Another little part of traditional imaging crumbled off the structure of photography. Costco kills the in-store printing departments at 800 stores.

For the first twenty years of my photography career everything (EVERYTHING) revolved around the darkroom and the making of good prints. When I first started out I rented time in a co-op darkroom we set up in the Farah Fawcett's old room in what used to be a sorority house, just West of the UT campus. The Tri-Delts had long since vacated the complex and it was, during my time there, the Ark Co-op. For a while I lived at the co-op while student-ing at UT. And I mostly lived there to be close to the darkroom that we helped build.

That's where I learned to roll film onto reels, develop the film, make contact sheets and, finally make the best double weight fiber, black and white prints I possibly could. In those days every available dollar (and they were few and far between) was spent on printing paper and bulk black and white film. If the sign up sheet didn't exist I could have spent weeks in that small, dark space. That space with the ungrounded paper drier that routinely shocked the crap out of me if I forgot and touched it while printing barefoot. 

When I built out my dream studio in 1988 the biggest expense in the whole 3000 square feet of the project was the darkroom. I equipped it with a Leica Focomat V35 enlarger for printing 35mm and half frame film, and an Omega D5 enlarger for 4x5 and medium format film. One of my favorite productivity tools was my sodium vapor safelight. Oh, and my Advent Radio. 

Eventually we started embracing digital cameras and the enlargers were only important for making prints from my "legacy" negatives. When we built the current office/studio on the same property as our new house in West Austin (1996) I opted to sell off the darkroom equipment and make do with a series of film scanners. It was a reasonable compromise since I didn't want to plumb another space and so much of our work was already moving to digital. That, and the fact that medium format transparencies had become far more relevant to the business than B&W prints; at least from about 1994 onward. No more need or desire to rush through black and white prints overnight for clients on short deadlines. The labs took care of our medium format transparencies and I finally got dinners with my family back.

By the turn of the century I'd already spent way too much time and money trying to make inkjet printers a viable option for turning out color prints when one of my associates mentioned that he was getting great prints from a store called, Costco. The first Costco had opened in Austin and soon people all over the place were singing the praises of their photo department. 12 x18 inch chemical prints for about $2. The "Two Buck Chuck of Prints!"

I tried out the in-store Costco labs and liked them. I liked them even better when they started profiling each store's printing machines and then sharing the color profiles with their customers. Then the prints got really good. Or, if they weren't good it was generally my fault. Chalk it up to early days of monitor calibration....

I've probably had printed something like a thousand of the 12 x18 inch prints over the first decade of the 2000's. We used to make and send printed portfolios and often needed to have four or five available for different client requests. We supplied wall prints from Costco to commercial and non-profit clients who wanted to decorate their offices with the work I'd done for them. 

I even used their printing/proofing services for event work. I'd shoot on 35mm Kodak Ektapress 400 film and have my local Costco photo department proof 30 or 40 X 36 exposure rolls for a given event, put the resulting 4x6 inch prints into binders and deliver them to my clients. 

Once, I was covering an event for Motorola in Orlando, Florida when my direct client got tasked with setting up a celebrity grip and grin photo session (not on the original schedule...) for about 200 people; all V.I.P.s in the eyes of the company. She promised her boss that we could get the film processed and get back one 5x7 inch color print of each of the 200 participants standing next to the celebrity by 6 am the next morning. 

I called around and found the local Costco and got the location. We did the fast breaking photo shoot from 2-3pm and then I grabbed a limo at the front of the Ritz-Carlton and rushed over to Costco. I handed over seven rolls of 35mm film and asked the lab manager if it would be possible to get them at any time up to the end of that day. He laughed and said, "Go shop around the store for a while, give me your cell number and I'll call you when they're ready. Maybe an hour?"  By 5:30 I was back at the conference with an envelope full of really nice 5x7 inch prints. My client was thrilled because she and her staff had also been tasked with stuffing the images into hastily purchased picture frames and getting them delivered to the clients before they left in the morning. 

