Exclusive: Neomodern advances concierge photo printing service

New retail store offers high-end printing and framing service

There’s a new retail gallery concept unveiled 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 executive Michael Rubin, is a digital photography lab, frame shop and art gallery, offering concierge 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. Three “project” sizes – 11×14, 16×20, 20×24 – are offered in the service, including 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 $35 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 quit my job at Adobe and really wanted to pursue photography. I could print, but didn’t realize how important it was to get work matted and ultimately framed. I had no way to do it.”

Rubin soon realized his significant investment in framing equipment could be amortized by doing work for others, and he looked into offering printing, matting and framing services. Since launching earlier this year, Rubin says Neomodern has exceeded expectations, with expectations of soon being cash-flow positive. This is no mean feat, considering the location on Union Street in San Francisco is among the most expensive in North America. (More on that later.)

The NeoModern concierge service finds the art in phone photos
The Neomodern concierge service finds the art in phone photos

Rubin’s original expectation was he would do all the production work himself, but was soon joined by Carlos Arrieta and Arturo Oliva Pedrosa, both from the recently closed RayKo Photo Center. He concedes adding staff has expanded the NeoModern opportunity.

“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 Arturo are color experts.” Adding framing was not a major educational hurdle, since the process is streamlined due to the limited product offerings.

The difference between the vision and the business

This balance between a founder’s vision and the realities of the business is something Rubin has learned to recognize. For example, he notes from his early days at Netflix, the disc-delivery service was geared toward movie buffs, but to really scale, the service had to serve more occasional users. Further, the business must be ready to change to accommodate new audiences and data.

“I built Neomodern for me, but I’m not the core audience anymore,” says Rubin. “The model for my own photography is more like painting. Make one and own it; It’s an object.

“Don’t confuse my preference with the company philosophy. We’re a printer. If you want to print 10 images, you can. The truth is, you can do whatever you want.”

For example, in Rubin’s personal work, he doesn’t use Adobe Photoshop to alter the composition or elements, calling it “antithetical to the photographic process,” but does perform some color adjustments.

“There’s certainly pressure from the art world to build a narrative,” he explains. “But photography, to me, is like writing. There is poetry and there are novels. They both use words and have certain rules to them, but you wouldn’t really compare the two things.

“My photography is [like] haiku: black-and-white, no Photoshop, unprocessed. Those are artificial constraints, but I am not imposing that on anyone else.”

Further, for a print to bear the embossed “NeoModern” logo, two conditions must be met: It must be the only print and the image must not be Photoshopped. (Rubin notes Neomodern artists will do whatever work the customer is willing to pay for, but to bear the Neomodern logo, those two conditions are set.) Since launching, Neomodern has also developed a b-to-b aspect, performing white-label printing and framing services for other galleries. Photographers are even beginning to include Neomodern service with their wedding packages, letting the customer choose images from a memory stick and then getting one Neomodern print as part of the package.

The walk-in consumer is the mainstay of the business. Customers make an appointment, and then sit with the printmaker to talk over the photograph to bring out the vision of the photographer.

“You really can’t adjust some photographs until you’re talking with someone,” explains Rubin. “There are some many tiny little variables. We’re about photography, not a print service.”

Location is key

As mentioned earlier, Neomodern’s high-end real estate 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 helping build “paint-your-own-pottery” retail businesses. “If you have a lot of inventory and floor space, you have to be somewhere inexpensive. By definition, that can mean undesirable or 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 there.”

He says Neomodern is a new kind of photo store, with a laser focus on customer service and on limited product offering.

“Everyone in the industry was saying, ‘why are you getting into this space? It’s going away,’” says Rubin. “I think that’s wrong. What’s going away is the old-style store, that’s true. But the hobby of photography is on the rise, and that’s an opportunity to do business. I wanted to be where everyone is, and it’s a different kind of physical space.

“If you treat it like a commodity business, it won’t work,” he adds. “You’re dead. You need to be in an expensive place and you need to do volume. The way you compete at every level with the personal attention. If you try to print every size or have every frame, you’re Kinkos or Walgreens. That’s why we combined a museum gallery with this, so the customers know why we are there.”

Throughout the 2,000-square-foot store, Neomodern is also a gallery, exhibiting and selling classic works and showing the work of customers. The gallery is a key component of the store, as it creates the aesthetic and elevates customer expectations.

“The gallery’s function is to demonstrate 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 be affordable. I try to have things available for sale, even though I’m not counting on having that sell as part of my business.”

About 20 museum-quality pieces are up at any time, rotating through the space.

“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.”

Another key aspect of Rubin’s philosophy is the fact a great photo can stand on its own.

“I wanted Neomodern to be about great images – not necessarily beautiful or pretty – that doesn’t have to be part of a set. A return to a simpler time in photography, when you could take a great picture and love it 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 photography until you’ve taken that last step to choose which one you’ll make a physical object out of. Printing is the point of NeoModern. This is the base of our business.”

[photo_gallery_wp id=”6″]