PetaPixel

Photo Essay: The Final Week of Capitol Hill 60 Minute Photo in Seattle

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Capitol Hill 60 Minute Photo closed its doors at the end of last year. Given the transformation photography has gone through over the past decade, it hardly came as a surprise. At its core, the success, survival, and eventual demise of 60 Minute Photo is just another familiar story of a business fighting against the moving current of technology. It’s closure, however, reveals something important, something personal. It represents a shift in how we create and preserve our memories and a deepening of the divide between customer and proprietor.

60 Minute provided a service that allowed for the continuation of a love affair with a photographic process rooted in the physical. The experience, equipment, and precision required to develop a roll of film or make a single print seems excessive and unnecessary in today’s world of digital cameras and print-on-demand services. However, the process of making a photograph, capturing a moment in time, then entrusting it to another individual, embeds meaning and importance into each image produced. This act of creating and then letting go lends itself to a relationship of trust, and, when that relationship ends, a unique feeling of loss follows.

I sat down with Raffaella Johnson, the manager of Capitol Hill 60 Minute Photo, on the eve of the final week of operation.

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“My father was a photographer. His studio was downstairs from our apartment in Italy. I was virtually born there. I remember he would take me with him into the darkroom and I would sit there while he’d print. I was very happy to sit in the dark and be with my dad. There was always something in the back of my mind that knew this was what I would do with my life.”

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“I came to Seattle in 1982 with my husband after working for Eastman Kodak for 9 years in Sydney, Australia. I was the first woman in their technical service department. When I came to work for Capitol Hill 60 Minute Photo in 1985, Jerry Poth, a private investigator, owned the lab. He had started it primarily to process the photos taken by his agents, however, that portion of the business soon faded. I worked to update the equipment and soon the business took off. At one point we employed 14 people and we were literally tripping over each other.”

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“The owners really had no involvement. Although they own the building and the company, I took control of the business. When Jerry passed away in the late 1990’s, his two sons inherited the building. They weren’t interested in the business though, so I just kept doing my job.”

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“In this lab we’ve always one-on-one. We’re faces. We do prints, we work the counter, we do everything. We’re your personal lab. That has always been my philosophy. I’ve seen mothers pregnant, children being born, and now their children are coming to me. You have to understand, I’ve been in these people’s homes; their most private, private moments. Being in this business you have to have a lot of discretion. You rarely verbalize it, but you get this sense that you know your customers. People would come in with their private lives, their memories, and it’s important that they trust us.”

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“It’s fun seeing the younger generation buying old cameras at second-hand stores and bringing them in to us. We’ll show them how to load the film and use the camera. They’re discovering film now for the first time and they think it’s magic.”

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“Running this lab is a production. It’s a factory. You’re dealing with gears and motors and chemistry and computer boards and things breaking down. People have this romantic idea of it. But on the production side it’s not romantic. It’s a process. It’s work.”

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“The past 5 or 6 years things have gone downhill. It was like a tap being turned off. Back in 2003 when we were still doing ok, I took a chance and purchased a Noritsu digital photo system which scanned film and slides and converted them to digital media. It was so hard to pay that off. I was holding back my paycheck until there was enough money for me to cash it. I reduced our staff to two part-timers. That’s how we survived. Instead of walking out and saying, this isn’t working, I just kept at it, trying to do everything possible to keep it going.”

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“Because of how big we were, we have multiple machines. So, if one breaks down, I keep it for parts for another so at least we can have one going. We only upgrade what is absolutely necessary.”

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“…and now, they’re tearing the building down. That’s the main reason we’re closing. The reaction from customers had been hard. One after the other, they tell me from the bottom of their heart how devastated they are. It’s draining on me because I know can’t help them. I’ve thought about relocating but the numbers just don’t work. I’m not paying rent now because I manage the building. And to move this equipment, the cost would be astronomical. And it’s so old, can it even handle the move? And what am I going to get in return? We’re just getting by as it is.”

