The rise and fall of Fo­tomat is­lands

Icon grew quickly, but fi­nances, com­pe­ti­tion hi­jacked its suc­cess


If all your photo-tak­ing in­volves a dig­i­tal de­vice, you’re prob­a­bly too young to re­mem­ber a Fo­tomat.

A what? Well, pic­ture-tak­ing used to in­volve a drop-off and a pickup, of­ten at a Fo­tomat kiosk. You had to take in your film and wait a few days to pick up the “pro­cessed” pa­per pic­tures. The pro­cess­ing took place in fac­to­ries re­moved from the drop-off point. The ge­nius of Fo­tomat was the re­al­iza­tion that the drop-off point could be tiny. It re­ally just needed one per­son — ide­ally in a park­ing lot, so folks could just drive up, drop off and drive away.

Fo­tomats were re­ally just lit­tle huts, but they were very vis­i­ble. The company called the spots “Is­lands” or “kiosks.” While their looks could vary, the im­age of the Fo­tomat hut was so im­por­tant that the company trade­marked it un­der U.S. fed­eral and state laws. At their peak, there were 45 Fo­tomats pep­pered across Toronto, with more across On­tario. They were af­ford­able and of­fered an im­pres­sive one day turn­around time.

Fo­tomat was born in Florida in 1966. The par­ents re­main ob­scure, be­cause not long after that Fo­tomat was adopted by a cou­ple of en­trepreneur­s from San Diego named Cliff Gra­ham and Preston “Sandy” Fleet.

They paid a lit­tle up front and a roy­alty on fu­ture earn­ings and then took the baby back to Cal­i­for­nia, where they force-fed it cap­i­tal and bred Fo­tomats like rab­bits. Within six months, there were 18 Fo­tomats in Amer­ica. Within a year there were 350 more. Soon, the company was open­ing 14 Fo­tomats a week.

It would even­tu­ally top out near 4,000. Fo­tomat had taken off and through fran­chis­ing and stock of­fer­ings Sandy and Cliff were get­ting rich.

Fleet was a trained pi­lot, his fam­ily for­tune com­ing from war­plane man­u­fac­tur­ing. Born in Buf­falo, he moved young and never knew a whole win­ter in his life. By the time Fo­tomat left the run­way, he was around 35 years old.

He had mar­ried and di­vorced a woman 10 years his se­nior and helped in­vent WD40.

Gra­ham was a dif­fer­ent beast. A short, for­mer body­builder, he lived large north of San Diego in Bing Crosby’s old man­sion in Ran­cho Santa Fe, said to be Amer­ica’s rich­est zip code. His 30-minute com­mute to the Gra­ham Ex­ec­u­tive Build­ing in San Diego was usu­ally done in an im­mense chauf­feured Mercedes 600 that he said had come from the Vatican. The cur­tains were of­ten drawn. Gra­ham loved money and the peo­ple who had it.

Gra­ham was pres­i­dent; as vi­cepres­i­dent, Fleet was co-pi­lot. Fo­tomat’s climb was rapid, but there were bumps along the way. From the start, the gi­ant Ko­dak cor­po­ra­tion did not like the way Fo­tomat used Ko­dak’s colours and sig­nage to im­ply that dis­count Fo­tomat was owned by pre­mium qual­ity Ko­dak. That ended in court.

Fran­chise own­ers, too, ral­lied their lawyers, ac­cus­ing the company of rip­ping them off or at the very least giv­ing pref­er­en­tial treat­ment to the company’s own Is­lands. Fo­tomat it­self of­ten hauled com­peti­tors be­fore the judge for copying its look. Fo­tomat still sits as an im­por­tant ex­am­ple of just how much any­one can trade­mark an ac­tual build­ing.

Trou­bles aside, by the U.S. Bi- Cen­ten­nial, Fo­tomat pretty much owned the Amer­i­can photofin­ish­ing in­dus­try. By then, Gra­ham had been forced out for ap­par­ently over­spend­ing and soon Fleet would jet­ti­son his stocks as well. There was a new crew, but the flight had reached its max­i­mum el­e­va­tion and storm clouds were gath­er­ing. Drug stores and gro­cery chains were of­fer­ing one-day ser­vice and, worse, small, one-hour pro­cess­ing ma­chines that could fit into a nor­mal store — but not a Fo­tomat Is­land — were com­ing onto the mar­ket. A long slow de­scent had be­gun.

