It’s been a busy few months for Lev Bar-Av.
“We’ve been upside-down for six months,” Bar-Av said of the workload at National Photo in Pikesville, where four staff members have seen a 20 to 30 percent increase in business. National Photo still offers its core services — including passport photos, replicating art, printing digital photos, and restoring and digitizing old film — but now they’re
handling film processing, too. It’s a task they took on after Techlab Photo in Belvedere Square shut down its storefront and moved business online. Techlab owner Dan Gaffney sold his film processor
to Bar-Av, allowing National Photo to reintroduce a service it hadn’t offered in four years.
The new service has made things so hectic that Bar-Av, 44, forgot about the shop’s 20th anniversary. After he realized the date had passed, Bar-Av said the store was still too busy to plan a celebration.
The store’s popularity is no surprise. Though the market was once saturated with one-hour-photo film developers in drug stores, grocery stores and specialty shops, National Photo is now one of the only film labs left in the Baltimore area. Bar-Av’s personal commitment to his craft, which he provides for many in
Baltimore’s Jewish community, has its roots in his Jewish upbringing. Photography, preservation and archiving
materials, he believes, is part of the
Jewish people’s makeup.
“There is an expression, ‘To be a light unto the nations,’” Bar-Av said. “Photography is ingrained in light; it’s all about light. The very first sentence in the Torah, ‘God said let there be light. He saw it and it was good.’”
A life in photography
Bar-Av got his first camera when he was 8 years old. But before he ever took his first shot, he saw the importance of
photography through his father.
“My father was a photographer, not professionally. He came out of World War II Europe, Russia,” said Bar-Av. “He probably had a lot of his family’s stuff destroyed, so it became really important to preserve stuff, so he was kind of obsessively photographing us as children.”
Bar-Av still has the camera his father used to snap photos of him and his siblings. He even used it at a recent family outing to a state fair.
Bar-Av davens at Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim and closes the shop on the Sabbath and for the High Holidays. It makes sense to Bar-Av that the Jewish community appreciates his shop, which is sandwiched between a Pizza Boli’s and a 7-Eleven on Reisterstown Road.
“You might think this is a stretch, but a lot of our history was erased,” said Bar-Av. “People were burned, pictures were burned, books were burned. There were no records, so these records became very important. People are obsessive about their photo collecting and record collecting because there’s this social scar of having stuff wiped out. There’s a thing imprinted in our culture to preserve obsessively.”
Bar-Av was featured in a 2004 episode of WYPR’s “The Signal,” and talked about photo developers as witnesses.
“We really see people’s lives from beginning to the end,” he said on the show. “In Pikesville there is a big Jewish population, so there are a lot of
traditional celebrations. There are times when a baby will be born and three or four hours later the grandmother is in the lab with the film. Then maybe a week later we’ll see photographs from the bris, and then maybe we’ll see bar mitzvah
Much like his customers, Bar-Av is also something of an obsessive documentarian.
After his parents divorced in the early 1980s, Bar-Av moved around the
Midwest with his father, attending elementary and middle schools in Wisconsin
and Ohio. They were never in one place long enough for Bar-Av to develop meaningful, long-lasting friendships. In order to maintain memories, he took photos of his friends at school.
“The film and the negatives I would create became part of my identity,” said Bar-Av. “I felt a sense of purpose holding the camera.”
When Bar-Av returned to Maryland, he attended Pikesville High School, where an art teacher taught students how to develop black-and-white film and use the darkroom. During this period, Bar-Av said his interest was piqued by the “deeper levels of photography,” including light and composition. After high school, Bar-Av attended University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he worked as the photo editor of university newspaper The Retriever.
Like his father, Bar-Av also became a traveler in his early 20s, following the Grateful Dead on tour. He brought his camera to shows and snapped photos of the band, then he’d set up a makeshift darkroom in his hotel room. The next day he’d display the photos on a blanket in the venue parking lot.
“It wasn’t really profitable, but it was sustainable,” Bar-Av said. “I was able to trade for food or get money for gas, and have a really good time without selling drugs or jewelry or grilled cheese. I could sell my pictures. It would keep me on
Now Bar-Av has one of his shots of Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia on the wall of his National Photo office.
“There’s something special about being able to use a film camera,” he said. “The light coming off of Jerry, he physically altered that piece of film.”
Getting to business
National Photo was founded by brothers Michael and Jeremy Diamond in 1998. Their first store, in Owings Mills, was part of a rich history of Orthodox Jews who owned photography and camera stores. Some of the country’s largest chains — Ritz Camera, Adorama and B&H Photo — have been owned by Jewish families.
