American Photo


Profiles of People Who Gave Me a Job
Part Six – American Photo

My first semester of college, fall of 1986, was a disaster. Then my grades got even worse in my second (and last) semester. I had discovered photography. All of my time was spent reading about it or driving around southern Idaho doing it. Returning home to California after school let out I decided to find a job in photography.
I applied for and got a job at a one-hour photo lab in the local mall. It was one of a chain of photo labs owned by a Korean businessman. It was called American Photo and the place reeked of toxic photo bleach, which, along with the other chemicals, was dumped straight down the drain.
First day on the job I was taught to cut and sleeve negatives and put customers’ prints into envelopes. You had to look at each print before stuffing them to make sure they looked good. One of the first sets of photos I saw were from a party for a woman leaving her job. Here she is unwrapping presents; A watch, a handbag, and what’s this gift she’s holding with her eyes bugging out? Oh, it’s a dildo.
Photos like that came through all the time. And it was common practice to print out an extra print of anything funny, unusual, or nude. This happens at every lab. I used to have a great collection of images: dirtbags smoking pot, a topless overweight woman raking and burning leaves, a drunk woman at an office party dancing on a pool table to the delight of men in suits.
At American Photo they kept copies of these photos in a photo album. A thick photo album with a floral patterned cover stored safely in the back room held a collection of images probably years in the making. Bachelor parties, bachlorette parties, parties, drunks, strippers, amatuer nudes and more parties. One of the guys I worked with told me about it.
Of course, you can’t keep things like this secret. And somehow one of the mall security guards heard of the photo album. He would come by several times a day begging our manager into letting him peruse the photographs. He didn’t want to bust the place and confiscate the album, he just wanted to drool over the skin pix.
Finally, after a few weeks of this guy whining, they agreed to let him look at the book. Anything to get him off their backs. They take him into the back room, and he starts gleefully going through the book. He’s getting off on seeing all of the drunk and/or naked women pictured in their amateur snapshot lack of glory. He turns the next page and anger clouds his face. He turns to the manager, shaking his finger towards one of the photos.
“That’s my girlfriend!” he shouts in a rage.
The book was quickly disposed of. I should mention this happened before I started working there, so it’s a story I got from one of the old-timers.
When I was hired, there were about eight employees, including this weird manager who kept telling me how many cameras he owned (9) and how much money he made selling his photos of Napa vineyards through stock (a lot). I bought it, though now I’d bet it was all b.s. There was also an assistant manager and a bunch of other experienced printers. Within a month, all of these people were gone.
It was like the Khmer Rouge took over. Before we knew it there were just two employees left, neither of us with any real experience. Me and an thirtysomething guy named Julius. With everyone else gone we were forced into working everyday. The store was open from 10am to 9pm every day of the week, so we were going non-stop. About this time I met the district manager, this witch who basically ignored our complaints that there was no store manager and that we were working all day, every day. I remember they brought in a part-timer but it didn’t cut down much on the workload.
We were getting behind all the time. People always expected their photos to be done within an hour but it was impossible with just the two of us. We started giving out discounts to keep people happy. We’d give somebody 10 or 15% off their order, even if they were cool about things being late. One night alone we gave out over $150 in discounts. This really pissed off the district manager. But they still didn’t do anything to help us out. With all this going on the store absolutely had to be open on time and we couldn’t close early. If the store was ever closed the mall administration would fine the store around $150 an hour.
I remember driving home late at night, getting up, going back to the mall to work the next morning. I remember listening to loud and fast punk rock in the car and driving fast with the madness of it all. The job was killing me.
One day at the end of my wits I was scheduled to work a full shift alone. I was not looking forward to this garbage continuing. A shift alone was like hell. The district manager and owner were doing nothing to fix our problems.
So I just didn’t go in. It was great. Julius and I went into San Francisco together so there was no one for them to call to fill in. And I was the only one with a key so there was no way they could even get the shop open. The store racked up over $1,200 in fines from the mall before the district manager got someone to drill the lock off the door.