Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture July, 1984
Skowhegan Fotomat, 14 x 16, oil on linen, 1984
by Patrick Clark
Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
9:23 AM PDT
April 30, 2015
The awning over the front door of Happy Photo in Queens, N.Y., advertises its one-hour service—which is still possible, at least in theory. Almost nobody gets the one-hour treatment these days because the shop only develops about 10 rolls of film each week; it’s more economical to let the jobs accumulate and run them in one batch.
Processing 4-inch-by-6-inch photographs was once a brisk business at Happy Photo. Now the shop survives off a hodgepodge of custom-framing jobs and passport photography. Novelty items clutter a display case: a toddler’s face laminated onto a wall clock, newlyweds embracing on the side of a coffee mug. A Noritsu scanner that reads DVDs, USB drives, and other electronic formats is gathering dust in a corner. Nobody even bothers to print digital photos anymore. “The photo business is dead,” said Dae Kim, who has managed the shop since 2002.
The U.S. counted just 190 one-hour photo shops in 2013, according to new Census data, down from 3,066 in 1998. Extinction looms over other retail niches oriented around analog media. The number of newsstands dropped by nearly half over the past 15 years, and video-rental stores dwindled by 85 percent. But nothing can rival the 94 percent death rate for America’s photo-processing shops, which are vanishing faster than all business categories tracked in the Census.
It was the proliferation of color photography, with greater sophistication than black-and-white development, that turned retail photo-processing into a big business, said Mark Osterman, a historian at the George Eastman House, a photography museum in Rochester, N.Y. In 1968, a San Diego-based entrepreneur named Preston Fleet launched Fotomat, and within two years had installed 1,800 photo-processing kiosks in shopping-center parking lots across the country. Soon, Americans were snapping color photos of birthday parties and family vacations—and paying a small army of retail clerks to organize the development process.
A Fotomat location in West Peabody, Mass., in 1987.
It was a simple idea. Shutterbugs dropped off their photos on the way to do some shopping. The film was delivered to an off-site photo lab, where it was developed and sent back to the kiosk for pickup. The transaction required customers to entrust intimate family photos to a string of strangers. But that didn’t stop Fotomat from becoming a runaway hit with consumers and investors. The chain continued to expand and eventually listed on the New York Stock Exchange. (Fotomat also pioneered another now-fading business: video rental.)
The first nationwide count of photo-processors, in 1988, found more than 6,500 establishments. The figure peaked five years later at 7,600. By then the trends that would eventually doom independent photo-processors were already becoming clear.
First came the minilab, which let processors develop color exposures on-site instead of sending film to be processed at a central location. The technology gained popularity in the 1980s and opened the door to larger retailers—pharmacies, supermarkets, etc.—which used photo-processing as a loss leader to attract customers. The pharmacy chain Eckerd opened more than 500 photo labs by 1995, according to company filings.
Aficionados still contend that the quality at non-specialty businesses never matched the smaller shops. But the photos were fast and the price was right. “It’s like the difference between a Porsche and a Honda Civic,” said Kim, who continues to lose customers to the cheaper prints made at Walgreens or CVS. “If you have money, you take the Porsche. If you don’t, you say, ‘A car is a car.’”
Then came another blow: cheap digital cameras.
Heino Hilbig/Mayflower Concepts
The result is that Americans take more photos than ever before but rarely print them—and almost never seek out specialists. Wan Lee, the proprietor of OK Photo in Brooklyn, N.Y., develops film at his portrait studio for a handful of elderly customers. Business has fallen off in the past decade, and he’s taken on retail tenants to make ends meet. To reach the counter where Lee still sells the odd roll of 35-millimeter film, patrons pass through a beauty supply shop flanked by a hair salon.
Michael Duggal has made a more successful transition. His father opened a processing shop 50 years ago in a Manhattan neighborhood that came to be known as the Photo District. (The area, popular with tech startups, is now called Silicon Alley.) The company embraced digital technology in the late 1980s and rebranded as Duggal Visual Solutions, carving out a niche printing large retail displays for corporate clients and museum-quality photographs for artists like David LaChapelle and Richard Avedon. Less than 1 percent of its $70 million in annual revenue comes from processing film.
Duggal sounds the customary warnings about the ephemeral nature of digital pics—an anxious sales pitch that hasn’t stopped Americans from ditching corporeal photos. “Hard drives crash, technology can become obsolete,” he said. “A photographic print can last over 100 years.” The few remaining shops that develop photos won’t last that long.