Unlike their Pikesville location, the Owings Mills National Photo outpost was not equipped for printing digital photography. Jeremy often had to go back and forth between the stores so Owings Mills customers could take advantage of the new digital medium.
“That was fun,” Jeremy chuckled during a recent interview.
The brothers tried to stay on top of trends, and offer new services.
“The competitors would say, ‘No, we don’t offer that,’ but we’d say, ‘We don’t offer that but let’s see if we can offer that for you.’ We’re not just clerking items here,” Michael recalled.
Like Bar-Av, the Diamonds’ father was also an avid photographer who had a darkroom in the home. After he died when Michael was 11 and Jeremy was 9, they took inspiration from a high school photography teacher. Michael also shared another thing with Bar-Av: a “very big, fond love for the Grateful Dead.”
The fabled jam band not only provided a connection between Michael
and Bar-Av, but a connection to friend and client Stuart Dahne, who recently had a photography exhibit at The Gordon Center for the Performing Arts on the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC Campus. Dahne uses National Photo for printing large format photographs that he can’t develop on his own.
While he has not developed film at National Photo since it has revived the service, Dahne believes that Bar-Av made the right move by re-embracing the medium.
“One of the cancers in the thought process of photography nowadays is, ‘Well, I can fix it later,’” said Dahne, referring to digital post-production. “Film is a huge part of the photography industry, and needs to be more of a part of the industry. One of the differences between me and the people coming up now is the fact that I’ve been in a dark room. If you’ve worked with film, you learned that you have to get it right in the camera.”
Bar-Av agrees, and remembers photography professors in college asking, “Why are you doing this?” The idea was to encourage students to consider whether an image was worth capturing.
“Still images should force people to stop in their tracks and engage,” Bar-Av said, “but we’re so engaged in moving, moving, moving. Click, click, click. Next, next, next. We’re so caught up in that stream that we don’t often stop and look at a picture, think about it, process it and talk about it.”
Bar-Av started working for National Photo in 2002, shortly before the Pikesville store opened. After Jeremy sold his share of the business to his brother in 2004, Michael closed the Owings Mills store.
“I had the privilege of grooming Lev,” said Michael Diamond, who now runs an event photography business. “When I decided to step away from the business and sell to Lev, it was a very easy transition for him. He was familiar with the customers and the technology, and accustomed to the business end of it.”
Though Bar-Av said he adapted to digital photography while “kicking and screaming,” he ultimately swore off developing film at National Photo. In 2014, he “pushed the film processor out the back door, and said, ‘I’m never doing film again. I’m washing my hands of these chemicals for the last time.’”
So when Techlab’s Gaffney offered to sell Bar-Av his film processor, Bar-Av did not initially jump at the opportunity.
“I said, ‘You can’t even give me this film processor,’” Bar-Av said. “But he said, ‘Buy this, and you’ll get a lot of business from people still doing film.”’
Gaffney was right, and now customers endure a lengthy commute to have their film processed at National Photo.
Terrence Nelson lives in Cheverly, Maryland, a town on the Washington, D.C./Maryland line, but he owns property in Baltimore. He regularly drives to Pikesville to get film developed at
“Film is more of a therapeutic hobby,” Nelson said. “It’s really an excuse to get out and walk.”
Nelson said he’s willing to drive from Cheverly to Pikesville because “it’s a quick turnaround. He works with you. He’s a good guy. You could go to
businesses that are cheaper, but you don’t get the level of service. Paying a little more, driving a little farther. I do that because I like the service.”
Of course, Bar-Av sees his share of locals, including retired school teacher Miriam Rittberg, who uses National Photo to print and frame images for her online Etsy business.
“He has a good eye, and he collaborates with me,” Rittberg said. “I recommend him to all my friends. It’s a pleasure to go in there. It’s not like Walmart, where it feels very impersonal. This is a pleasure.”
That individualized service is where Bar-Av would like to spend most of his energy, rather than introducing new
“Right now, I think we have enough. Over the years, I’ve been able to provide a high level of service and attention to detail to all of our customers’ work,” he said. “We have outgrown the space, but we don’t need to do everything. There are things we’re really, really good at and I’d like to focus on the things we’re
Bar-Av noted that many people with more business savvy, more resources, more photography knowledge, more printing knowledge, have shut the doors of their retail businesses. He can only credit an unquantifiable resource for his own success.
“People always ask, ‘How did you do this? How did you make it?’” said Bar-Av. “I say, ‘It’s love.’”