In 1956, Dwayne Steinle opened a small film processing facility in Parsons, a town of 10,500 west of Joplin, Missouri. At the store’s peak—before digital photography led to the steep decline in film processing—they were working nearly ’round the clock, and one of the biggest processors in the nation.
“The first year I was here, we worked every weekend all summer long,” says employee Melissa Alloway. “We were working ten-hour shifts Monday through Friday and coming in and working two shifts on Saturday. A few Sundays thrown in so that we could keep it going.”
Steinle passed away in February, at the age of eighty-eight. During his lifetime, his shop, Dwayne’s Photo, became legendary among photography geeks around the world for the fact that the shop would still process archaic film formats like Kodak’s disc film and rolls of Process C-22. The shop came to international notoriety in 2010 when it processed the last-ever rolls of Kodachrome, a format favored by professional photographers—and, famously, folk singer Paul Simon.
The end of the Kodachrome era drew reporters and photographers from around the world to Parsons, with some camping in the shop’s parking lot. The attention, which also inspired an indie film starring Overland Park native Jason Sudeikis, was something of an accident of history, as Dwayne’s had only started developing Kodachrome after the company’s flagship lab in New Jersey stopped accepting the film, which relies on a proprietary chemical blend to develop.
Kodak was at first hesitant to entrust the famed format to “a little lab in Kansas.” But Steinle persisted. In order to become the world’s last processor, Steinle had a machine custom-built in Yuma, Arizona. Kodak sent out a chemist to set up a laboratory. Kodak eventually stopped making the chemicals required to develop the film after demand dwindled—but not before one last explosion of interest.
“It was crazy,” Alloway says. “It almost had its own paparazzi. We had stacks and stacks of work, and we just slapped dates on it when it came in. We quit processing on December 30 and it took us around three more weeks to get all the film processed when we stopped accepting it.”
Dwayne’s developed five hundred rolls of Kodachrome on the last day. “We kept thinking we’re not going to have enough chemicals to last,” says Greg Fincher, a good friend of Steinle who maintains most of the shop’s processing machines. “They had a lot of film left over, huge master rolls in a salt mine, and they destroyed it. They wanted to make sure that when it was done, it was done. And that’s just business.”
In the post-Kodachrome era, Dwayne’s has actually been growing, especially as gen-Z hobbyists gravitate to film. Dwayne’s is now in the hands of his grandsons Derek and Josh Carter, who lured Fincher out of semi-retirement and have invested in the infrastructure to develop archaic formats like the recently resurrected Ektachrome.
The pandemic has brought a resurgence in film processing orders, says Derek Carter, with the shop’s volume more than quadrupling.
“Last year, a good day was receiving a full mailbag and maybe a couple of boxes of film,” he says. “Today we are regularly getting five bags and seven big boxes of film in a single day. I really think the growth has been a combination of people who are stuck at home and using film photography as a way to get through quarantine and another group of people who are finding old film as they are cleaning out the house. I don’t think we’ve been this excited about film processing in a long time.”
Although Steinle built his livelihood on film processing, his grandsons say he harbored no resentment toward digital photography—he liked to shoot digital, too.
“He liked just going out and shooting photos,” says Josh Carter.
As other processors closed, Steinle found a niche as an eager developer of legacy formats, which customers might find in an old box, undeveloped, and decided to send away to small-town Kansas.
“Even when everyone else is shutting down or saying ‘Film is done,’ [Dwayne] was like, ‘Well, you know, I’ll keep going,’” Derek says. “He was never driven by the prevailing winds of what everyone else was doing.”
Steinle was also a dedicated family man—he helped raise Derek and Josh Carter, who now run the business. “He took Derek and I to and from school, made us lunch and dinner—basically raised us for a couple years,” says Josh Carter.
Part of the reason that the Carters are bullish about the business is that technological advancements have made it easier to develop film.
“We had the old optical printers,” Alloway says of the old days. “Everything had to be printed and then backed up and taken to a separate paper processor, then put on that processor and ran. We had to go through it and check it for quality. And if it needed color, you needed to sit there and manually tell the printer, ‘I want you to put five blue and three magenta.’ And you couldn’t see it until it came back to you again after being printed.”
By merging modern technology with time-tested analog techniques, Dwayne’s laboratory has increased its efficiency without losing its edge as a top-tier film processor with pro customers around the country. “Being in the industry this long, we can simplify it so there’s not this huge learning curve with film,” Josh explains. “It’s not some daunting task. People can pick up an old camera they found in their grandparents’ house and say, ‘OK, I’m going to take some film and I’m going to shoot it and I’m going to know what I’m doing.’”
The other reason the company is growing is that younger shooters prefer film. Somewhat paradoxically, most rolls of film Dwayne’s develops come from younger customers. And the shop markets to them using social media.
“The vast majority of new film shooters are under twenty-five,” Derek Carter says. “To cater to that crowd, we have to both be able to have a lot of learning and cater from a social media standpoint or from a technological standpoint. It’s something that a lot of things like Instagram are actually a huge tool for us.”
Although scanning pictures to Instagram is a great way to spread the love of film photography, getting people to appreciate the value of print is another goal of Dwayne’s.
“We want to raise awareness about it because we bring a lot of people through who will say they are not that interested in print photos and then when we show them a thirty-by-forty that comes out of one of our processors, they’re blown away,” Derek Carter says. “They are like, ‘That looks really good.’ If we can just get that in front of enough people, I think there will be people who are still interested in that medium.”