Throughout the 2,000-square-foot space, Neomodern is also a gallery, exhibiting classic works and showing and selling the work of customers. The gallery is a key component of the store, as it creates the aesthetic and elevates customer expectations: “That’s why we combined a museum gallery with this, so the customers are reminded why we are there.”
“The gallery’s function is to demonstrate great photography, like a tool, in a museum,” he explains. “That being said, it is important for people to see the value of photography, both by contemporary photographers, which might be affordable, and by masters, who might not. I try to have art work available for sale, even though I’m not counting on that sale as a core part of my business.”
About 20 museum-quality pieces are up at any time, rotating periodically through the company’s massive collection.
“I want it to be fresh and updated, but I don’t want you to think you are coming to Neomodern for an opening. Anytime you come, there will be a great show on display.”
While fine art photography is generally conceptual, a key aspect of Rubin’s philosophy for Neomodern is that a great photo can stand on its own, without explanation.
“I wanted Neomodern to be about great images that don’t have to be part of a conceptual set. It’s a return to a simpler time in photography, when you could take a great picture and love it simply because it’s a great picture.
Rubin insists, despite great service and a collaborative atmosphere, in the end, the print is the final statement: “I don’t think it’s ‘photography’ unless you print it. It’s not a photograph until you’ve taken that last step to choose which one you’ll make into a physical object. Photographic printing is the point of Neomodern. This is the base of our business.”