A little over a year ago, the blog you’re now reading became something else: a film brand.
On a late November morning, a truck rolled up to a cul-de-sac in south east London and delivered the first batch of Kosmo Foto Mono.
My spare room suddenly became home to 2,500 rolls of film and a lot of cardboard packaging.
Making this film – even if, as some have pointed out on photography forums and increasingly irate Facebook comments, “it’s just repackaged” – didn’t happen overnight.
When I saw Bellamy Hunt announce the launch of Japan Camera Hunter Street Pan 400 in 2016, I was bowled over – a blog with a faithful following of film lovers releasing its own film was such a brilliant idea. My second thought was: why not try and do something similar?
Street Pan 400 is an existing emulsion that had never before been offered in 35mm format (or 120, which followed soon after). But films like that are hard to find – and the process to set them for 35mm is way more expense than I was able to handle. So what to do?
There are, as it happens, really only five companies in the world that make film in big enough quantities for repackaging to be viable. The two biggest – Fuji and Kodak – don’t offer third-party films. The third, Ilford, is currently concentrating on its core products. The fourth, Ferrania, isn’t quite at the stage where it can take on this work.
This really only leaves one company – Foma in the Czech Republic. It may be unfamiliar to some, but Foma is a company with a long pedigree, starting in what was Czechoslovakia back in 1923. In the Cold War years it became one of the leading producers on the other side of the Iron Curtain, but unlike most of the rest – Orwo, Svema, Tasma – Foma films are easily available today.
Foma produces four panchromatic black-and-white films under the Fomapan name. Best known of these are their 100, 200 and 400 emulsions.
The 200-speed edition is a fantastic film with impressive contrast and just the right amount of grain. But 200 is an odd film speed, often called the ‘Cinderella’ of ISOs because it has neither the saturation and fine grain of 100, nor the low-light qualities of 400.
Fomapan 400 is a fine film shot at box speed but can suffer when it is pushed to higher ISOs. A 400-speed film should be versatile enough to handle being pushed to 1600 or 3200 without drama.
So that left their 100-speed film. Thankfully, it’s a cracking emulsion I’ve enjoyed using for the last decade; sharp, contrasts and with a slightly larger grain compared to other 100-ISO films.
We’ve not only lost films in the 15 years of digital dominance, but we’ve also lost the visual variety in box design.
Seeing racks of films in stores is always heartening, but fewer film boxes seem to pop; the big players have got for uniformity in box design, a reinforcement of the central branding that makes sense in these times. We’ve lost some of the colour and personality along with it though. Just look at some of the packaging of yesteryear in this piece from Japan Camera Hunter.
In the years since I started collecting Soviet cameras, I’ve also become a fan of mid-20th Century graphic design from behind the Iron Curtain.
It wasn’t just the Soviet Union; packaging and posters in countries like the Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary also followed this lead. You can see it in matchbox covers and old Aeroflot posters: bold, simple design, using a minimum of colours and offset printing that left bleeding colours. Even 50 years later some of this art feels strikingly ahead of its time.
This was the kind of art I wanted to feature on my film. Something that pointed to this East European school, and something that you couldn’t help but want to pick up.
Luckily, in my day job I work with a very talented designer. Over one of many canteen lunches I outlined what I wanted to do, and the Russian-themed graphics I wanted to reference on the packaging. He knew exactly what I wanted. The packaging started taking shape.
It was about now that I hit something of a hurdle. At this time, the blog was still called Zorki Photo, a homage to the famous marque of Soviet rangefinder cameras. When I announced the impending film in July 2017, it was called Zorki Photo Mono; a bunch of blogs and photo websites spread the news and hundreds of people around the world pre-ordered the film.
While the name “Zorki” wasn’t registered in the EU or UK, it was still registered in Russia. This might cause problems if I wanted to ever sell the film in Russia or if there were ever plans to produce new products under the Zorki name.
So, time for a name change.
The box packaging included an illustration inspired by Soviet matchbox art – a spaceship in the distance amid a starscape and a giant red planet looming on the margins. It was something that might make you think of Sputnik and the feats of the cosmonauts during the space race.
I settled on the name “Kosmo Foto”, with the K/F adding to that East European feel. As I wrote in this piece for EMULSIVE, it felt like name of an Eastern Bloc Camera Shop, its window filled with bug-eyed Lubitels, tank-like Zenits and Leica-like Zorkis.
Over a couple of weeks the blog changed its name to Kosmo Foto and the film packaging was redesigned; luckily for me the packaging hadn’t been produced at that point. Phew.
From there, it was a long couple of months’ wait as the team in the heart of Central Europe produced the first batch of 2,500 rolls.
I can barely begin to describe how excited I was when the film finally arrived. Boxes and boxes of shrink-wrapped Kosmo Foto Mono, ready to be shipped out to photographers around the world.
For the next six weeks I became the Royal Mail’s best friend, queuing in lunchtimes and after the working day, wading through an order list that grew every day.
By late January a little less than 2,500 rolls of film had left Kosmo Foto Towers and were being loaded into cameras from Helsinki to Hawaii.
