Do you remember Fotomat? You drove up, dropped off your film, and got your photos back the next day. (I can’t swear they were always on time.) If you don’t recall the distinctive Fotomat kiosk, you may be familiar with the idea from That 70s Show. The name was disguised as Photo Hut, which loses the charm of the alternative spelling common in the era’s advertising and the nod to the old-school automat.
Fotomat seems like a natural extension of mid 20th-century culture. Interstates, drive-in restaurants and movie theaters, motels (motor hotels) — why not drive-up film processing and prints?
In Hamburg, New York, the nearest Fotomat couldn’t have been any closer to us. It was plopped near the outer edge of the South Shore Plaza parking lot, where my dad could stop on the way home from work or to the store. If he’d been so inclined (and willing to dodge Route 20 and parking lot traffic), he could have walked over from the trailer park.
My dad liked Fotomat because they used Kodak processing and film for his primarily 126 film prints. He could be snobbish about certain brands, and Kodak was one of them. If I remember right, our South Shore Plaza Fotomat and others switched to another brand, possibly Fujifilm. That’s when and why he began to use Fotomat less frequently.
According to Wikipedia, the photo minilab made Fotomat obsolete in the late 1980s. The brand continued online with photo storage and editing until 2009. It’s funny to think of a brand built upon its unique physical locations and look surviving (barely) as a virtual service.
South Shore Plaza, opened in 1960, died a long, painful death, finally torn down and replaced by a Wal-Mart in 2009. I’d guess the Fotomat succumbed long before the plaza emitted its final gasp.
As we know from many creepy images of Poconos resorts or old amusement parks, when an idea or place is abandoned, it’s sometimes left in place until it falls apart or something comes along to take its place. Some of the 4,000 Fotomat booths remain, repurposed. Drive-through coffee or cigarettes, anyone?
Further reading: Democrat & Chronicle, “Whatever Happened To … Fotomat?”