Well Developed

From film to digital, from photography to framing, this guy does it all

by Chris Farnsworth and Virginia Lindauer Simmon

jonsdarkroom0818Jon Long, the president of Jon’s Darkroom and Frameshop Inc. on Pearl Street in Essex Junction, has been taking pictures since he picked up a Brownie camera when he was 5.

Some people tolerate their jobs. There is no enjoyment or fulfillment there, only a situation that allows one to earn a living. Others, perhaps, enjoy a type of balance where they spend eight hours trudging away but leave feeling at least content with what has been achieved before quitting time.

Then there are the lucky few like Jonathan Long, owner and operator of Jon’s Darkroom and Frameshop in Essex Junction. It’s not an exaggeration to say he truly loves what he does.

“I had a Brownie camera when I was about 5, maybe 6 years old,” Long recalls. “I remember the excitement when my parents would send the rolls out — of course, they didn’t have photo labs then; you had to wait a week or so. Every day you check the mailbox, and when it finally arrives, you’d just be so excited to open it and see what you shot.”

That feeling never faded. In 1963, his father was recruited by IBM and moved the Long family up to Vermont from Poughkeepsie, New York. After stints in Williston and Jericho, they settled in Essex.

His parents divorced in 1970 and his mother remarried in 1972. His stepfather, Gerald Turner, taught photography at Albert D. Lawton School and built him a darkroom of his own.

After graduating from Essex High School in 1976, Long attended The University of Vermont, expecting to major in chemistry, but changed his mind and left to study at the Doscher School of Photography in Woodstock.

He worked at various labs and camera stores, but it all changed when he took a managerial position at an Essex photo development shop named Foto Flash. The previous owner was tired of running multiple locations and offered to sell him the business.

“When I was trying to get my loan to buy this business,” Long says, “the bank asked for a large sum of money on deposit.” It was money he didn’t have. His birth father, he says, “came through and made sure I had that money in the bank.” In 1986, Jon’s Darkroom was born.

Running a new business almost exclusively by himself was no easy task. “I was so broke then, I made my first sign in my woodshop,” he says with a smile. “Big wooden letters that I’d paint.”

Competition was fierce in the ’80s. He recalls there being somewhere near 30 film labs in the greater Burlington area alone, including one right down the street from where his business still sits today. “I must have been doing 200 rolls of film a day back then!”

The business expanded and he started doing professional wedding photography and launched a service called Jon’s Darkroom Rental, where he ran classes and rented darkroom space to amateur developers.

He picked up a few employees to help with the workload and bought the assets of a frame shop in St. Albans, whose owner trained him. “I rented a spot downstairs to do the framing, so had to go down after hours to do it,” Long says. Eventually, he bought the space next to his so he could expand.

“That’s how I survived,” Long says. “By diversification. By adapting.”

What he survived was the apparent death of film itself. Digital photography arrived to the masses in the early to mid ’90s, and development labs, darkrooms, and camera stores began disappearing en masse. All of those local competitors were gone in a seeming puff of smoke — even the national chain labs.

“I told people back then I was going to outlast them!” he says, laughing.

Long began to focus more on framing. “I love doing the framing,” he admits. “That’s really where the creativity comes in. People show up with these beautiful pieces of art, but they have no clue how to frame and present them. Nor should they, really. There’s an art to it.”

Judith Stone, an award-winning Burlington artist and longtime customer, appreciates Long’s dedication. “I have, for many years, been the beneficiary of Jon Long’s exceptional skill and precision in the exacting craft of custom framing,” she says, while also applauding his proficiency in photographic reproduction, computer skills, fair pricing, and attention to clients’ needs — “a rarity in a commercial setting.”

“One of the first questions I ask the customer is, ‘Where is this going?’” he says. ‘Is it the main focus of your living room, or is it going in a bathroom? Is it going into an old farmhouse or a contemporary condo with Sheetrock walls?’ Once I have a feeling for what they want, I’ll show them samples and I can start getting creative. I always try to pull something out of a piece with colors and with texture.”

Once his skills at framing were honed, he captured the attention of his business neighbor Bill Black. Besides owning and operating Essex Automotive, Black is a serious collector of memorabilia, with an emphasis on the Boston Red Sox.

Black has been collecting for over 35 years, even housing a display at his business for all to see (complete with four cases of Red Sox memorabilia), and clearly appreciates the attention Long gives to the framing.

“Put it this way,” Black says. “If you spend sixty-five hundred on a painting, who are you going to have frame it? The framing is the most important part. It’s got to be Jon. He spends the time. Speaking personally and professionally, he’s great — top class.”

To survive the death of film, Long had to do more than open a frame shop. He had to embrace the so-called digital revolution that had wiped out so many of his compatriots and competitors.

“Film and digital both have their strengths,” Long asserts, “and they certainly can coexist. Film has a different look than digital; it captures details digital can’t. Digital shots often have the highlights washed out because it can’t capture both the shadow details and the highlights.

“Honestly,” he admits, after a pause, “I much prefer the way it is now. With Photoshop, I’m really able to use my creativity. The challenge [with film] was to get good-looking prints from photos that sometimes weren’t that good. But now, with Photoshop and all the other stuff I can do, I’m just having a lot more fun.”

He recalls a situation where he realized his new affinity for the digital process. A customer brought in a badly faded portrait of his grandparents — one that looked just about unsalvageable.

“I’m kind of a stubborn person, though. I won’t say no,” Long says.

So he scanned it in his new high-end scanner and then put the portrait in Photoshop, slowly working his magic until the old photo was restored.

“It’s kind of amazing, really. The scanner can capture the details the eye can’t see,” he says. “By the end, the portrait was almost as good as new. It’s very fulfilling for me to do something like that, because this is a treasured picture that’s going to be handed down the generations of this family.”

Long has been contemplating legacy and family himself lately.

“So many of my friends are retired now,” he says. “They want to know when I will — but I go in to work and I have fun. It’s not work to me, it’s play.”

Long’s three children have already made their own lives and families, most of them nearby. “Four grandchildren and one on the way,” he says, boasting. “The best thing that ever happened to me is being a granddad!”

When he’s not being the doting grandparent, Long spends most of his time with his wife, Pat. They met through a mutual friend after his first wife and mother of his children died.

“I was on kind of a sabbatical, so I was just looking for a friend, really,” he recollects. “We met down at the waterfront and just talked for hours. We really hit it off. We got to know each other’s kids and, well, 15 years later, here we are.” Indeed, a bouquet of flowers sits on the counter at the shop, an anniversary gift from Pat.

“When I first went into business, I was told that you have to decide what your niche is going to be,” says Long. In some ways, he ignored them all, incorporating new sides to his business every few years, from framing to camera repairs to digital services and computer mat-cutting capability. He did, however, decide on one niche he could fill.

“I decided my thing was going to be quality,” he says. “I’m not going to try and beat everyone’s prices. I’m going to put the time and effort in; my frames are going to be the best, with acid-free mats and UV glass; and the equipment I have will be the best, from the scanner down to the last detail.”

Just to ensure he puts his best foot forward, Long has one last quality check he adheres to every time.

“My wife will laugh at this sometimes, but I don’t get my morning coffee until I’ve accomplished what I want to that day.” He gives a short, almost rueful laugh. “Sometimes I don’t have my coffee until pretty late in the day.”