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'Last one standing wins': Portland-area photo shops in slow race to extinction

'Last one standing wins': Portland-area photo shops in slow race to extinction

PORTLAND — It's difficult to get around in Photo Market, the camera store at 945 Forest Ave.

The place isn't large, and what space there is is packed with boxes of photo and printer paper stacked near shelves full of camera bags and precariously perched tripods, with a quartet of digital imaging stations squeezed in between racks of camera accessories.

Customers wind their way through, careful not to snag anything with a trailing elbow or camera strap. There's too much inventory in the bursting store, says owner Peter Doe. From the looks of things, the imaging industry must be thriving.

But these days there are hardly any photo stores left.

When Maine Photo Express, another Forest Avenue photographic print shop, closed its doors for the last time on June 29, it left the city with just one store dedicated to the art.

In the entire greater Portland area, no more than four true photo stores are left, down from the perhaps dozens that freckled street corners a decade ago. Most traditional players in the photography market – from industry titans like Kodak to mom-and-pop camera dealers – have been pushed to the brink of survival, and often beyond. 

"Endless competitors have faded away, and yes that's helped us," Doe said. "But I wouldn't wish that on anybody, to lose their jobs."

"I prefer friendly competition," he said. "We can't carry everything."

For the few that remain – Photo Market, Hunt's Photo & Video in South Portland, and Inness Photo and Focused on You in Scarborough – diversification has been the key to survival.

The Internet era is awash with visual images, but the explosion of digital photography, home printers, and web-based photo browsers since 2000 has turned an industry that was producing images on emulsion-coated plates of glass little more than a century ago on its head almost overnight.

There are more photographers, including part-time self-described professionals who work from home, than ever before, Doe said. They buy more cameras than ever before, since digital technology becomes outmoded so quickly, and they snap more images than ever before.

Picture taking is up ten-fold from 10 years ago, said David Sproul, owner of Inness Photo, at 25 Plaza Drive in Scarborough. But printing, once the heart of the industry and a service that guaranteed multiple visits from customers to drop off and pick up, has dropped precipitously since then.

Sproul estimated that a single of his printing machines – the shop once processed three quarters of a million photos a year – could handle every print order in greater Portland, including those from drug stores and other low-price printers.

"We've had to adapt into a digital world," he said. "The raw product is not printing anymore."

Instead, Sproul, Doe, and other shop owners have branched out into new services, like printing images on posters, t-shirts and coffee mugs; transferring movie film into digital formats, and scanning old slides and negatives. They also take print orders online, allowing customers to upload images from home.

Where Photo Market was mainly a film store a decade ago, it has become one of the only independent camera retailers in northern New England, keeping business fresh by moving new models as they hit the shelves.

Doe said the industry isn't dying, despite the changes. "Maybe we work a little harder to make it ...," he said.

Sproul has a more dire outlook. He said he hopes to stay in business as long as he can pay his bills, but "the future for the photo finisher is bleak," doomed by disregard for the archival qualities of a true photographic print.

"The trend seems to be when the people who've been running the photo labs for the last 20 years get old enough to retire, they do," he said. "I feel that it's going to be the last one standing wins."

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.