My emotions are mixed. Sad. Relief. A sense of loss eased by the knowledge of inevitability. All that we are and all that we do turns to dust in the end.
Before the darkness of diabetes was another darkness. One where the music of gurgling water filled the soft glowing spaces I worked in. When I was thirteen years old my mother decided I needed a trade to fall back on incase whatever profession in went into didn’t work out.
She was able to apprentice me to a local custom photo lab where I was initiated into the mysteries of processing film and making prints. It is part technology, part chemistry, part art. I loved it. I never got around to getting the profession.
Over the years I worked in a variety of labs and started my own the same year I married Debbie. More by dumb luck than skill we became successful over the years. I still recall one of the first “expensive” things I bought for the lab in the early days: an anti-fatigue mat to stand on as I shuttled prints from our one enlarger to the sinks. It cost ninety-nine bucks and Deb when through the roof. You see at the time our little lab was earning only $700 a month gross.
Years later I came home from the lab (now in its own building instead of our guest bed room where it started) and casually mentioned to my wife that I had bought a third film processor. “What did you pay for it?” she asked. Sixteen-thousand, I replied. Deb nodded thoughtfully, “Yeah, that’s a pretty good price.”
By the summer of 2001 we had eight employees working in three darkrooms and running two giant daylight “mini-labs” the size of Volkswagen busses. I worked seven days per week. Long days from dawn to dusk, sometimes beyond. We had customers in all 50 states sending us their B&W film. We were rolling in money. Our future seemed bright. When I walked into “my” darkroom I felt at home. It was a safe cocoon of sights, sounds, and smells that eased the soul.
Then came 9-11. Then came Anthrax. Then came x-raying of mail. And the distant threat of “digital” all the sudden stuck like a tsunami. In the last three months of 2001 I lost 80% of my businesses.
Of course we tried to change and adapt. We even ending up buying a digital enlarger that cost more than our house did. Money I’d love to have back now.
Like a hypo, the red line on my balance sheet just kept dropping, dropping, dropping. As the painful years went by we went from 100 rolls of film per day to 100 rolls per year. This month I’ve processed only two rolls of film. Processing one roll takes almost as much time as processing 50.
I’ve been losing time with my family to earn less money than it takes to keep the lights on in the building. It was time to put the businesses down. The only humane thing to do.
So I wrote a good-bye letter on the web site, posted it, then deleted all the files that gave photographers our services, prices, policies.
It was over. File transferred. And it was over.
San Miguel Photo Lab. 1989-2009. Rest in Peace.