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Tuesday, 07 December 2021


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Here's something current, similar, and probably as anachronistic in my mid-western home town in Ohio


I’m remembering those huts (actually, in Pittsburgh I think there was a competitor called Foto Hut), and also remembering in later years that drug stores that developed photos left the envelopes out, alphabetized by customer name, to be picked up. The things we trusted others with in past years… they just don’t seem possible today.

Speaking of convenient photo development, I woke this morning with a nostalgia for polaroid peel-a-print pack film. Has that been successfully resurrected? I know some company tried to keep it alive, but I’ve lost track of its status. I still have my 250 land canera somewhere and all this talk about B&W and such has me longing for that kind of offhand photography, and for its real output.

"...Apparently that was something almost nobody took a picture of..."

Yeah, the film was usually rewound before you pulled up to the drive thru.

Speaking of all of the stories of photo processing things that could happen when you turn over film to a minimum wage employee that may not have your best interest in mind, people may wish to check out the Robin Williams movie, ONE HOUR PHOTO. This movie came out right at the end of the heyday of film shooting (one scene a customer of Williams' photo clerk character mentioned going digital, which caused great distress as he explained how film was better). Just know, this is not a comedy. It's dark, all revolving around a loner that live vicariously thru the photos he develops in a one hour lab.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kodak provided overnight processing using chartered airplanes (twin Cessnas for example) that flew to Rochester in the evening and returned early the next morning (around 7:00 am) with the goods.

There wasn't much air traffic to deal with but weather in the lee of the Great Lakes could be more than a little challenging -- especially in winter.

I certainly felt that photo hobbyists were different from snapshooters, and in some ways more like actual professionals.

One thing you leave out is the part slide films played as a status marker. There was a period, 60s and 70s at least, in which using slide films sort-of identified you as a more serious photographer. Maybe earlier, these subtleties of sociology were not something I was very sensitive to in the 1950s.

Seeing good slides actually projected on a decent screen was an experience that invoked what science fiction fans call "sensawonda". The screen was bigger than almost anybody prints even today, and vastly bigger than an 8x10 print, which was the biggest most people ever saw a photo by somebody they knew. (Of course a long show of bad slides with boring commentary was a horrible experience, too, and a bit of a standing joke.)

My mother shot slides or B&W prints, not color prints until much later, which makes her more serious about photography than many people. She was the family photographer, and she kept her photos in relatively good order. And I have them now. She has to have been a significant portion of the source of my interest in photography.

I never used a Fotomat, but I have fond memories of 24-hour turnaround with Kodachrome, dropping it off at Kodak's lab on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto.

Mike, thank you. This is one of your best.

Contact John Dersham. He has one from around the corner from where I grew up and it’s such a good one. https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10154747307735459&type=3&comment_id=10154753268740459 Is the set. About 20-25 images down with Robindale bakery in the background.

Interesting thing that they farmed out B&W development to a local guy. With our access to the interweb, it's a bit surprising that there aren't guys like Ctein in most cities doing print work for amateurs like me. I've owned a few colour inkjets and now finally have one that gives me results I like, but the self-teaching by trial and error was not fun and I would have been better off cooperating with some local (more or less) guy who would do the occasional print for me. I have no idea if that could be a viable working model for a printer-person, but you'd think some part-timers would have surfaced during the pandemic. Maybe some have and I just happened not to be aware of any. I can imagine where a local photo club would be a useful way to meet such people, if they exist.

Ironically, that image itself (presumably from a film print) represents a primary reason for the subject’s demise.

I was in college in the early to mid 70's (for photography, of course), and it wasn't unusual to meet multiple people in school that had worked at "The Hut" in high school and even well into college. There's a reason why it was a story "arc" on That 70's Show!

A old joke:

He shots (non-Kodak) film and has it processed at Photomat.

It reminds me of the "Fotohut" that occasionally appeared in the television show "That '70s Show" that took place in fictional Point Place, Wisconsin.

[Modeled after Fox Point, most likely, the suburb just south of where I grew up. --Mike]

Speaking of pornography, I worked at a small camera store way back in the 70’s, right on Dearborn in the Loop.
We rented 8mm movie projectors and occasionally had to send them in for service. There was always a dusty box full of super 8 that had never been picked up by the customers. So, when a projector came back we would test it with a random roll of abandoned film.
You see where this is going.
I grabbed a roll and wound it onto the projector, and started the machine. It was a homemade blue movie, poorly lit but you could see enough to realize quickly what the subject matter was. Fortunately it was mid morning, a slow time with no customers in the store so the film was thrown in the box of write off’s and dumped. Lesson learned.

There was a Fotomat, near me, that sat in the middle of a huge parking lot of a recently closed factory. It was on a busy street and you could see it from a quarter-of-a-mile away.

There were a lot of key-makers (not locksmiths) in old Fotomat buildings. Key cutters are inexpensive and simple to use (no real training required).

After I had to give up my makeshift darkroom, it were these automated printing services which made me give up photography until the advent of digital. If the finished product (the print) is decoupled from your own input (the negative) by a non-deterministic procedure beyond your control, then how are you supposed to learn and make progress?