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“If I won the lottery, I would just do it for the love of the art, that would be my dream. But that’s the only reasonable scenario now. I gave it all I had but that’s just it. It’s done. Where am I going to go…I don’t know. I’ll have to reinvent myself. I don’t want to sound depressing, but it is the end of an era. Once I start shutting down the machines this week, that’s when reality will kick in. I gave it all I had, but it’s over.”


About the photographer: Andrew Waits is a freelance editorial/commercial photographer based in Seattle, Washington. He’s currently working on a long-term project documenting mobile homes and communities in America. Visit his website here and his Tumblr here.


 
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  • Samcornwell

    You don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone.

  • http://www.purseblog.com/ Vlad Dusil

    Sentimental piece, kinda sad. Reaffirms the saying “evolve or die”.

    Having said that, I do feel like photography lost its charm and personality with the digital age. But that’s a whole other discussion.

  • http://twitter.com/WillAblett Will Ablett

    With the closing of my former employers, Jessops, imagine this being repeated over 200 times across the UK.
    It’s incredibly sad. Lovely photo essay.

  • Geordie

    This person didn’t price-gouge like Jessops.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DanielGBallard Dan Ballard

    Something very similar is happening in North Hollywood, California. Camera Craft, a former pro shop for the movie making industry and countless pro and amateur photographers will be closing in a month or two. I owe them my photography career really. They rented me equipment and gave sage advice to a nascent pro like me. With their help I was first published in jewelry magazines like American Jewelry Manufacturer, Modern Jeweler, and Lapidary Journal. I will miss that place as long as I live. It had a 50 year run, helped many of us go from film to digital. Good bye old friend, goodbye.

  • amorasin

    sad….this was my favorite and only place to develop film for years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/seanmparkinson Sean Parkinson

    Nice job. I ran a 1 hour photo lab for a time and it was an in incredible experience.

  • Mansgame

    I hate seeing small businesses close up, but what did the owner do to try to adapt to this change in the last 10 years? Did they just sit and think digital wasn’t going to catch on? Did they think people would PREFER to pay for film and developing? Even in the day of digital, there is demand for physical prints, albums, photobooks, etc. I wonder if they did anything to try to adapt to that market.

  • Mansgame

    I think photography has had a rebirth and given people who wouldn’t have entered the hobby/career a chance to do so.

  • Mansgame

    Weird…in the 6 years since I’ve used DSLR’s and the 3 years before that when I was using a digital I’ve never once said “I miss film…”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Lieberman/16302352 Michael Lieberman

    Agreed, no one is lamenting the plight of the farrier. I think people don’t realize you don’t need nearly the same amount of space as things move to digital. You no longer need a dark room, you no longer need all these chemicals and so many places still try to cling onto it instead of moving to a smaller shop getting rid of all that and just doing printing.

  • DamianM

    nobody prints anymore. its all on the hard drive.

  • DamianM

    Mansgame again everybody!
    being a troll and jerking off to his digital cameras

  • DamianM

    Hence the over saturation of bad photography in the world today.

  • DamianM

    of course not and you probably werent any good then.

  • Mansgame

    Any oversaturation of bad photography was more than exceeded by great new photography given tools that never existed before. You want to compare ISO 800 film to ISO 6400 of the D3 or D4? Please.

  • Mansgame

    who’s the troll now?

  • Mansgame

    They may not print every shot but there is still something about having a large print on your wall or having a coffee table book of a vacation or wedding.

  • Moonphoto

    I met Raffaella the last week before Capitol Hill Photo closed down for good. I was very impressed with her professional knowledge and generous spirit. Yes, I too lament the passing of one of the last labs in town. It has been a struggle for me too, running a photo lab for the last several years, watching The “Digital Revolution” eat up lab after lab. There is simply not enough demand for film services to support 20 or so labs in Seattle, as there were 10 years ago…

    Most photos are never printed, but reside on hard drives. Yes, you can look at pictures on a monitor, but it is just not the same as viewing a photographic print. Now we are left with only a couple places that do traditional film processing and printing. But people still need some prints, and they still shoot some film, ( some 35 mm, more 120, by younger people especially), and those that do usually have the film scanned, or they scan it at home.

