Mary Fleenor (left) and Dana Drake are celebrating Panda Lab’s 30 years as a custom photo shop in lower Queen Anne. Photo by Eric Mandel
Mary Fleenor (left) and Dana Drake are celebrating Panda Lab’s 30 years as a custom photo shop in lower Queen Anne. Photo by Eric Mandel

There aren’t as many new black-and-white outtakes being pinned to the Panda Lab’s walls these days. But keep enough slightly imperfect photos and a history devoid of Technicolor develops.

“We’ve never been bored,” said Mary Fleenor, owner and co-founder of Panda Lab (533 Warren Ave. N.). “You see something new every single day you’re in business.”

The colorless outtakes covering the workroom walls tell just a portion of the evolving world that’s taken place inside Panda Lab for the last 30 years.

The custom photo lab opened in its current lower Queen Anne location, tucked in a crowded multi-room studio behind the Seattle Repertory Theatre in late February 1985.

While most aspects of the photography landscape have changed over the last few decades, Panda Lab has managed to mix the old with the new like few others in the Pacific Northwest. It’s what has kept the business alive and, apparently, relatively thriving.

“There’s not a lack of demand for these services. People just don’t know they exist anymore,” said Dana Drake, the original other half of Panda Lab. “Most every day someone comes in and says, ‘I’m so glad I’ve found you.’ And we’ve been here all along.”


Surviving past the ‘dinosaurs’

In the film-heavy ‘80s, Panda Lab filled the niche of custom black-and-white film development and printing among a number of Seattle’s well-established labs that included Ivey Seright, Argentum, Pro Lab and Pacific Color.

The custom labs were the first to disappear, followed by major labs that invested in high volume and new technology, collapsing under their own weight as the industry evolved. Meanwhile, Panda Lab stayed small and unambitious, focusing on labor-intensive work — quality over quantity.

“We’re the little mammals that were there when the dinosaurs died out,” Drake said.

As the prices on the higher-end equipment came down and the other photo shops shuttered, Panda Lab slowly expanded from the colorless world to full-service film and digital photo finishing. The current business model includes the old-fashioned techniques, color printing, digital image enhancement, E-6 and C-41 film processing, heirloom photo scanning and reproduction.

Drake and Fleenor credited their shop’s survival on a mixture of luck, location and talent.

“We grew and offered services they discontinued altogether,” Drake said. “We were just the right size — kind of a Goldilocks size.”

Before opening their own store, the pair worked for Bob Mullins, owner of MoonPhoto in Greenwood. The two stores still work together daily, with MoonPhoto, in its 40th year, sending most of its black-and-white film, color negatives and slides to get developed at Panda Lab. Both labs restore old photos and rely on a loyal customer base that insists on quality.

Mullins admits he didn’t expect both businesses would last this long, especially after the digital revolution in the early 2000s.

“I figured we would be around for a while, but 30 years is a long time,” he said.

A tour of the Panda Lab studio provides flashes of the old analog world: negatives hanging on clothespins, and enlargers still being used to scale pictures up or down.

And then, of course, there’s Fleenor and Drake themselves — believers in the magic and beauty of the art world to their core, a duo who can appreciate the unmatched quality of digital in low light but don’t believe a picture is truly a photo until it can be held in your hands.

“Each [film and digital photo] has its own strength, and together, it’s an amazing combination,” Drake said.


‘Visual vinyl’

Back in the darkroom days, film developers needed multiple attempts to achieve perfection, leaving the room filled with outtakes. Fortunately — or unfortunately depending on whom you ask — the computer has simplified that process.

Panda Lab’s hanging art ranges from a mugging Mohammad Ali to a shadowy John F. Kennedy prepping for TV time with Nixon. Much of the art, such as the candid moment of Hilary Clinton on her daughter’s wedding day, is original work from a photographer whose work came through the shop.

“We’ve put our signatures on the look of so many important images,” Drake said.

A portion of Panda Lab’s business comes from digitally archiving artwork — be it entire photo albums or paintings  — with a high-resolution copy camera.

Their small, high-capacity, black-and-white film processor is capable of processing 100 rolls of film per hour, but, ideally, that number is closer to 100 per day.

Panda Lab’s equipment and the space itself are not exactly spectacular, but the end product almost always is.

Katie McCullough Simmons, an independent Seattle-based photographer, said it’s Panda Lab’s quality and artistic perspective that make it a pillar of the photographic community. Simmons, whose customers include Hualalai Resort, Modern Luxury Magazine and People Magazine, said Drake “absolutely shaped my photography business…. They rescue photographers all the time.”

She keeps an ongoing dialogue with Drake about the quality of her work.

“As a private, independent business owner, you’re very isolated as a photographer or an artist,” she said. “Dana and Panda Lab provide this community for all these photographers.”

Simmons said dropping off a roll of film at Panda is like meeting Seattle’s network of photographers at the local coffee shop.

“It was a real meeting place for photographers,” she said. “The excitement of opening your envelope to look at the negs — all of that happened right at their front counter.”

Before the digital days, Fleenor and Drake said they sometimes processed 100 to 200 rolls of film per day, often from Fortune 500 companies and businesses such as Nordstrom, AT&T and Rolls Royce. But the days of film in commercial photography are pretty much gone, according to Drake.

In some cases, he said, careers rested in the film dropped into their artistic hands. He recalled a time when the entirety of research and results came into the store for a project with a $42 million budget.

“They all relied on us not having an accident and ruining the film,” Drake said.

Seemingly bound for obscurity, Drake said there has been resurgence in film interest for individuals, similar to that of vinyl.

“It’s visual vinyl,” he said.


A forgotten tradition

For years, Drake developed all the film, while Fleenor printed and put the prints together. The roles have changed slightly over the years, and transitions will continue, as Drake dropped his ownership stake in November to cut back on his hours.

Fleenor and her husband, Denny, recently signed a lease to stay in Queen Anne for at least another three years.

“I’m maintaining my enthusiasm,” Drake said. “Just not working as much.”

Not everybody who picks up a camera or finds an old photo in a desk needs Panda Lab’s services. Panda Lab can’t always compete dollar-for-dollar with online or drugstore services, but they believe in their quality and their niche offerings.

“We’re not for everybody,” Drake said. “Not every body needs the custom work.”

The last 10 years have been the photo industry’s most difficult, Drake said, though the last four have settled down.

Drake said they occasionally hear about the demise of other custom labs around the country, but he hopes film makes a comeback. In his mind, the bigger the scene, the more vibrant and better it is for everybody.

“It’s important to us to keep this tradition alive, this enthusiasm alive, because it’s being forgotten,” Drake said.

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