By then, the Kosmo Foto brand had already branched into something else – postcards and stickers. Inspired by the space image on the Kosmo Foto Mono packaging, I got Martin to design some space-themed postcards, one of which features the camera-toting cosmonaut who has become the unofficial avatar of the brand. You can also buy these images as a set of stickers.
That’s been an unexpected swerve into the world of graphic arts. A few weeks ago, the cosmonaut character was turned into a t-shirt, partly due to the band that I shoot every time they do a European tour.
Buffalo Tom’s drummer, Tom, told me during the summer that he loved the image and would I be doing t-shirts. And if I was, he’d wear them during the next European tour. A no-brainer, as they say.
The other big development this year was to get the film into shops. The first film to ask for stock was Click & Surr, a new film camera shop based in the west of Berlin. Just before Christmas they pinged over a few images of the film in the store window, part of their Christmas display. A real film in a real shop window. Pinch me.
Since then, the film has been stocked by shops around the world. There’s the prestigious Photographer’s Gallery in the heart of London’s West End, in the shop I could happily spend £1,000 in without blinking. There’s Aperture, another of London’s best camera shops. NI Photographic run by my mate Edgar and online seller Analogue Wonderland, launched earlier this year. There’s West Yorkshire Cameras, a trio of enthusiastic camera lovers running an Aladdin’s Cave in Leeds’ historic Corn Exchange. And just a short amble from my house is Greenwich Cameras who sell Kosmo Foto Mono alongside classic cameras stretching all the way back to the late 1800s.
Further afield, the last year has seen me link up with Camaras & Companhia in Porto, Portugal – run by an old Flickr buddy I’d not spoken to for years. There’s the delightful Poulette Magique arts and crafts store run by the lovely Cecile in Narbonne, France. In Canada there’s Downtown Camera, a store that’s the lifeblood of the analogue revival in Toronto. And south of the border Michael Raso and the rest of the Film Photography Project have been hugely supportive, as has Seattle’s Shot on Film store.
In Florida there’s Volta Coffee in Gainesville – a new kind of film cheerleader, the cafe that will also sell you film. I get the feeling there will be more cafes like it in the coming months.
And these are just the ones I deal with. Instrumental in the unexpected success of Kosmo Foto over the last year have been two of my distributors; Maco Direct for Germany and Camera Film Photo, selling the film across Asia. It’s companies like these who are seeing the potential in upstart brands like Kosmo Foto, JCH, Film Washi and Bretz Analogue. They’re a reliable supply chain and allow enthusiasts with enough start-up resources the ability to set up shops and online stores; a vital building block to help sustain film’s return form the margins.
I’m glad to say that I now even have a distributor in my native New Zealand – Splendid Photo, a brand new film-only business in Wellington.
There are hundreds of other champions who have helped turn Kosmo Foto into reality – the people who pre-ordered, bought, shared and otherwise gave the film two thumbs up after it was announced last summer. People who loved the packaging, who didn’t dissolve into apoplectic rage once they knew it was a repackaged film (best name I’ve been called? “Parasitic repackager”. That’s the best song The Fall never recorded.) The people who waited patiently for their film to be delivered and then shared their images on Instagram or wrote Kosmonaut posts for the site. The people who put their money where their mouth is and helped this actually happen.
There’s been some other help, a gang who have been a sounding board and counselling service during the many ups and downs that come with trying to build a 21st Century film brand. It would have been many times harder without Heinz from Polaroid Originals, Bellamy from JCH, EM from EMULSIVE, Hamish from 35mmc, Mike from ShootFilmCo, Steve from Chroma Camera, Rachel from Little Vintage Photography, Adam from Dubble, Sam from Solarcan and Robert from Hamm Camera. You need people like this around you – people who know exactly what you’re going through.
The upshot is that, with the help of all these people and more, nearly 15,000 rolls of Kosmo Foto Mono were sold in the year since it was released. That’s a hell of a lot more than I dared hope and it’s helped fund some interesting little asides already, like the leather film cases that went on sale in September and the jet-set-era graphics mystery product that is currently being rolled out (keep your eyes peeled for an announcement before Christmas).
So what does Kosmo Foto have planned in 2019?
Well at the moment there are possibly three new products on the drawing board, not counting more t-shirts sporting the Kosmo Foto graphics.
I want to get the 35mm film stocked in more and more shops around the world – so if you run a camera/film store and you don’t yet stock the film, please get in touch.
Over the past 18 months, launching the film has helped me form all sorts of new connections with film devotees the world over.
One of my favourite moments was walking into a store in Porto in April that was a cross between a camera shop, record store, bar and nightclub. I scanned the rows of film behind the man at the counter and asked, “Do you stock this film?”, holding up a roll I had with me.
He said no but he knew about it. I told him I was Kosmo Foto and he looked a bit shocked… then he slid open the counter drawer and pulled out the space postcards he had bought a few weeks before.
“You’re Kosmo Foto?” Before I even really had a chance to answer he was round the other side of the counter, giving me a hug.
I don’t think the people who sell memory cards get that sort of response.
You can buy Kosmo Foto’s products in the shop.