West Photo: A Big Development


An alternative photographer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota shares her favorite local spot for film development. Inspired by the virtual tour that @metaluna and @lorrainehealy gave of Photosmith in New Hampshire, @honeygrahams224 explored the legendary West Photo in Minneapolis, a venerable pillar of the Twin Cities photography scene that has been locally owned and operated since 1971.

While West Photo no longer specializes in film photography, they have been quietly offering film development services for as long as they have been in business. You won’t find any mention of these services on their website, as it’s really only for people who are “in the know.” The Analogue Revolution has been a pleasant surprise for the staff at West, and @honeygrahams224 enjoyed the opportunity to interview Sharon, the main talent behind the scenes at Minneapolis’s most-trusted (and only remaining) wet-lab. Here is her interview!

Meet “Albert,” the hardest working staff member at West Photo. He is operated and maintained by it’s second hardest-working staff member, Sharon S.

Can you tell us more about yourself and what you do at West Photo.

My name is Sharon, and the only reason my business card says, “photo lab manager,” is because they won’t let me put “Queen of the Mini Lab” on it. I don’t really do many equipment sales; I mostly stick to customer service and run the lab. In the years that I have worked here, I have taught myself how to do most of the repairs on these machines, and I keep an extra Fuji 340 around as a “parts donor” for my working machine. Fuji does have techs that can come out and repair these systems, but I have found it easier to just read the manual and learn how to do most of the maintenance myself.

What kind of shop is West Photo? How long have you guys been around?

West Photo has been around since 1971. Primarily, it is a camera retailer and equipment rental service that sell printers, paper, camera equipment and offer digital and film printing. It is a family-run operation, and many of the employees have been here for over 30 years. I’ve been here for 10 and I’m still one of the "newbies".

Is it true that you guys are the last commercial wet-lab in Minneapolis?

Yes. We are the only commercial and retail wet-lab left in Minneapolis. We still do commercial darkroom photography and color processing, although the traditional black and white process jobs are done off-site, because we don’t have the space for it here. We use the Fuji Frontier 340 system, and we still print on chemically processed photo paper.

The esteemed Queen of the Mini-Lab poses with “Albert,” the one working Fuji machine

What is your background?

I have been at West Photo for 10 years. I learned hand-process black and white photography in high school and I also studied it in college. I moved to Minneapolis in 1996 and got a job at Pro-X, which was a commercial photo-lab and portrait studio at the time. I did some portraits, but mostly worked in the lab. At some point, I had a brief stint of 9-5 office work where I learned about the mythical concept of “vacation time.” Unfortunately, my corporate ambitions ended when I got laid off, and I needed a part-time gig. I took the lab manager position at West because I already knew a bunch of people who worked here, and I knew how to process color film. At that time I figured the job wouldn’t last very long because digital was already taking over the world. I started here in 2007, and have been developing and printing film full time ever since. We have more business now than we have ever had, and it’s hard for me to keep up!

You have a very specialized niche (film). Did you ever think it would become your career?

No. Everything about this job transpired purely by coincidence – film development just happens to be something that I know how to do. I had always been a hobby photographer, but I wasn’t planning on making it into a career. I went to school for digital editing and photo editing, so it is a little ironic that I work purely in film now.

Do you ever think of doing something else?

[Laughs] Not really. Now that my husband knows that I have mechanical skills (from fixing all of the lab equipment), he likes getting my help working on cars. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, so it’s great that I’m doing something that I know I’m good at. I also love seeing the world through the images that my customers take, especially when they mail me film from exotic locations!

Sharon, preparing test strips and checking rollers in her Fuji Frontier

What is your typical day like?

When I come in in the morning, I need to heat the machines up to get them started. Then I get the chemicals loaded, (We get our film chemistry from a local supplier called Pakor) clean the racks, and do test strips to see if my chemical balances are correct. Each machine needs its own command strip (like a color-key to make sure colors are balanced properly). I take the value readings for red, blue, and green, and I chart them on a custom excel spreadsheet to make sure everything is properly balanced. All of this needs to be done before I start running orders, and I am very careful to make sure that everything is perfect before I start processing film. The parts machine is named “Louise,” and the working machine is named “Albert.” Once Albert is ready to go, I start loading film. I start making prints after that – I do both the digital and film printing for the shop. After I get my orders completed, I catalog them and start calling customers to let them know that their pictures are ready for pickup. The rest of my day is devoted to scanning negatives and lab maintenance.

