Grand Opening, first Solvang studio. June 14, 1973. THE PAST AND FUTURE OF THE BUSINESS
More than one person claims to be the first to dress subjects in period costumes and photograph them for a fee. In my experience, artist Jim Richmond of Elsah, Illinois, rightfully deserves the credit. In 1969, he attended a dinner party at my home and announced his intention to alter his usual summer activity of pastel portraiture on Cape Cod. This year he would recreate antique portraits of passersby and sell them to the subjects as conversation pieces. His idea was to create a portrait using instant Polaroid black and white film, so realistic that the subjects could believably present the photo as a picture of their own ancestors.
Jim had many ideas regarding lighting, posing, and presentation of the product. But he had no clue how to obtain costumes, accessories or props that would be needed. I rose to the occasion, converted some thrift store purchases into breakaway costumes and showed up with them on Main Street, Hyannis, MA, just as Jim set up his 4x5 view camera in an open-air booth bearing a sign "James Richmond, Old Time Photos". Thus he coined the generic name of the future industry.
At $6.95 per 4x5 photo in an embossed oval mat and a metal dime store frame, Jim managed to support himself throughout that eventful summer of the moon landing, Chappaquiddick, and Woodstock. But he frankly lost interest in the project after one summer and returned to his teaching and serious art endeavors. I went on to teach in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska for two years, then found myself in Santa Barbara, CA. with a husband, a baby, and a new mortgage.
My then husband, Dave Bloodgood and I revisited Jim's old time photo idea when we found ourselves in a cash crisis in 1973. Dave's photography student assets included a 4x5 view camera with Polaroid film holder and some excellent portraiture training from Brooks Institute of Photography. I went back to the thrift shops and the sewing machine with a few fresh ideas, and a week later we rolled over the mountain pass to Solvang, California, a Danish village, then the nearest tourist spot some 35 miles away.
In an open-air mall we set up Dave's camera under a tent devised from an old parachute and at $2.50 per picture in a cardboard mat, we recovered our entire $300 investment in the first weekend. Arriving for business the second weekend to begin making profit, we were greeted by a line of customers, some of whom had driven as far as 400 miles to get there! The patrons sat patiently on the grass and formed an audience of interested spectators as they waited their turn.
Cover of 2nd edition Handbook, 1976The old time photo business, slightly ahead of its time in 1969, had come into its own by 1973. Not only did customers flock to the studio, but would-be "old time photographers" from many towns and states arrived and hovered around to study the business operation and decide how to do it themselves. These people were not a problem except when they interrupted the business to ask questions. After answering the same questions over and over again, and politely asking these folks to stand back and let the business operate, we decided to write a list of answers to often-asked questions and hand it out.
Dave saw commercial promise in the hand-out and expanded it into a booklet. In the fall of 1974, we published "Prof. Bloodgood's Handbook" with subtitle, " Everything You Need to Know to Open Your Own Old Time Photo Business". We printed 500 copies of the 62-page handbook and sold 499 of them for $15 per copy, mostly through a single advertisement in the November issue of Petersen's Photographic magazine.
The remaining copy of the original Handbook was kept by Dave's mother after our divorce in 1981. A few months ago, thirty years after the original publication, I purchased on eBay, a copy of the 1976 second edition Prof. Bloodgood's Handbook for $85 against 8 other bids! That was when I realized that the industry I had helped found is now a piece of history itself, as well as a thriving part of the fabric of our wonderful and crazy modern culture...more