Best, Thomas

I had a couple of friends who worked at Fotomats back in the day. They had some very interesting stories about the "genres" of photography that were dropped off by customers. Apparently, folks having their photos processed didn't realize that a human did the final QC!
One of them also had me convinced for a short time that there was indeed a small lab underneath the Fotomat building.

I was a user in the Sacramento area in the late 70s. I had them process slide film for me. I normally shot Kodachrome, so they certainly sent it to somebody else's lab. Eventually I got tired of finding ID numbers on slide no. 37's image and switched to somebody else, who most likely sent it to the very same lab.

Like you I never dropped film at a Fotomat, I saw myself as a serious photographer and was doing B&W in my own lab or at work.

But years later I would use the 1-Hour lab at Wal-Mart if I just had one or two rolls of 35mm and didn't feel like firing up my processor, but it felt odd. After all I could have run the film and I was going to print it in my lab, and had a roller transport processor. Serious lab, right?

I was in line and up behind me came a friend who had a real lab, high volume printing for school shooters and the like. Heck he 1-hour machines himself. So I asked, why are you here? I am here because I am being lazy. He said he was thinking of buying a Fuji Frontier, the machine they were using, and replacing his Noritsu machines.

A little out of my league. I was buying processing for one dollar and he was shopping for a $40,000 machine.

I helped to kill off the Fotomat. I worked at popular one hour lab company. Later I did minilab work at a camera store.

At the one hour, the franchise owner of the store was not a good business guy. I and a friend who worked there did as much of the repairs on the minilab equipment as we could. Also there were times we begged our supplier for enough paper and chemistry to get by until the boss got around to paying his bill.

Your posting about Fotomat intrigued me, so I went to the archive of everything and anything, YouTube. Fotomat definitely lives on within YouTube. Pam Dawber doing a Fotomat commercial before starring in Mork and Mindy!

The stories about the kinds of stuff people send to photo labs reminded me.....
In 1968 when I had a summer off between grad school and work, I spent the summer living at my family home, taking on projects to build and maintain racing cars for friends, and doing photography.
A friend from high school and his father ran a small town weekly newspaper and a professional photography service, doing portraits, events and custom development and printing for other pros. We would hang out at the paper at night using their darkroom for our own projects. Now my friend had a special "discrete" photo service for some of his contacts, so some of the stuff we printed late at night was "interesting" to say the least.
One night, we were just sitting around sharing a bottle of Crown Royal we had splurged on when he got a phone call. It was one of his special clients with a big problem. He had been tipped off that the FBI was planning to raid his studio in the next couple of days to bust him on a charge of making and distributing pornography. Remember this was the J. Edgar Hoover days. Being good friends, we offered to help.
We took the newspaper van which was fortunately empty and drove to this guy's home. He had stored all his inventory in his attic, so we carried a couple of dozen boxes of negatives, prints and records down two flights of stairs and stacked them in the van. It was loaded!
We did not waste time getting out of there and headed back to the newspaper.
Of course, we had to "inspect" the inventory, so we brought a few boxes into the place and perused them while finishing the bottle of Crown Royal. It took most of the night, to check out the prints and a few of the movies.
30 years later at our High School Class reunion, I asked him what he did with that inventory. He stored it in his attic and returned it to his friend after things cooled down. The FBI raided his studio and found nothing. but sfter that he did not do any more business with the guy.
As a side note, this stuff was classic 1950-1960 porn, black socks, masks, etc. One box was photos of strippers in county fairs - were those ladies raunchy! We both thought it would make a great book, or probably several volumes, today.

In the late 70's the confluence of forgiving color negative film, good point and shoot cameras and and cheap processing led to a flood of photography. I remember reading grumbling in the photo press that good work would not be able to make it up out of the noise.
In 1978 one of my friends got a job at the processing center for the local photo kiosk chain.
He said they saw pictures of about everything under the sun (use your imagination here) but I don't recall him ever mentioning processing pictures of what people were having for lunch.
I suppose there's a point in there somewhere.

In the 70's and 80's, I used to wonder if Fotomat did much business. It was a time when lots of folks took pictures at a rate of "I hope we finish this roll at Easter because I want to see the Christmas pictures". Must have been enough for a time, at least.

I don't recall anything like this in the UK. Possibly because the proportion of the population that had cars was smaller than in the US - drive-throughs didn't become any sort of a thing here until, ooh, the 90s (maybe). McDonalds would have been the first to do them in a big way here. In any case, big out-of-town malls didn't really happen here until the 80s.

Back in the days of monochrome film, casual photographers (and I'm not sure how many of those there were) would have taken their film to the local chemists' shop (trans: drug store) which arranged d&p - somehow, I don't know how. Once colour print film became really popular - which I remember from the late 70s onwards - there was a battle royal between High Street shops that would do 24-hour turnaround (1-hour, for a premium) and Royal Mail-based. Amateur Photographer magazine used to do comparisons of speed, cost and quality in terms of a set of 4x6 prints between the leading national contenders of each. The mail-based solution worked in the UK because of the smaller size of the country, of course - very few places would not have had a 'following morning' delivery option, probably only the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland. And every town had at least one High Street photo processor.

Of course, keen amateurs did their own d&p, at least for mono - I certainly did. When chromogenic film came along, I used to get the film developed but did my own printing.

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