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Developing Connections

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Developing Connections

Zane Allen smiling in front of Seawood Photo's extensive inventory of more than 30 different types of film.

Zane Allen smiling in front of Seawood Photo's extensive inventory of more than 30 different types of film.

Zane Allen smiling in front of Seawood Photo's extensive inventory of more than 30 different types of film.

Zane Allen smiling in front of Seawood Photo's extensive inventory of more than 30 different types of film.

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7,445. That’s how many photos are currently stored on my phone. 7,445. Out of all those images, I can confidently say that I only care about maybe a quarter of those. Like millions of fellow iPhone users, I have become accustomed to snapping a photograph in an instant, slapping a mediocre filter on it, and setting it loose to the whimsical world of “the Cloud.” In an era of pocket cameras and “portrait mode,” the power of a single image has become lost. But Zane Allen of Seawood Photo is one of the few who still appreciates the elegance of an actual camera.

Allen got his first camera in high school and started out shooting lighthearted moments with his friends at the skatepark: “[I] just kind of always had cameras and was always documenting stuff.” However, photography didn’t become an actual career until recently. For many years, working at Seawood was Allen’s side gig to his main construction job. While working construction, Allen was simultaneously going to school to become an electrician, writing off his passion for photography as just a hobby. With a hipster snapback hat and tattoo sleeve peeking out of his black vintage T-shirt that spells out Seawood Photo in worn letters, I have a hard time picturing Allen as a calculating electrician. Shaking his head slightly, as if warding off memories of vocational school, Allen recalls: “I was just kind of going crazy as it wasn’t what I was wanting to do.”

Although Allen knew that he would take a pay cut if he came to work at Seawood, he quickly traded electrician’s textbooks for vintage cameras, but still held his construction job. Like Cinderella in reverse, Allen waited for when he could take off his hard hat and orange vest to put on his black Seawood shirt and a pair of jeans to come work evenings at Seawood. This double life as an artist and construction worker went on for several years until a full-time position opened up at Seawood and Allen jumped at the opportunity: “I always said when I was doing construction and that this was the fun job and that was the one that pays the bills. Now I’m doing the fun one full time.”

The “fun” job includes buying and selling digital and film cameras, printing high-quality images, fixing vintage cameras, and restoring photographs. According to Allen, since its opening in San Anselmo in 1947, Seawood has provided services to “artists, professionals, commercial photographers, wedding photographers, amateur enthusiasts. The whole spectrum. Anybody that’s interested in photography.”

Seawood’s first anniversary in 1948 in their original San Anselmo location. This antique photo hangs on the wall of the store.

From the beginning, Seawood has been committed to authenticity, lightheartedness, and quality craftsmanship. Even its name (derived from San Anselmo’s proximity to the “sea” and the “woods”) exudes a type of playful yet genuine nature. Legend even tells that the voice of E.T. was actually discovered in the original Seawood location. Cocking his head and grinning, Allen exclaims, “It was some little old lady that was in there shopping and one of the people that worked on E.T. heard her talk and was like, you’re perfect!” Although Seawood moved from its original San Anselmo location about two years ago, the eccentric spirit of the store has remained.

The customer looking for the quick, cut-and-dry camera purchase usually found at Best Buy or some other cold, big-box store, should not come to Seawood. Upon entering the store, you are immediately welcomed by cat posters (and even a real cat, fittingly named Flash) and shelves upon shelves of vintage cameras, photography equipment, and old photos. But I still have to wonder, for all its eclectic charm, how does Seawood compete with large retailers like Best Buy?

Throughout the store, playful cat posters are sprinkled in among the camera equipment.

“We specialize in cameras that have to be looked over by human beings that know them and you can’t really do that in mass quantity.” With online retailers like Amazon and Best Buy, not to mention the modern ease of iPhones, the demand for vintage cameras is falling fast. But Seawood has one thing that sets it apart from these new-age competitors: Zane Allen himself. Large stores don’t provide the same human connection that Seawood does.

Allen forms actual relationships with the customers that come into Seawood. More than just giving people a camera, Allen gives his customers a connection to what they find meaningful. In his soft-spoken, yet earnest tone Allen recalls the emotion behind the first time he did a photo restoration for a customer: “I was working at a one hour [photo] lab in Petaluma and we used to send our photo restoration work to India. Sometimes I saw them do good work, sometimes it wasn’t so great. I had a lady come in from South Africa I believe, and she had a tiny little picture, like a half an inch, and it was the only photo she had of her mother before she immigrated. And it was all trashed and she wanted it restored. I didn’t feel uncomfortable sending it off. So I told her I was pretty good with Photoshop and I could fix it up. I spent some time, scanned it in, fixed it up real good. And I brought it to her and she bawled and hugged me.”

While an overnight Amazon-shipped camera may seem easier and beautified Instagram snapshots may be more mainstream, Allen believes in slowing down and appreciating the power of film cameras and tangible photographs that tell a story.

A small fraction of the immense volume of vintage photographic equipment that Seawood possesses.

This affinity for genuine, human connection over modernity and conventionality can even be seen in how he handles his own photographs: “I shoot mostly film and they talk about the “hand” of the artist. Like, when you do a painting you can see brush strokes and stuff. When I processed my own film, I’m not so careful with it. I don’t care so much about making something that’s perfect. I like the flaws. You know, the little thumbprint on a negative or something I think is kind of cool.”

My 7,445 photographs may be impressive but ultimately, this slew of digital files can never carry the same human emotion that old family photos with yellowed stains and worn edges can. Instead of simply pinching and poking a photo through a cold, glass screen, holding an actual image means slowing down and connecting with the person who took the time to physically craft the image. As Allen says, a photograph is, “just another vehicle for expression and the translation of the human experience. Some people might never do the work it takes to learn to sketch or paint, but they might fall into the camera and pick it up then. So [the camera] gives a voice to more people. It’s a tool for a different form of communication. And I think as many tools as we can to communicate with each other is pretty good.”

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