As Tucson's Jones Photo closes doors, film processor Gary Kittell remembers his 61-year career
Local film-processing company had national reputation for quality
Vacation snapshots. Family portraits. Romantic landscapes of the desert southwest. For most of the last 61 years, Gary Kittell has cared for thousands upon thousands of photographs as a film processor and developer for Jones Photo.
The Tucson company closed its doors for the final time last week, shutting down after nearly seven decades.
In 1962, fresh out of high school, Kittell started working as a delivery driver for Photo Finish, a company eventually absorbed by Jones Photos and for decades, 79-year-old Kittell developed an uncounted number of film rolls. His tenure ended last week after CEO Shenay Hairston announced she was shuttering the company after the building on North Country Club Road was sold.
"I was never a real photographer, but I understand and love the process," Kittell said. For most of his career at Jones, he would process film from 3 a.m. until 4 p.m., and the shift allowed him to referee high school football games in Tucson. "It was always a family-oriented business," said Kittell. "I just enjoyed the work. All these years, I really liked doing it."
In 1947, Hal Jones opened a black and white lab to serve a growing interest in photography following the end of World War II. When color film arrived, Jones bought one of the first color processors in Arizona. During its heyday in the 1970s, after Eastman Kodak released "point-and-shoot" cameras that gave nearly anyone a chance to take a good picture, 50 people worked for Jones' processing lab, working in three shifts to process nearly 3,000 rolls of film per day, said Kittell.
As digital photography and the advent of cellphones bristling with lenses pushed film into photography's niches, Jones Photo had become a kind of community space for local photographers still devoted to film, said Jesse Camastro, who worked the front desk.
"We're the last place in Tucson that processes film," he said, speaking with the Tucson Sentinel on one of the last days the business was open.
Centric Photo on East Pima Street still prints images, and Monument Camera on East Ft. Lowell Road has begun teaching people how develop and process black and white film, however, Jones was the last place where people could drop off film and "expect their image to be processed with the care they deserve," Camastro said.
While he spoke, Camastro fielded multiple phone calls and a several walk-in customers, who all asked him the same question: What do we do?
"Don't take them to CVS or Walmart, they will ruin your photos," he said. Instead, he recommends Dwayne's Photos in Parsons, Kansas. Jones could also produce photos for international passports and served as a space for photographers to connect, he said.
"We're going to lose that," he said.
Another customer, a young woman with her mom in tow, came in and asked to pick up images captured by a Holga camera—a cheap film camera with a plastic lens and case known for fuzzy, dreamlike images and light leaks—that she bought recently. Camastro brings her the negatives to show her she's been shooting on 120mm film—a rarer breed of photography—than 35mm film.
"This is so cool," Camastro told her.
While Jones Photo has remained a mainstay in Tucson for 76 years, Gary Jones—whose father Hal created the company—decided to sell his stake in the company to Shenay Hairston in 2019. Hairston works as the CEO for Simple Bookkeeping & Taxes, and HR Resolve, and spent years as Jones human resources manager, Camastro said.
However, Jones kept the land and recently sold it to a local real estate company. The company wants to convert the labs and retail space into offices, Camastro said.
Hairston declined to comment on the closure.
"Things change," Camastro shrugged. "It would be incredibly expensive to restart this business."
While camera film production nearly collapsed years ago, a small movement of people have kept it going. From 1999 to 2011, annual film sales dropped from 800 million rolls to about 20 million, according to industry data. However, there was a delicate renaissance, and Eastman Kodak doubled its sales of still film from 2015 to 2019 because of a steady increase in demand.
Last year, Axios reported a five-roll pack of Kodak's Portra 400 film rose 37.4 percent to $65.95 because of demand, and film cameras have become more expensive.
Working at Jones during those final days, in a series of well-practiced gestures in the lab, Kittell trimmed photos down to size with a paper cutter. To his left was a table covered with photo prints, and he huffed slightly in rhythm with an oxygen machine he was tied to with a clear hose. The sound of the little machine was drowned out by a thundering film processing machine made by Fujifilm — one of two aging hulks still running in the lab beneath their yellowing plastic carapaces.
Kittell's learned the rhythm of their machines and their problems. One machine has become increasingly recalcitrant and needs replacement parts, often purchased from companies in China to keep going, he said. The newer machine can still be serviced by Fujifilm. He wandered back, hauling a little cart holding his oxygen machine, and looked down a long hallway that once held a large, complicated machine that could process dozens of images at once. He remembered listening to the machine in those days, and how he and other employees knew its clockwork-like ticks and when to quickly clear a jam when the machine tocked instead.
"You have to know the intricacies of them, how to massage them a bit to keep them going," he said. "There's art and chemistry there, you know."
Now, where machines once cluttered the hallway, it was empty and someone had begun removing photos of machines and equipment taken from Jones' history and stacked them along the floor.
These days, there were only two people working to process film, Kittell said. And, the business had largely shifted to developing and processing images so they can be scanned into digital files and shared on Instagram or Facebook, he said.
Kittell noted some young photographers are shooting on disposable cameras, and wanted Jones to process the images to make digital files. This niche process is a little confusing, Kittell said.
"I don't really understand it myself," he said. "But it's film. We bring it in, we do our twin check, and then its time for the chemistry," he said.
Julius Schlosburg, a community photographer who photographs for local organizations, nonprofits, and businesses, said Jones Photo was a community space where he could go and talk to people about film.
"It was a cool place to go, where everyone was passionate about what they were doing. They had people who kept tons of film in their fridge."
Employees at Jones would help work on prints, he said. "It sometimes felt like not quite a classroom, but a community space to help people learn how to make their photos exist in the real world."
Jones was also was a place to go for bottles of developing chemicals, dark room equipment, or gear like a changing bag he often uses to quickly switch between film rolls while on assignment, he said. "It's a bummer to lose a place like that in town, where I could buy my film locally and get prints made," Schlosburg said. "Now I have to take my money outside of Tucson. It felt great to have a place here."
"There's almost a giddiness to print out photos," Schlosburg said. Some photos work as digital images because they're "punchy and they get your attention," he said, but some photos need to be printed out because there are subtleties that require time and a physical, intentional element.
"We have a tendency with digital to be less intentional, but with film we have to get everything, the lighting, the composition perfect — well as perfect as we can," he said. "There's something about slowing down."
"I hope people realize how much of a treasure it was to have a place like Jones," Schlosburg said. "And, I hope people help support other camera-related businesses in Tucson."
In the lab, Kittell wound down his work and breathed deeply. Even as Jones Photo prepared to close, Kittell expects to be busy. He's a registered tax preparer at H.R. Block, and has five grown children, along with nine grandchildren, to think about. And, he wants to spend time with his wife.
"I'd keep doing it, just to have something else to do," Kittell said. "I just enjoyed the hell out of it—I still like doing it."