4:00 am, the Denver airport. Only the sectors of my brain necessary for basic function are active. Half of what remains is still asleep while the other half has mixed the same chemical cocktail that accompanies a hangover in retaliation for the early alarm. At least the early shift remembered to turn on the gas for my physical body so it could drag my inner zombie through security to my gate. The destination is Seattle but before the day is over I’d be back in Denver retracing my steps into the same bed I vaguely remember rising from that morning.
2022 had concluded with a complete upheaval of my business operations and the first six months 2023 were a stressful search for a solution. Change is naturally uncomfortable, about as uncomfortable as a neck straining nap on an airplane, but typically the results of change are ultimately for the better, while plane naps remain in question. As we taxied to the runway my clouded mind was praying my first business trip would prove that true again.
Sleep avoided me long enough for the headache to wear off and I found myself staring out the window of the plane as we approached our destination. I always enjoy the view from 30,000 feet and the brilliant spectacle of soaring through the sun-kissed clouds as it rises on a new day is particularly special. Then, piercing the joyous airscape, Mount Rainier poked through the clouds like a sea turtle coming up for air, welcoming us to Seattle. The awe of that snow capped peak, basking in the sun, surrounded by a sea of clouds was a sight I knew I could get used to seeing.
When I moved to Denver in 2014 it was to follow a girl that I was quite smitten for. She had landed a job there, triggering the move across the country and I gave chase, certain I could find work for myself when we arrived. Our connections to the area were minimal but a family friend that shot for National Geographic turned me onto a photo lab in town that would at least help us decorate our new digs. My first trip to pick up prints included an inquiry about job opportunities and I was hired a few weeks later.
I quickly realized this was no pedestrian print house as I spent the next seven and a half years helping make the sausage for some of the biggest photographers in the country. This place had a proud reputation for their fine art quality and they gave me a first hand education on the production process. Most of what they produced was done by hand and the attention to detail was remarkable as they ensured every piece that went out their doors was pristine. They custom made every order from beginning to end and their refusal to cut corners made their results unbeatable.
When I got serious about my photography they played an integral role in getting my career off the ground. Spoiled with their high end quality I didn’t even question where to get my work produced and their employee discount curbed the initial investment. My front row seat to every order that came through helped me decide on the optimal display methods for my work. I saw first hand how a single compromise in quality could affect the final product and decided my work, and my buyers, deserved only the best. So at the end of 2022, when they closed their doors, it felt like a truck had crashed through one of the fundamental pillars of my business.
I tried to fend off the mourning period when 2023 arrived but the heartbreak of my first and only lab leaving me in the cold made it hard to go shopping for a new one. My search started in Denver but I quickly found there wasn’t a name in town that could hold a candle to them. The red flags shot up quickly and I didn’t know if it was my high expectations or a secret hope that it was all a dream that caused me to write off every name in town. Eventually, I saw no choice but to extend my search to the national level.
My nationwide search offered promise but I kept secretly hoping I could go running back into my old lab’s arms and scrap the entire endeavor. Like a love sick teenager I kept praying for their name to come across my phone with an opportunity to reunite but every day that passed solidified the reality that it was time to move on. Eventually I found myself in talks with a handful of new labs around the country that met the quality standards I’d come to expect but a new hurdle forced me to hit pause.
Quality had been my primary concern but there was something else my previous lab offered that I’d neglected to consider, convenience. Prior to their closing, I could jump in my car and drive 20 minutes across town on my schedule to sign my prints and prior to July 2021 I just had to pop my head into printing to see if the ink was dry yet. If I wanted to continue this tradition of physically putting ink to picture, working with a lab in another time zone was definitely going to be an issue.
At this point you may be asking yourself, as some of the labs asked me and eventually I began to ask myself, do I need to hand sign my prints? The employees over at the Priority Pass lounge in the Seattle airport can give you that answer.
When I made my first fine art print at my former lab, they called me in to look at it before asking me if I wanted to sign it. My signature at the time was atrocious and the thought of inking that horrendous scribble onto that beautiful image made the decision easy but not definitive. We worked with some nationally renowned photographers and I saw their name on every print they sent through. Suddenly the mangled squiggle that represented my name felt like a right of passage and I ended up ruining that wonderful image with that tangled eyesore large and in charge with a fat, standard Sharpie nonetheless.
Soon after that first christening I refined my signature and began stamping it on every print that followed, passively presented in the bottom right corner but with a fine tipped pen these days. Each cursive inscription became my personal seal of approval with its application representing my inspection certification. Ultimately I decided that not only did I need to hand sign my prints but my unwillingness to skimp on quality meant I would be traveling to do so.
Every lab I was in talks with did offer alternatives that would save me some trouble. Digital signatures were one option and robotic signatures another, both practices we utilized at my former lab. Digital signatures are identical on every piece and I always felt they added a hint of mass production to the fine art finish and as neither option allowed me to inspect the print, I quickly turned my nose up at them and prepared to look into flights.
Eventually I found myself a good fit. A lab that could replicate the quality of my former, utilizing a lot of the same materials and processes. They took pride in their quality and had great attention to detail. They guaranteed a flawless piece while custom packing and shipping each one to ensure it arrives as such. They were patient and willing to work around my need to sign my prints. After sending me samples and tests and enduring a thorough line of questioning I started to wonder if this change would actually be for the better after all.
My answer came shortly after the wheels touched down in Seattle. I secured my rental car, grabbed breakfast, and felt the anticipation build as I pulled up to their building. The owner was there to greet me and give me a tour. He’d already sold me on the company over the phone and gone above and beyond any other lab during the recruiting process but meeting him on the ground floor of his company I could feel his passion for the industry and knew my work and my customers would be well served in Seattle.
When we entered the production warehouse, I felt a sudden desire to find a timeclock. It wasn’t the same as my previous workplace but it was familiar enough to make me miss the pride of producing a piece of fine art for a customer. Signing my prints, my confidence boiled over and by the time I got back to my car I wasn’t just sure of this new partnership in the Pacific Northwest but excited about it. After all, I had a few hours to kill before my flight home and just beyond the city limits were some moss covered mountains shrouded in fog. In my early morning stupor I’d remembered to grab my camera and we were about to go celebrate this new chapter of Justin Key Photography.