(NEWSER) – Sure, the digital revolution has brutalized video-rental stores and slashed newsstand numbers in half—but consider the poor one-hour photo shop. Those friendly kiosks and stores have fallen off by a stunning 94% since 1998, the worst decline of all business categories in the US Census. “The photo business is dead,” says Dae Kim, whose Happy Photo in Queens, NY, still offers one-hour processing. But things looked rosy back in 1968, when color photography became popular and US entrepreneur Preston Fleet started Fotomat, Bloomberg reports. Americans loved dropping off photos at those kiosks before going shopping, so much so that 1,800 locations popped up within two years and Fotomat eventually got listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
But in the 1980s, minilabs appeared with on-site processing (Fotomat shipped its film out), and big retailers like supermarkets and pharmacies muscled in with photo-processing as a loss leader to draw in customers. Then digital cameras and smartphones came along and killed the party for all concerned. But die-hard photo-processors still argue that digital photos are more liable to vanish over time than hard copies. And some photographers have returned to film photography for various reasons—like wanting to be different or get that grainy look, the BBC reports. “The most reassuring scenario I’ve noticed recently is the emergence of older men and women wanting to use film again,” says Charlie Abbiss, co-founder of Film’s Not Dead. “They want the negatives, the envelope, the little prints, and something to hold onto for years to come.”
When I call Joseph Barjudinas on a Friday morning, he spends much of the conversation apologizing.
“Hold on Shari, I’m sorry, I have customers,” he says repeatedly. I hear someone else through the line. “I was sent over by a jewelry store,” one of his customers shouts from the car. “Let me see,” Barjudinas says to the man. “OK, it will be ready by 1 p.m.”
What on earth are they talking about? Watches. Barjudinas, 51, of Manalapan lived in Lithuania until 1985 — and his heavy accent is hard proof.
“My dream was to see this country,” he tells me. “I came to Brooklyn and met my wife, Natalia. We got married, and I had a car service in Brighton Beach.”
So what brought this man to the Jersey Shore, and how has he become a well-known fixture in the area? Let’s rewind the clock a bit. In 1997, Barjudinas moved out of New York and into Old Bridge with his family. He has two sons — 25 and 22 — and a 9-year-old daughter.
“My father was a watchmaker,” he says. “He always told me, ‘If something doesn’t work out with what you want to do,you learn this trade and will always have something to put bread and butter on the table.’ I didn’t want to work in car service, and it came to that point.”
Barjudinas worked for a few watch companies while living in New York — Parker and Ebel, he tells me.
“Sylvester Stallone, Barbara Walters, Don Johnson and Mike Tyson used to come in with their watches,” Barjudinas says. “I worked Saturdays at Ebel, in their boutique on 63rd Street.”
When he came down to Jersey, Barjudinas opened up his own watch-repair shop in Manalapan, called The Watch Stop. In 2000, he made a move — and turned the area’s last-standing Fotomat into his “bread and butter.”
For those unfamiliar with the term (I’m talking to the “kids” here), Fotomats were popular through the early ’80s. People dropped their film to be developed at these kiosks and would return to pick up their pictures at a designated time. Barjudinas found his dream spot at 4345 Route 9 in Freehold, in the Pond Road Shopping Center. Anyone know it?
“I always knew I didn’t need a big place to repair watches,” he explains. “I found the landlord, and it was just $300 a month to rent the place back then. This is a one-man operation, and it’s a busy location. It’s the perfect setting.”
Customers — like the several he speaks with during this interview — drive up and drop off their watches to be repaired. The man I referenced earlier was sent by Gary Michaels in Manalapan.
Barjudinas does everything from battery replacement to full overhauls. Watches range from basic to designer, and nothing is off limits. What does it cost to fix a watch? Anywhere from $5 to $350, depending on the issue.
“People drop them off and pick them up later that day, or sometimes, it takes longer,” he says. “Some people bring 20 watches at once.”
On a busy day, Barjudinas says he serves up to 50 customers. He does no advertising and relies simply on word of mouth and reputation. How is he able to sustain a successful business like that?
“First of all, it’s honesty,” Barjudinas says. “I never try to cheat somebody. I’m not just trying to get the dollar, people trust me. They keep coming back and telling other people. You can’t fool anybody. If you don’t do the right thing, nobody is gonna come to me — and vice versa.”
Barjudinas is keeping it in the family, and his son has a similar set-up at the Marlboro Shopping Center — it’s called Battery Express.
The family is really planting strong roots at the Shore, evidenced by Barjudinas’ appreciation of the area’s most coveted treasures: the beach and the Boss.
“I love Bruce Springsteen’s music,” he tells me. “He’s a great musician — ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ is one of my favorites. Bon Jovi too, I saw him in Giants Stadium. What’s that song? ‘Runaway,’ I love that one.”