The first three Fo­tomats landed in Toronto in 1971. There was one in Yorkville, one near the TD Cen­tre and one on Burn­hamthorpe. In time, the full 45 were spread in an in­ter­est­ing mix of down­town and sub­ur­ban lo­ca­tions and the company even rolled out spe­cial Is­lands for the CNE each Au­gust. By the early ’80s, though, the flight was ob­vi­ously in trou­ble. Fo­tomat USA hadn’t paid a div­i­dend in years and was bleed­ing money on schemes to rent VHS movies. The Kon­ica film company took over the par­ent and, lo­cally, a gag­gle of guys from Wil­low­dale call­ing them­selves Lord Baron Images picked up the Cana­dian op­er­a­tion. While hind­sight is 20/20, ex­actly what Lord Baron was hop­ing to do with this On­tario business is hard to see. Over the next few years, a com­bi­na­tion of labour trou- bles, debt to the U.S. par­ent and a dy­ing business model had our lo­cal Fo­tomats plum­met­ing earth­wards. When the crash fi­nally came, the Is­lands all shut down, leav­ing the sub­con­tracted pro­cess­ing plant with pic­tures to de­liver and nowhere to go. With­out the Is­lands the pic­tures were ma­rooned.

Fo­tomats once ruled like the herds of buf­falo, and like the buf­falo, they were hunted into ex­tinc­tion

The U.S. par­ent hob­bled on through the 1980s, but by then Fleet was busy self-pub­lish­ing a book ar­gu­ing Shake­speare didn’t write his own plays. Gra­ham chose to write a mys­tery: After bilk­ing $12 mil­lion out of in­vestors in a scam to turn sand into gold, Gra­ham sim­ply dis­ap­peared. Con­victed of fraud and tax eva­sion in ab­sen­tia, he was fea­tured on Amer­ica’s Most Wanted but was never found. Some say he came to Canada, some say he was taken down by hit men, but I pre­fer to see him safely en­sconced on his last lit­tle Is­land some­where in the South Pa­cific. By the time Gra­ham dis­ap­peared, Fo­tomat USA was down to 2,000 kiosks and shrink­ing fast. It changed hands a few last times and shows up on­line in 2007 as “Fo­tomat,” an im­age pro­cess­ing soft­ware. After that it falls off the radar. The U.S. fed­eral trade­mark on the clas­sic hut de­sign seems to have ex­pired in Fe­bru­ary of this year. Fo­tomats once dot­ted the land­scape like the great herds of buf­falo, and like the buf­falo, mar­ket forces hunted them into ex­tinc­tion. For many years you could see them reused as key cut­ting out­lets or tai­lor­ing kiosks, but now — almost 50 years after their found­ing — spot­ting a Fo­tomat in the wild is a rare treat. One of the very first ones thrives hap­pily in San Diego as Café Ve­loce — or­ganic fair trade cof­fee etc. — but lo­cally we seem to have lost them all. In fact, when I be­gan this piece, I in­tended to close with our own last sur­vivor, at the cor­ner of Jane St. and Al­liance Aves. But it, too, has now gone. Weirdly enough, it lives on in Google Streetview but only un­til the Google car passes again. Un­less some­one grabs a Fo­tomat and tosses it into the Smith­so­nian, we will only have the pic­tures. And is Fo­tomat an icon? Well, if you’ve only ever known dig­i­tal imag­ing, you might think not. But please re­mem­ber this: When the Knoll brothers in­vented Pho­to­shop in their par­ents’ Michi­gan home in the mid-1980s, they called their pro­gram Photo Hut. And can you guess what the desk­top icon for their world-chang­ing soft­ware was? A tiny pix­e­lated im­age of a Fo­tomat.

Fo­tomat huts, also known as “is­lands,” were once a pow­er­house in the photo in­dus­try and lo­cated in North Amer­i­can park­ing lots in the 1960s and ’70s.

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