Sharon points out how film gets loaded into the system. Note the built-up chemical residue that must be hand-cleaned every month.

Did you ever think that film processing would last this long? Are things different now?

I definitely did not think that my part-time gig to turn into a full time gig. I was expecting film processing to eventually die out, but it has been steadily increasing year after year. We have processed more film this year than in the entire year of 2002. I like telling people that, “Film is the new vinyl,” and many of my customers are so young that they have always grown up with digital cameras. For young people who grew up with digital, I think that film is something exciting, fun, and exotic. It is more tangible, and your product feels more hand-made. Everyone talks about the “magic,” of taking a picture, and the excitement of not knowing how it will turn out. I feel like Lomography plays a large role in this revolution too, and they are putting out some seriously cool film, like the purple film and the redscale.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I would say that the most challenging part of my job is the workload. We are already processing 20% more film than last year, and more film than we did fifteen years ago. I am literally the only person here that runs these machines – nobody else knows how to do it. There have been a few days when the machine breaks down or when orders are piling up that it gets stressful. It’s also tough coming back from vacation, because since I’m the only one doing the processing, I have a week’s worth of work to come back to.

Sharon displays one of the “lead sheets” that gets fed through the system. Every roll of film is processed this way, with the Fuji Frontier 340 slowly pulling the roll through the machine. Temperature and chemistry must be carefully controlled, and Sharon keeps a watchful eye on the whole process.

What is the most fun part of your job?

I love getting to print travel pictures! I love seeing places where people have been. One of my regular customers just got back from Europe and I want to see all the neat places where she visited. I do photo-restoration work on the side, and I love the looks on people’s faces when I fix beloved pictures of theirs that have been damaged. I also enjoy seeing all of the neat rolls of film that get mailed to us – people mail us film all the time.

Tell us something we wouldn’t know about running a professional photo lab.

Someone really does look at every frame that is being printed – so that naked picture you took of your boyfriend…? I saw that. West Photo is bound by MN State Statutes 617.241 and 617.246, which prohibit the distribution of sexually explicit pictures. We are able to develop and print nudes as long as they are not “pornographic.” If it is “pornographic,” I can process your film; I just can’t make prints… you can make those yourself. [Laughs] In ten years, I have only had two situations where I couldn’t distribute the prints.

Any wise tips you have for the film-shooting community?

Don’t take pictures of concerts or festivals unless you have good lighting and 3200 speed film. There is almost never enough light at indoor shows, and most people are really disappointed when I develop their concert photos. Ultra low-light photos are also hard to print, because the film is so thin that its difficult to get a decent negative to work with. Otherwise, take pictures of things you like, and have fun while you’re doing it. You don’t need an expensive set-up to take cool shots.

Have you ever heard of Lomography?

Of course! They are always coming up with cool new products, and I think they have done a lot to get younger people interested in film photography again.

Thanks for your time! I Really think they should let you put “Queen of the Mini Lab” on your business cards.

Maybe, I haven’t convinced my boss yet.

You can learn more about West Photo on their website. Or you can send them film in the mail:

Sharon Snyder
West Photo
21 University Avenue N.E.
Minneapolis, MN 5541

written by honeygrahams224 on 2017-07-06 #people #places #travel #film #interview #analogue #vintage #repair #minnesota #development #alternative #community #lomo #lomography #fuji #film-development #photography-career #local-photo-lab


  1. icequeenubia
    icequeenubia ·

    Love your story, @honeygrahams224!

  2. honeygrahams224
    honeygrahams224 ·

    @icequeenubia Many thanks! Sharon rocks.

  3. metaluna
    metaluna ·

    Hi HoneyG, Great job! It would be interesting if more of us introduced our go to labs. They need recognition for the time they spend making us look good.

  4. honeygrahams224
    honeygrahams224 ·

    @metaluna I agree! They have a depth of knowledge that many of us don't, and without my local labs I would be really limited in what kinds of film I could use. I am planning on interviewing Alpine Camera next - old school camera shops are a rare breed, and I they deserve their time to shine.

  5. honeygrahams224
    honeygrahams224 ·

    @jamescat22 Too bad about the attitude! I would love to get to work in a technical field like film/photo processing. That was my favorite part of photography class.

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