Farewell Jessops / by Graham Dew

At Black Brook, 1987 © Graham Dew
At Black Brook, 1987 

Jessops, Britain’s largest chain of photographic retailers went into receivership this week, and closed its doors for the last time this evening. Crikey! During the time that I cut my teeth in photography, they were always the shop with the lowest prices and the biggest stock. The shop back then was different from the failing, flailing high street chain that it became. 

For a long time, it only existed to me as a four page telephone-directory-like listing at the back of Amateur Photographer, with densely packed product names and prices and no photographs or illustrations. The print was so small you needed fresh young eyes or a magnifying glass to find what you were looking for. Even more impressive was the A2 double side single sheet price list that you could pick up in store or you got with your mail order deliveries (please allow 28 days for delivery!), almost a form of paper microfiche. On that sheet you could find just about any product that available on the market at that time. Back in those far off times, it was hard to know what was out there in the market place. If you said ‘google’ back then, most people would have thought you were referring to a wobbly play ball for children. We didn’t know what was out there much of the time, so the Jessops price list was often the first place to look if you wanted something obscure – like a set of spotting inks perhaps.

In the 80s & 90s Jessops started to open other shops outside of its Leicester base. We even had a little store tucked away in Parchment Street in little old Winchester. These stores were Aladdin’s caves of photo gear, and you were served by knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. Happy times indeed. I could get almost any gear I wanted at a good price and for the most part this meant bulk supplies of FP4 and boxes of lovely Agfa Record Rapid. Looking back now, it’s easy to forget just how much we spent on materials back in the days of film. I was not a particularly prolific shooter in those days and I was well aware of the cost of every frame and print that I made.

By the end of the 90s Jessops changed from being a family run business to publicly listed business, and the shop rapidly changed from serving enthusiasts to being a general high street shop selling digital cameras to a much wider public. Its prices went up and it range of products contracted and I largely stopped using Jessops. It now seems that public has largely stopped using them too. 

Nowadays many people are taking their family and casual snaps on smartphones. The family album has been largely replaced by Facebook and Instagram and by online printing services. I read recently that people are still spending about the same on photo-finishing today as they did ten years ago. The difference now is that people are not buying photographs but creating photobooks and getting large prints made for hanging on the wall, and is true in my case too. Many people are now getting their cameras as phones from their phone store. Increasingly, enthusiasts have their requirements met by online specialists. The big question, of course, is this a good thing? From my perspective it is, but I can understand that others won’t see it this way. I like the changes digital technology has brought to photography. I have instant feedback after every shot, I can work in colour, flash is much simpler, exposure and auto-focus is now really very good. I have more control over my work, post-processing in Lightroom is preferable to the physical darkroom, and I can interact with a wider audience.

Times change and we can choose to keep pace or not. Whatever the reason, it looks like Jessops did not.