Studio portraits fade as technology advances

108-year-old Vancouver studio shuts down as industry struggles with rise of amateurs

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

Published:

 

The Ride and Fall of Bruno's

Bruno Portrait Studios started in 1905 as a small Portland art studio and expanded that same year into Vancouver. The original owner's son, Thaddeus Bruno, oversaw the company as it became a regional powerhouse, with as many as 17 locations popping up from Washington to California. In 1975, the businesses were individually sold.

Charles Winningham and Gene Lorenz ran the Vancouver studio after the Bruno family bowed out in the mid-20th century and made a point to invest in state-of-the-art technology, including buying the first commercially available digital camera model. Thanks in part to contracts with school districts to take student photos, the Vancouver Bruno's went from $100,000 in sales in 1975 to about $750,000 by the end of the 1980s, Winningham said in 1989. He died in 1997. Lorenz, who students called "Mr. Bruno," died July 10.

Generations passed in front of the company's cameras. So did Aaron Peachey, a Hudson's Bay High School graduate who fondly recalls being photographed by Lorenz in 1999 for senior portraits.

Aaron and wife Melodie thought they could reinvigorate Bruno's, which from 2000 to 2012 was run by Bridget Crocker out of her Orchards home. The Peacheys bought the business and opened a storefront at 1333 Washington St., believing the company's legacy would carry them forward.

But memories, even cherished ones, weren't enough to keep Bruno's alive. Not in a market made much more competitive with a proliferation of amateurs that Aaron believes have devalued the trade.

— Stover E. Harger III

In the end it seems nothing, not even a desperate campaign to "Save Bruno Portrait Studios," could stop the downward spiral of the once-thriving 108-year-old business.

The Vancouver institution, once part of a regional chain, recently closed its doors, yet another casualty in an industry struggling with a tectonic shift as the digital era rockets forward.

A picture might indeed be worth a thousand words, but the worth of photography seems to be plummeting.

"The value of our services in the consumers' eyes has gone down dramatically," said 32-year-old Aaron Peachey, who purchased Bruno's last year with wife Melodie and business partner Geoff Smith. The married couple were the only employees. "People have turned to doing a lot more photography on their own."

The price of professional-grade cameras dropped drastically as technology evolved, while the advent of high-resolution smartphone cameras has provided millions with the ability to snap shots on a whim.

Now that novices are finding cheaper and simpler ways to jump into the trade — gladly providing their modest abilities for free, or at a discount, to friends and family — many professional photographers are finding it harder to sell their talents.

Just to keep their heads above water, Aaron said his studio would have had to book around 15 photo shoots a week at about $250 a pop. Last year, a flurry of senior portraits gave him hope.

But by December, traditionally a busy time for studios as families gather in their Sunday best for holiday portraits, Bruno's was only scheduling a handful of shoots a month.

"We did all of about 10 sessions for the holidays, which just crushed us," said Aaron, who now lives in Arizona with his wife.

To subsidize the studio, Aaron took on another job as a manager for CPI Corp., which ran portrait studios in thousands of stores, including Sears' and Walmarts. CPI abruptly shut down in April and filed for bankruptcy, putting Aaron out of work and giving him little choice but to close Bruno's.

"I had to open my eyes and see the same exact thing was happening at my studio," he said.

An online campaign asking locals to donate to keep the doors open fell flat, bringing in a lone $75 gift from a friend.

Now that the Vancouver Bruno's is gone, only one location with the historical name remains — Bruno Photography in Tacoma. And they too are wavering.

Purchased by Rick and Debora Anderson in 1985, the studio used to take 300 senior portraits a year. Last year, they booked only 37 sessions.

"Everyone who owns an iPhone thinks they're a photographer," Debora said.

Dropping demand

A burden for photo businesses might be beneficial for others.

These days, consumers have greater options than ever before to save money by avoiding the need to book a professional photo shoot, especially if they're only looking for a passport picture or a simple portrait for a Christmas card.

It shouldn't be shocking that some struggling families would opt to have their child's senior portrait taken for free by a friend, rather than pay $300 or more to a professional. On the other hand, pros attest that you get what you pay for.

It's one thing to buy a digital camera, set it to automatic mode and start snapping shots, Aaron said. It's another to be a "photographer," he said, someone with years of technical training and an artistic eye. He has taken to derisively calling these amateurs "faux-tographers."

"They are skipping the steps of actually learning photography and really just taking photos," he said. "There's a difference there. And it shows."

But do penny-pinchers really care about, or notice, the differences between a photo taken with a $500 camera on automatic mode or one by an expert with thousands of dollars in equipment?

Colby Mesick, 18, knows there's a demand for inexpensive photography. The Skyview High School graduate is pitching himself to students who want senior portraits, but don't want to pay much. Last fall, three friends took the novice up on the offer, paying $10 each. This year, he's hoping to get closer to $100 for his time, which is still at least half of what most professionals would charge. He hasn't scheduled any sessions in 2013 yet, but he is hopeful after hearing positive responses to his portfolio.

There was some trial and error, but he heard no complaints.

"They were surprised," Mesick said. "They thought it was going to be poor quality, but they were really happy."

Industry declines

In 2007, the year the iPhone first hit shelves, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 15,597 photo businesses in the country, which includes portrait studios, wedding photographers and their ilk. By 2011, there were 13,878.

Clark County saw a starker decline. In 2007 ,there were 19 such companies in the county with 97 employees. But in 2011, there were 15 businesses with 60 on staff. Annual payroll fell from more than $1.06 million in 2007, to $567,000 in 2011, the latest year numbers were available.

To keep her more than 25-year-old business afloat, photographer Kathy Brock has invested in herself, learning advanced techniques and acquiring props to set herself apart from the flood of ever-improving amateurs. "For a lot of people, they just want to get that photo done. For me I want to have people go, 'Holy cow, that's a great shot.'"

For the last 10 years, she's kept costs down by moving her operation to the basement of her sister's beauty salon. When she's not taking portraits, the licensed esthetician helps clients with skin care at the Vancouver day spa.

"I don't think I could survive having a portrait studio only," she said. "You have to innovate. You have to become resourceful."

Easier to get pictures

It costs only a few hundred dollars to buy an advanced digital camera with a removable lens. The number of these higher-end cameras being manufactured rose from 9.8 million in 2008 to 21 million in 2012, the Camera and Imaging Products Association reported.

Consumer-level DSLRs, digital single-lens reflex cameras, might not have the fancy features of pro models, but still hold the power to take fantastic photographs. But that's only if the shooter puts in the time to learn the camera's potential.

Students in Garry Stasiuk's photography classes at Clark College used to show up with point-and-shoot cameras, but are now almost entirely DSLR users. Now he's seeing some students become "as good and as knowledgeable as the professional."

"The bottom line is that it's easier to get good pictures than in the past," he said.

Stover E. Harger III: 360-735-4530; http://twitter.com/col_hoods;stover.harger@columbian.com