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.