Working in a Photofinishing Lab

Better Printing and New Processes

After reentering civilian life in the fall of 1975 I had some decisions to make: where to live, what to do for work, and what to do with the rest of my life. While I am still working on that last one, for the first one I moved back to Southern California. I camped out at my parent's place for a bit and then got an apartment on Stanley Ave. in Long Beach. For a job it was rather serendipitous. I had gone over to Long Beach City College to reenroll to finish the two-year degree I'd started before that army called me up and I ran in to a friend from high school. We chatted and I told him that I was into photography and looking for work. He told me about an ad he'd seen in the paper for a photofinishing lab looking for help. Great, I'll check it out.

I found the ad and, sure enough, a photofinishing lab in Long Beach was looking for help on their midnight shift. I called and they said to come right down for an interview. The place was on Anaheim Road in the center of the city, in an old, large building. The street side of the building fronted a camera store and in back of the 2-story structure was the photo lab. I met the manager, Heinz, who chatted with me for a few minutes, telling me that the job is for a film cutter. He glances around and tells me to come with him to the hallway behind the store. Out of earshot of anyone he tells me that not only don't I want this job but he doesn't want to hire me for it. What?!? I asked why and he said that what he really wants is to hire a woman but he can't say that in the ad. Why a woman? He says because the job is extremely boring and women are better suited for that and I would get so bored I'd quit and he'd be having to go through the hiring process all over again. I assured him that I wouldn't be bored, that I just wanted to work in the processing side of photography, and that I wanted a midnight shift job so I could attend college during the day. He hesitated and then relented and told me to start that night at 10pm, for $3.00/hour.

The job was really easy to learn. Film came in from camera, drug, and grocery stores, was sorted by type, and then spliced together in a large reels, about 50 rolls at a time, and then run through the film processor. From there it went to printing and, after that, it came to me to be cut into strips of 4 frames each and then matched up to the customer's original envelope. The cutting was done on a table where the reel of film was placed on a spindle to the left and the film was drawn through a guide to the knife which I operated with a foot tredle. When I came to a splace, the end of the customer's roll, I cut it out and and placed the negatives in a sleeve and matched the number on the film to one on the envelope and then placed the order in a tray. That was it. 10pm to 6am, 5 days/week. Yes, it was a little boring but compared to the hours I'd spend during the past year on guard duty, it wasn't too bad. When I left at 6am a very nice young lady, Bonnie, would come in and pick up where I left off. When she finished all the rolls that were processed the night before, she would spend the rest of her day shift on photo retouching, a job she really preferred. I decided to become the best film cutter they'd ever had and before long I was leaving no work for Bonnie who could go to retouching full-time.

Film processing

Film processing

Kodak 8S printer for doing 8x10s

Eric pulling a batch of prints off the processor

During my shift it was not unusual to get ahead of the incoming work and I'd go to my manager and ask for something to do. He'd look around and before he could answer I'd say something like "Can I go shadow ______ and see how they do their job?" Glad to get rid of me he'd agree and within a few months I had the general idea of how most of the jobs worked. When a color printer position opened, I bid on it and got it. No more film cutting for me.

As a printer I had to keep our one automated printer, a Kodak 2620A, shown on the left, loaded with film and paper while running a similar machine manually. It was interesting and the hours flew by. After some changes in management, a whole other story, a quality control position was created. I bid on it and moved into that job which sent me to Kodak in Whittier for training. The shift hours for everyone but myself shifted to midnight to 8am. I would come in at 10pm and calibrate all the printers, run all the tests on the them and the chemistry and pretty much get everything ready for the night shift. I also mixed all the chemical, 200 gallons at a time, and ran spot tests on the machines during the night. It was a great gig and by now I was making a whole $5.00/hour.

I worked there from about December 1975 to May of 1979. While sometimes the hours dragged, it was a pretty fun job, however, there were only three of us working in the color printing lab who had any interest in photography. To everyone else, it was just a job. That was unfortunate but I did pal around with Eric, our print porcessor, quite a bit, going out on shoots and using my home darkroom to develop and print our work. The other guy who was into photography was Roger who ran our transparency printer who, like the rest of us, needed a steady job in the meantime.

Lois printing 35mm on a 2620 machine

My printer

I still kept busy in my own darkroom during this time doing lots of black and white work, some color negatives and prints, but really launched into Ilford's Cibachrome material. It provided extremely saturated positive prints from color transparancies. As I look back on it, this was strange and confusing time in my life. I was attending college on the GI Bill, taking about 12-credits each semester and pulling that midnight shift in the photo lab. I wasn't sure what career path I would take and the college classes were as much as an excuse to collect on the GI Bill as they were to further any career aspirations. A much as I enjoyed photography I never considered pursuing it as a career path. Being the guy with the camera and managing a shoot was simply not something that interested me. I was wedded to the darkroom and clear that it was an avocation rather than a vocation.

It wasn't long before that apartment on Stanley Ave. cramped by darkroom work. After all, I was still making my bathroom pull double-duty and I really wanted a second bedroom that I could devote to it. I ended up renting the front of a 2-bedroom duplex on Bennett Ave. just south of 7th Street in Long Beach. Yes, the rent was higher than the $165/month I was paying on that appartment but at about $275/month, it was more than worth it. I continued spending long hours in the dark trying out various process which included photo-seriagraphy, posterization, work with half-tone films, more positive color printing, and anything else that struck my imagination.

Overall, I have good memories of working in that photo lab and it didn't burn me out on photographic porocessing as it was not unusual for me to get off work there and go home to spend 8-10 hours in my own darkroom, expanding my skill set and expirementing in numerous ways. Here's a sample of what I produced during those years:

In the meantime, I had finished my 2-year degree, transferred to California State University, Long Beach, plugged away at a 4-year degree for a few semesters, lost interest, and went back to the 2-year college, enrolling in a 2-year mechanical drafting program taking classes from 7am to 11am, 5 days a week after getting off work at 6am. During my first year I also had a machine shop class two evenings per week from 6pm-9pm, after which I'd head directly to work. Crazy schedule but I like to keep busy.

Finishing that 2-year drafting program in May of 1979 coincided with my asking for a substantial raise at the photo lab which was refused, so I quit, deciding it was time to move on. I took the summer off and did a 7,000-mile trip around the country on my motorcycle, returning to search for work in a new area.

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Updated December 2020.