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.