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A photo lab is done in by digital

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 9, 2008 10:05 AM

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South End photo lab
Steve Walker, owner of the South End Photo Lab, holds a roll of 35mm color negatives.
(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

Beloved shop steps out of the picture

By Justin A. Rice
Globe Correspondent

To the sounds of Sunday morning jazz playing on his stereo, Steve Walker drained bleach and other chemicals from a series of tubes inside a large device that transforms film into printable negatives. While Walker shut down the machine, his friend Raphael Pol unhooked an even chunkier machine that prints negatives on paper.

"This machine has had very little use lately; I used to do 50 to 75 rolls [of film] a day," Walker said. "The last year or two, I've done 20 or 15 a week."

With the age of digital photography in full bloom, Walker's shop, the South End Photo Lab at 597 Tremont St., will close its doors at the end of this month after 20 years in business.

Credit-card-sized digital cameras, and cameras on cellphones, among other advances, have rendered Walker's equipment mostly moot. Dinosaurs of a nearly extinct industry, his machinery was hauled away last month to be sold overseas for a fifth of the $175,000 he paid for them four years ago.

It wasn't even the lousy economy that did the lab in (Walker said he has survived South End real estate bubble busts before) - but rather do-it-yourself printers he couldn't compete with. Walker said most people don't notice or mind the poor quality of home printers or drugstore prints. Frames displaying digital photos are another popular item.

Business started to fall off about five years ago, Walker said.

"It's so much different than the old days, when the only way to see it was to develop it," Walker said. "Nowadays people look at it on the monitor."

Walker, who often contributed gift certificates toward neighborhood causes and donated to organizations such as South End Youth Baseball, also got to know his customers' lives through their photographs.

"I've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly," he joked.

Former South Ender Jay Lordan of Cambridge started using Walker's services in 1995. As soon as he learned that the business was closing, he rushed in with a 50-year-old faded photo of himself as an infant in the arms of his mother, who is flanked by his grandmother and great-grandmother.

"This guy can do things no one else can do as far as repairing photos," Lordan said while picking up the recolored photo last Friday. "This picture has four generations in it. It had red ink on it that he took off for me. He's the best. I'm gonna miss it, and the neighborhood is gonna miss it."

When affordable and user-friendly digital cameras arrived on the market in the late 1990s, Walker's business boomed as folks playing with their new toys didn't have the means to print pictures themselves. Walker also transformed many of the new digital images into holiday greeting cards or calendars.

In fact, Walker, who had a staff of four at one point, was so busy from Thanksgiving to Christmas that he said it was not uncommon to work until 1 a.m. filling orders. In the early 1990s, the Roxbury resident also got a lot of work from Big Dig contractors who mostly had Walker develop photos of holes in the ground.

Mondays were also busy during the heady days of 2001-02 as folks would stream into the store after shooting weekend parties, weddings, and showers.

But 15 months ago, Walker laid off his last employee and he started closing on Mondays a few months ago.

The store will remain open throughout December while Walker liquidates his inventory of frames, photo albums, and prints of Fenway Park, South End brownstones, and the old elevated trolleys. In January, he said, he'll look to sell the Tremont Street storefront.

Then, the 53-year-old, who learned his craft at the Rochester Institute of Technology and worked in local photo labs for 10 years before setting out on his own in 1988, will take some time off before determining his second act.

"I always thought I'd be here," Walker said. "I always thought I'd sell the business at some point."

Justin Rice can be reached at rice.ju@gmail.com.

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