    What does the future hold? Photographers are printing their own stuff, on inkjet printers mostly, and that’s fine, but it takes time, and its not inexpensive in both time and materials. Several picture takers are spending a lot more time in front of their computers, and are not too happy with that. They also spend less time shooting and almost zero time in a darkroom.

    Good Luck Rafaella! After some time off. I hope you find something fun that utilizes your unique skills.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alegomez.vcp Ale Gomez

    I’ve worked in a “one hour photo lab” when I was young for several years. I have made lifelong friends and have some of the fondest memories of my teens.
    And looking at the pictures here brings me back to those days…..
    Great article. And even a greater shame these places are slowly disappearing…

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.black.56481 Scott Black

    When my local one hour lab closed a few years ago, I lost an advisor, a mentor a collaborator and friends. The lab staff was involved in every project that I was and took a real and heartfelt interest in what I was doing. They were partners. I really looked forward to seeing them on a Monday morning. The jingle of the door bell, the strange aroma mix of coffee and stop bath, the rhythmic hum and whir of the machines and a hearty “good morning, what have you got for us today?” can’t be replicated. Here I sit, in front of my computer screen, excited about what has been downloaded from my SD cards, beautiful Nikon DSLR on the counter, printer all inked up and ready, alone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mikepenneyphoto Mike Penney

    I miss greatly my 4×5 camera and chromes…. But, at $10 a shot, the clients just won’t go for it. I miss the look from the 21/4 camera, esp. the 150mm lens with the “softar”…. I don’t miss 35mm film much… except really… if you put a crappy digital projector (of any price range) side by side with a kodachrome/fujichrome slide show you would go back to film…

  • Adam Busbin

    You could run a Kickstarter to get a new photo processing lab up and running.

  • DamianM

    Digital masturbation again Mansgame?

    I don’t care about your sunsets and vacations.

  • DamianM

    aww.. they deleted my previous comment.

    Your arguments about digital being better then film is just a bore now.

    That’s the kind of mindset that doesn’t hold up to time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/seanspooner Sean Spooner

    my studio partner Dave worked there & introduced me to his co-worker Debra in 1995. We’ve been married for 12 years now & have 2 kids. Capitol Hill Photo was like a second home to me. It’s hard to imagine Seattle without “the Lab”

  • Stephen

    Thankful there’s still two places here that will develop film right! I’m shooting film more and more….my friends think I’m crazy, but it’s such a wonderful medium….I lke my digitals for what they do…but film just feels “right”. As silly as it sounds, there’s something I about the whole process that seems to make every photo have more meaning.

  • Brian

    The owner *died.* The inheritors didn’t care. The manager tried to adapt, even waiting to cash paychecks when there was enough money available. The problem is that the competition for printing is on everyone’s desktop, like Epson printers. There are plenty of places that will print huge inkjet prints, and it’s almost a commodity now. There is only just so much a tiny shop can do. It takes investment to adapt, and in this case there really couldn’t be any serious investment.

    Seattle now only has Panda Labs and Moon Photo left. Panda is a hole-in-the-wall place, and I think Moon Photo is smaller. Neither of them do seriously large prints optical prints, as that’s all done with inkjet and Lambda machines. As for albums and stuff like that, there’s lots of places online that will do it, and then drop ship the result to you. Digital competition is just one click away these days.

  • Brian

    What do your clients think when you show them a 4×5 chrome? That’s a pretty tangible thing. I’ve shown my neighbor a 4×5 chrome of some local fireworks, and the response was, “Wow, what’s that?” I’ve known some LF photographers whose clients demanded 4×5 chromes because it was easy to look at in the files.

    Myself, I still shoot 4×5 chromes for me. I have five or six boxes of 8×10 E100G, and then it’s Fuji from here until that’s discontinued.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Scott-Everett/560395170 Scott Everett

    Really lovely piece Andrew, from one Seattle film shooter to another. The portraits really made me sad, those ladies were so kind to me over the years, and it was a such a gut punch to see 60 minute close last year.