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.