I was loyal to Costco for the bulk of my commercial printing ever since that day. 

Now, that's about to come to an end. The labs are being shut down and the space will no doubt be relegated to something more profitable. According to the Costco press release the number of people asking for lab services had fallen dramatically and quickly to a point where the service was no longer profitable. Most people are happy to "archive" their images to their phones. Printing is now unimportant to the vast majority of shoppers.

Costco did mention that members who still want prints can get them from Costco's online print service. But it's not the same thing as being able to walk in with film and walk out with prints. Or to send in a set of digital files and pick them up the same day, along with your roasted chicken and 55 gallon barrel of pickles. 

Every day the remnants of traditional photograph disappear or are diminished. Sure, there are still a number of online printing services available and, if I need prints in the future, I'll probably just order them through Smugmug.com since I also use their service to make online galleries for current clients. But again, it's not the same. If you need something re-done, or done differently, it's hard to explain to a web interface just what you had in mind. 

As prints go away it changes the nature of what we do for our craft. And the tools we need to use. Does super-high resolution matter as much in a time when nearly everything is viewed on a screen? And when the most popular screens are no bigger than about 13 inches? I know most of us still make prints but then what?
Will the generations right behind us consider printing?

I guess I was hanging onto my Costco membership mostly because I thought I might need some prints from time to time. I have't been in a big box store since the earliest days of the pandemic so I'm thinking this might be a good time to drop my membership. With just the three of us here at the house it's rare that we can make it all the way through a ten pound apple pie, and we only need so many large screen TVs. 

But there are those good deals on tires.... I guess I'll give it a bit more thought.



Bill Bresler said...

I had just finished uploading files for a dozen 12X18s when I got the email. I'm bummed. I'll get by, but Im really bummed for Bill, the guy who ran that department at the Northville, Michigan Costco for about the last 15 years. He's probably in his mid-50s and did a great job with the millennials who worked for him. I'm hoping he's there when I pick up the 12X18s. I want to say thanks for the great work, and goodbye.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Bill, Costco seems to be a really good company to work for. I'm sure they'll offer (other) Bill a good position to replace the one he might lose. But it's always sad to see a long personal relationship with a good vendor end. I still miss a guy named Keith who was at Austin Photo Imaging. He always went above and beyond on my bigger projects. But it's been years since we've done the kind of work his shop specialized in...

Anonymous said...

I also used Costco for years, and based my workflow on their services. My local one stopped processing film a number of years ago, and a couple of years ago replaced their printing machine with one that wouldn't take film. I hope their online service is still profiled.

Apropos of this, one of my favorite lines from the Simpsons (I've only seen a couple of episodes) was Marge shopping in a big box store looking up a level or two on the shelves, saying "Oh, look! Grand pianos are a real bargain in a four pack."


Anonymous said...

I saw a Kodak photo center in CVS a few weeks ago. It seemed to be a do-it-yourself edit and print from memory card thing. The lady behind the counter said it was often broken.

Related ... Walmart offers one-hour or ship to store or home-delivery prints starting at $0.09 each. Available sizes 4x6, 5x7, 8x10, 4x4, 5x5, 8x8, 4x5.3 and wallet.

I've seen self-service printing there as well.

crsantin said...

I suppose a hundred years from now, if our species survives that long and I'm not convinced we will, humans will look back at our prints the way we look in wonder at cave drawings. Maybe they'll be immersed in ultra-vivid and realistic 3d holograms and laugh at our silly 2d prints. Cameras, lenses, prints, all of it will be gone in the future and we will have wasted so much precious present energy arguing about megapixels, IBIS, micro-contrast and bokeh.

