More than photos developed at Picture-Pac

J. H. Osborne • Jun 26, 2020 at 12:00 PM





That’s a “joke,” or, I suppose, a riddle or word game. If you haven’t heard it and don’t know the “correct” reading, I’ll get to that later.

MR DUCKS makes me think of Picture-Pac, the kiosk on the second level of the Fort Henry Mall. At least that’s what it was called when the mall opened in March 1976. Affiliated with Kelly & Green from the get-go, I think the Picture-Pac Photo Center “brand” later gave way to the parent company’s name. I can’t say for sure. It will always be Picture-Pac in my memory.

The Kingsport location was Picture-Pac’s fourth, not counting Kelly & Green’s headquarters in Bristol, Virginia. The other locations were: Johnson City; Asheville, North Carolina; and Spartanburg, South Carolina. By early 1977 advertisements for Fort Henry Mall boasted it was home to 69 stores, making it the “largest regional mall within 100 miles.” 

Following in my father’s footsteps, I became a shutterbug at an early age. By high school I had a 35mm SLR (Olympus OM-10 with a manual adapter, and flash attachment) and carried it about everywhere I went. I ran through 36-exposure rolls of Kodak Tri-X B&W film like they were a dime a dozen. Oh, I shot color, too. But I preferred black and white. And I wanted my film developed and printed as quickly as possible. No more waiting what seemed like an eternity (in reality, probably three to five days) to get a batch of pictures back after dropping them off at the drugstore (whoever answered the phones and checked to see if your picture order was in at Treasury Drug in the Kingsport Mall or at Revco on Sullivan Street — twixt Giant and Charnita’s Beauty Shop — back in the 1970s, I apologize profusely for calling so often to check on mine). Picture-Pac offered two-day turnaround time on processing your film.

When Picture-Pac opened, it became my go-to for film, developing, and advice. The latter wasn’t always about photography. Picture-Pac in the brand new mall made me feel downright cosmopolitan ... I was no longer jealous of characters on TV or in movies who took their Fotomats for granted. 

If memory serves me well, Mary Swann was manager of Picture-Pac when I first became a customer and hanger-abouter. Another employee was Sue Smile. Later, sisters Terry and Gail Wilkinson worked at Picture-Pac. And Janice Goode became manager. It was Janice who one day greeted me by sliding a piece of paper across the counter with the MR DUCKS mind-teaser written out, grinning and asking “What does this mean, do you think? Can you read it?”

I took a couple of stabs before she explained how to read it. Some other hanger-arounder had just shown it to Janice. There were a lot of hanger-arounders, there to gab as much as to pick up film or photos. There were serious no-nonsense customers as well. I don’t remember any of them. One of the biggest compliments a customer could receive, an honor really, was to have one of your photos chosen for printing and display, in 8” x 10” format, in a frame/case along the side of the kiosk. I remember making the cut at least twice, but don’t have any idea now what pictures of mine were chosen.

Some special perqs of having your film processed at Picture-Pac included free plastic album pages (three eight-slot pages for a 24-exposure roll, four for a 36-exposure roll), your negatives returned in an easy to index envelope, your “borderless, textured” pictures in a plastic box or cardboard sleeve, and a coupon system that I can’t remember the details of, but I think you could either redeem a certain number of them for a plastic box in which to organize your negatives, or an album to hold all those free pages. I have all those things.

By the mid-1980s Christine (“Chris”) Johnson and Kathryn Ford were working at the kiosk, which was located in the mall hallway between Spencer’s and White’s Men’s Wear, and Chris ultimately became manager. Chris and Kathryn each became great friends of mine and of each other’s. And it all stemmed from using a camera that required film, which had to be sent for development, and making conversation about how your pictures turned out.

Chris, a musician and artist at heart and a native of Buffalo, New York, stayed here a few years. She’s come back to visit a time or two. The last time she was here she came by the house and spent and evening talking with Mom and me. For the past nearly two decades I’ve regularly traveled nearby her current home as some of my best friends live less than 10 miles from her. Meeting up for breakfast has become somewhat of a routine for us. And no matter how much time has passed, each time we meet it’s like no time has passed at all. We just immediately pick up the conversation as if we’d seen each other the day before.

A few months ago, I asked Chris if she could help me fill in the gaps of who worked at Picture-Pac/Kelly & Green in the mall and which of them overlapped. I also asked about the names of other hanger-arounders (there were quite a few of us). She helped some. I asked her if she had any particular memories of her time working there.

“I remember people going through their pictures and showing them to me and a lot of them wanted to talk about them,” Chris said. “Even pictures of funerals. That's one thing that set that area of the country apart from other places I had lived — where everybody was rushing around wanting to be waited on quickly and didn't take the time to talk. It was a new concept for me to experience.”

Today, of course, all one has to do is post their photos (digital, of course, no film required) on social media to “engage” with others, friend or stranger, depending on one’s privacy settings. I don’t find it nearly as satisfying as passing around a fresh batch of prints, just back from the processor. I miss the anticipation of waiting to see if you got that shot or not.

As I promised, here’s the resolution to MR DUCKS: (THE)M (A)R(E DUCKS. NO (The)M (A)R(E) NOT. O(H) (YE)S (THE)M (A)R(E), SEE (THE)M P(EEI)N(G)? (WEL)L I B(E) (THE)M (A)R(E) DUCKS!.



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