‘Not enough to prevent change’: iPhone era forces closure of Howard Studios
by Daniel Walmer
Photographer Robert Howard can’t go grocery shopping without being recognized. It comes with the territory when you’ve spent decades taking school photos for four Lebanon County school districts and graduation and wedding portraits for thousands of community members.
But name recognition, years of formal training, and industry honors can’t save Howard Studios in the era of the iPhone.
“Here I’ve got all of this – walls full of certificates – and that’s not enough to prevent change,” he said.
Howard isn't ending his business: he will still be taking his camera equipment on the road for portrait sessions and other on-scene photography. But his colorful office in downtown Lebanon will be vacant beginning in February.
“You’re just not going to be walking into a pretty gallery,” he said. “This is the end of an era.”
A lost art
Howard’s photography has been a staple in Lebanon since the 1970s, when his pictures where published in the Lebanon Junior High Crier and the Lebanon High School Yearbook. From the beginning, he said, he naturally saw life in pictures.
“When I’m driving down the road…the windshield is my camera frame,” he said. “And I have to be careful that I don’t adjust the crop off the highway. But I can’t help seeing the world through a camera.”
After eye problems cost him an ROTC college scholarship to become a fighter pilot, he enrolled in photography school and soon started taking shots of models wearing jewelry for Kay Jewelers advertisements.
Since then, he has served stints as school photographer for Lebanon, Cornwall-Lebanon, Annville-Cleona and Elco school districts, covered 1,271 weddings, 190 proms, and 170 commencements, and performed 34,525 graduation portrait sessions, he said.
iPhone's impact on photography
But changes in technology have made the photography business more difficult, he said. First, he was dragged reluctantly into the digital era. Then, the iPhone arrived.
Howard, doesn’t have anything against iPhones – he even uses one himself to take photos on the beach – but in the era of Instagram filters, many younger people have lost an appreciation for quality photography, he said. That’s led to a corresponding drop in seniors ordering copies of their school photos, from about 60 percent decades ago to about 10 percent today.
There are still people who want professional-level photography, he said. But today, many people who hire him are paying for his either technical expertise – such as a wedding he shot in a planetarium with minimal light – or his ability to create a pleasant experience, for example by making a shy person comfortable with the camera.
That doesn’t result in enough clients to justify the overhead of a physical studio in downtown Lebanon – a fact he’s been fighting for several years.
“There has been a feeling of letting the community down,” he said. “I still have that in my heart today – that when I close this, I’ve failed the community.”
80 years of pictures
Howard traces the lineage of his studio back to J. Edward Gantz, who took photographs in Lebanon beginning in the 19th Century and opened his own studio in the 1930s. Howard doesn’t know where the first studio was, but Gantz later moved to the former Frantz Funeral Home at 922 Willow Street, where it remained under the ownership of Bill Uhler when Howard started working there in the 1980s.
The locale was more than a little bit unnerving: the studio was a bay where hearses had been kept, and the dark room in the basement used a former mortuary table, he said. They had a flame-fired furnace in the basement that looked like the one that burned Freddy Krueger in “Nightmare on Elm Street.” A tenant upstairs was a trapper who sold furs, and they would let him use part of the basement near the furnace to dry pelts – with the result that there would be blood and dead animal skins hanging on hooks.
“We used to scare the bejesus out of people, taking them down there,” Howard recalled.
Howard purchased the studio but not the building in 1992, relocating to the now-defunct mini-mall at 9th and Cumberland Street. It moved to the current location at 738 Cumberland Street in January 2005.
“I’m hoping people will not hold it against me that the chain of custody of the studio ended with me,” he said. “I just don’t know what I could have done differently to prevent that.”
He rents the studio, and it’s his understanding that the landlord will likely renovate the space before renting it, so it will likely remain vacant for some time.
Still, Howard isn’t closing up shop: people can reach him at (717) 272-4231 or email@example.com for senior portraits, baby pictures, headshots or other assignments. Because he can transport his equipment to locations, there shouldn’t be any drop in quality, he said.
“It’s a passion to be able to share what I see with others in a way that gives them joy. And if I can give them something more than joy, if I can cause them to rethink what they’re looking at – then I’ve used my gift, and I’ve given it to them,” he said.