As for the beach and the boardwalk, Barjudinas loves taking his daughter to Seaside Heights, Point Pleasant and Manasquan. He doesn’t get much free time, though, as The Watch Stop is open six days a week — 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Because it’s a solo operation, he’s pretty much working around the clock, so to speak. I ask him about expansion plans, and for now, there’s nothing in the cards.
“I can’t because I have to do the work myself,” he says. “It’s not something I can train somebody because it takes years and years to learn this trade. I’m still learning the new watches.”
Barjudinas seems to be living the American Dream. He came to this country with nothing hopes, and that’s a big leap of faith.
“I wasn’t nervous,” he tells me. “I knew that I was good at it. I was confident 100% that it was going to work out — I never had doubts in the back of my mind.”
The company’s distinctive gold-pyramid-roofed huts were all over, typically as freestanding kiosks in shopping plaza parking lots. Customers would drive up to the Fotomat and drop off their film without leaving their vehicle. A courier picked up the film and brought it to a processing center. Fotomat had the pictures ready the next day, a terrific turnaround time in those days.
Fotomat was ubiquitous and important to the Rochester area because it sold Eastman Kodak Co. film and used Kodak paper and chemicals for processing. Fotomat exploded onto the scene before disappearing almost as quickly due in large part to the uprising of one-hour photo processing plants.
A California businessman named Preston Fleet started Fotomat in 1967 with about two dozen outlets in the San Diego area. Within a few years, the company had expanded to 1,000 outlets, including those in the Rochester area. The approach was fresh and original, and the Fotomat look — not far removed from that of Kodak’s signature “little yellow box” packaging — apparently required some explaining, as evidenced by a 1983 Democrat and Chronicle story.
“By 1967, we were all accustomed to driving up to little booths to pay tolls,” the article stated. “But driving up to little booths to develop our pictures was something new, a marketing innovation developed by Fotomat — which, by the way, is not owned by Eastman Kodak Co. Within three years, Rochester was introduced to the concept. Our first Fotomat kiosk opened in January, 1970 at Westgate Plaza.”
The story noted that the number had grown by then to 33 in the Rochester area and more than 3,800 nationwide and in Canada. The tiny Fotomat kiosks were staffed by a single employee — the females were “Fotomates” and the males “Fotomacs.” Curious customers often wondered how they could work in such cramped quarters. A woman from the Ridge-Seneca Fotomat in Rochester described how in the 1983 story.
“It’s really not so bad because it’s all windows, so you get plenty of sun,” the “Fotomate” said. “And there’s heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. It would be perfect … if it had a bathroom.”
(Employees made arrangements with nearby merchants for such occasions, stories said.)
Fotomat participated in cooperative advertising with Kodak, but the companies’ relationship was not always gregarious. At least twice, Fotomat and Kodak battled in court over antitrust and trademark issues. A 1970 lawsuit was settled with Fotomat agreeing to change the look of its kiosks.
By the mid-1970s, Fotomat’s sales were declining and the company tried new strategies. Fotomat began a service of transferring home movies and slides to videotape, which was making huge inroads into homes. The company also started selling blank videotapes and then renting prerecorded tapes.
Before long, one-hour film processing (offered locally by companies such as Carhart Photo, Wink Photo and One-Hour Instant Photo) hugely affected Fotomat’s business. So, too, did the rapid expansion of the 35-millimeter film market.
Fotomat’s services were built around the old Instamatic-style Kodak camera films, which made up more than 90 percent of Fotomat’s business in the early 1970s. Within a decade, camera users were opting for the better quality 35 mm. Fotomat management made an effort to capture that market by the late 1970s, but the company’s struggles continued.
“The biggest single factor was our own ineptitude,” company president Richard D. Irwin was quoted as saying in a 1981 New York Times article. Fotomat’s “torrid expansion” coincided with the increased availability of photofinishing services in supermarkets and pharmacies. New Fotomat kiosks were put up near existing ones, “cannibalizing sales,” as the Times article stated.
Fotomat announced plans in 1983 to close 1,000 of its outlets in a cost-savings effort. By 1988, all of the Chicago and Milwaukee-area kiosks were closed. By 1990, the number of outlets in the U.S. and Canada dwindled to about 800, down from a peak of nearly 4,000. The switch from film to digital imaging was yet another development that devastated Fotomat and many other film-processing companies.
It’s not immediately clear when Fotomat left the Rochester area, but it seems likely it was during that timeframe. Corporate ownership of Fotomat changed hands a few times; the company began specializing in an online digital software site that was discontinued in 2009.
Many of the old Fotomat kiosks still remain throughout the country as repurposed businesses. Websites have posted photos of the old Fotomat huts now being used for ventures such as coffee-to-go, watch repair, locksmith services and cigarette stores.
Morrell is a Rochester-based freelance writer.