15 Minutes Inside a Busy One-Hour Photo Lab
Becky Burrows, newly graduated from college with a family studies degree, looks at the computer screen closely. She squints and turns her head a bit, calculating in her mind what the chances might be. Finally, she decides. It’s a professional photograph.
“It’s a good picture,” she says. “I just hope they have a copyright release for it.”
Burrows works the closing shift at Walgreens in the photo lab. She originally got the job as a way to pay for expenses while in school, but even after graduating, she’s still here. Nothing else has opened up for her, despite her goal to have put in her two weeks notice two months ago.
Now she exists in what she feels is a strange transition, wearing the same blue shirt and khakis each day, surrounded by machines and chemicals, rolls of photo paper and the occasional negative. “Almost everything is digital now. I do less developing and working with photos and more just pushing buttons and showing customers how to order,” she says. “It’s basically automatic, I just have to watch it.”
Just then, a machine starts beeping. With the photo lab situated in arguably the busiest corner of the store, nearly every customer in a two aisle radius looks up to see where the sound is coming from. It’s a quick, constant beep, and it continues for at least ten seconds as Burrows slowly makes her way toward it, walking around a few close corners with the grace of a person who has learned the hard way which corners hurt most to run into. Then she reaches the machine, which extends toward the ceiling and works furiously at spitting out photographs in equal piles of 60, not even breaking for its own warning signal. She pushes a button to stop the beeping, opens a small compartment on the side of the machine, grabs an already-filled and measured bottle of water and pours in the contents. Then she adds a dash of chemical crystals and closes the door.
“Ok, so it’s not automatic, necessarily!” she laughs.
In the small amount of time Burrows spent in the back, a line of customers had already begun forming. One middle-aged woman brought in a disposable camera that her son had used at camp, she said, so she’s not sure what’s on it. Another woman in her late 20s is waiting to pick up an internet order with pictures from her vacation. Lastly, there’s an older woman in her 80s, waiting patiently with a handful of old photographs.
That last woman is Hope Malkin. She is a tiny woman, standing only a little over five feet tall, dressed up with her blue silk dress, shiny black shoes, multitudes of pearls and a black leather clutch. She speaks English well, but her accent makes her instantly recognizable as someone who probably didn’t grow up in this quiet community in central Nebraska.
“I come to Walgreens to get my pictures done because I do not like Walmart,” she says. “I want them done in one week, and they are done in one week. They scan my pictures, and I come back. But pictures these days are only 80% as good as pictures I used to have. I do not know why, but it makes me mad.”
Malkin comes to Walgreens every Sunday as a last stop before she and her husband go back to town. They come to Kearney for church services and to enjoy brunch at Perkins. While she waits in line at Walgreens, her husband waits impatiently in the car, she says, and as far as she’s concerned, “he can just stay out there.”
As Malkin approaches the photo counter, Burrows instantly recognizes her and greets her by name. “Good afternoon! What do we have today?” And as is done every Sunday, Malkin hands over the photos she wants copies of and watches closely as Burrows writes down the number of copies for each on a small slip of scrap paper pulled from the register tape.
“I will be back next week, I want them done by then,” Malkin says, turning to leave.
At this point, Burrows sets Malkin’s photos aside and goes to the back of the photo lab, weaving in and out of machines, paper magazines and hanging order envelopes, where she opens a small drawer. From there, she pulls out a Walgreens-brand CD with “Hope Malkin” written on it in sharpie. Although Malkin may not know it, every photo she has ever brought in to be scanned and copied is saved to that disk.
“We aren’t supposed to keep copies of pictures, but we only do it with Hope. The thing is, she brings in the same pictures over and over. We can only make copies of copies of copies for so long before the quality starts to go bad. That’s why her pictures are only 80% as good, when instead they would be 20% as good,” Burrows says. According to her, Malkin has only brought in about 25 different photos altogether, but she brings in five to ten at a time to have copied. She has been a customer for years, long before Burrows even started, and no one in the photo lab knows why Malkin needs all these copies. However, it is not their job to find out.
Despite coming off as an angry, senile woman, Malkin’s few photos show a life that is far more interesting to see compared to the normal photos most people bring in. In these pictures, Malkin is seen as a young girl in a palace, dressed in what appears to be very expensive jewelry and layers upon layers of silk made into a dress. Another picture shows her posing by a life-sized painting of herself. There are also pictures of her eating at a long table, sitting in chairs with details so intricate, they could be made of lace. Sitting alongside her are what one only assumes must be other important people. When Malkin brings in originals, there are often notes on the back, naming the people as diplomats, heads of state, wealthy businessmen and doctorate professors.
“My boss, Annie, thinks Hope is from the Philippines and met her husband during the second world war,” Burrows says. She thinks this is probably the most accurate estimate anyone has made about Hope’s life so far. “Everyone wants to know why she’s in Nebraska now, but no one wants to ask!”
Burrows’ favorite picture of Malkin is one where she is posing in front of the Taj Mahal with another young woman, whom Burrows speculates must be yet another important person, or the daughter of one.
“I have to say, I do like this part of the job,” Burrows says, smiling. Then she gets a mischievous look on her face. “Actually, you wouldn’t believe some of the things we see back here! Sometimes, it’s like reality television, but you get to see these people face-to-face at some point.”
Burrows believes it takes a certain person to excel in the photo lab. Burrows herself is organized; she has to be, otherwise she risks messing up someone’s order or giving photos to the wrong person. It can be a lot of pressure, especially when it’s busy, “because people want their pictures, and they want them now. We can have up to 70 order envelopes back there, and they all have to be done on time.”Malkin is the only constant exception to the rush, she says. “I don’t think she’s aware how quickly photos can be done these days.”
As soon as Burrows finishes digitally ordering Malkin’s photos, stopping every few minutes to help customers who come to the photo counter to pick up orders, ask about pricing, buy digital media cards, or any number of other things, her manager, Jeremy Green, steps in beside her.
“It’s time for your dinner break,” he informs her. Breathing a sigh of relief, Burrows quickly explains which orders have been sent, which are waiting to download, which are processing, which are due immediately and which she needs ready by the time she comes back. Green just nods, saying, “Yep, yep, I got it. Go eat.”
As Burrows leaves the photo lab and heads back to the break room, Green turns to face the crowd of customers that seem to have come from nowhere. After only taking two orders, the machine starts beeping again. He ignores it, putting the customers first, although every person in line and in the surrounding aisles begins to look annoyed shortly after one minute. Finally, the customer at the counter gives him permission to turn it off before taking the order. Like a deer in headlights, Green’s eyes get wide. He turns to face the machine, tripping on the edge of a paper magazine and hitting his hip on the corner of the desk. He pushes the button and walks back to the customer. No water, no chemical. He doesn’t do that because he always spills it, he says. On top of the orders he’s taken and hasn’t entered into the computer, as soon as there are no customers, he’s going to go work the aisles and let all the orders sit there.
“Becky can handle it,” he says.