My grandfather was a master plasterer here in Canada in the 1940s-1950s. I can still see his work in some older buildings in downtown Toronto and a few churches. After WWII drywall became more and more common in the post-war boom. I remember him telling me once when I was rather young about a big job he was working on, setting up for the day early one morning, and seeing a large crew of men arrive with truckloads of drywall for the building next to the one he was working on. He could see the future in front of him and quit the trade shortly after that. My wife tells me that the corporate secretary is pretty much a thing of the past. Large companies no longer have a receptionist or secretary to answer phones and deal with salespeople when they arrive. I wonder how many more jobs simply will not exist in ten years?

I think I mostly wanted to talk about my grandfather. He died in 1978 and I still miss him an awful lot. We were very close and I was named after him. Thanks for listening. Stay safe everyone, Covid is no joke.

Rick said...

Ugh, this is terrible news. Costco was not only fast, cheap, and high-quality (the impossible trio) you could get color profiles for their specific in-store printers (via Dry Creek Photo).

Took a class on digital color at a local JC and one assignment had the class making prints from various commercial sources: Walmart, Target, Walgreen's and the like. Costco prints were always better than the others and in most cases the least expensive, sometimes by 2 or 3x.

Home printing is absurd, so what now?

Alan Mermelstein said...

I often used Costco for much of my wedding photography career before I retired. Janet the manager always treated my images with care. We had such a great relationship that I even got to photograph her wedding! I’ll miss Janet.

Ron Nabity said...

Kirk, how's life?

I still print large prints and have always been able to count on Costco for turnaround, quality and value.

On one occasion, the computer system at the local Costco's One Hour Photo corral had crashed. I received a phone call from an employee explaining the problem and the expected delay. He wanted to be sure customers knew about it in case they needed to make alternate plans. Who does that?

I'll still use the online print service with them. The cost of shipping is about equal to the cost of a couple gallons of gas.

- Ron

Eric Seale said...

So sad, I could always count on Costco for good prints to put on the wall or send to the mother-in-law. At least they'll still do prints by mail (and folks, they do a fantastic job on metal prints).

TMJ said...

It sounds like a terrific service, here in the UK, probably the nearest we have is Boots, although they stopped film processing a while ago.

There is a big future for photographic prints and that is in photobooks. I am compiling one at present, from my daughter's wedding on the 31st of October, the less formal shots as the professional photograher is making a photobook of the day. Looking at physical prints whilst enjoying a good cup of coffee is still most enjoyable.

DA said...

Like you, and others in this group, I am going to miss my local Costco photo lab. I haven't done thousands of prints with them, but certainly hundreds and it quickly got to the point that I became almost friends with the staff working the lab. Costco used to offer a huge variety of print sizes and one I liked was 11x16. I printed a lot of those, as well as 12x18s. The staff all knew me and the ones left still do. I would ask for a larger border and they would wave me in to see what it would look like on the machine to make sure I was happy with it. A few years back Costco did an upgrade and many print sizes disappeared, as well as the employees' ability to adjust the prints. Still, what's available is great and I can adjust the borders myself, but the service the staff provided has always been special to me.

About 2 years ago, one of the photo lab friends came up to me as I was shopping in the store and we started chatting. She said "don't tell anyone, but we just had a meeting and Costco is going to close all the photo labs in 2 years." I was shocked and sad that this service was going away and she did not know if she wanted to stick around, or move on to something else. Haven't seen her in quite a few months now so she may have moved on to a different job. I did not go spreading the news out of respect for her, but this decision is not something that came up last minute. Costco has been planning this for some time, as we should realize. I am actually surprised it has not made the news prior to the official announcement. I am going to miss the in-store lab and staff working there, but I'll keep using the online service if it continues.

Eric Rose said...

Wow I love the image you posted!!!

I just picked up a Jobo film processor so I will do my own C41, E6 etc. I shoot very little colour film however I want the ability to develop what I do shoot. We still have a few drug stores doing prints, for how long who knows. If they close the print department in Costco that would help the few remaining local operations stay in business for a bit longer.