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Bell Photographers: 70 years of memories

With more than 70 years of experience in school photography, Utah-based Bell Photographers is a multi-generation family business providing provide quality volume photography services to more than 600 schools in Arizona, Alaska, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. The business was started by Lester Bell in Ogden, Utah.

“My grandpa, Lester Bell, started in the 50s,” says Mike Bell. “He was working at the time for the government, working on grinding lenses for the spy fleet. He was interested in photography and started working for a local portrait photographer in their lab.”

Lester Bell convinced the photographer to try a few schools, but the photographer decided her preferred portraiture. So Bell ventured out on his own.

“My grandpa had sold vacuum cleaners and the philosophy was, if you sold a vacuum cleaner, the customer doesn’t need another one for 30 years,” explained Mike Bell. “He knew the customer relationship didn’t do a lot of good going forward. He knew, however, in the school business, if you have a good relationship, you can use that to produce money.

“The philosophy was ‘I can make $100 on one couple and shoot a wedding or I can make $1 on a kid and shoot 100 kids. It's the same $100 but it gives you a lot more opportunity and a lot more protection if society changes. That was the start in school photography.”

In the early 1950s, Mike’s father, Arlen, came home from an LDS mission and started working with his father, which began his full-time school photography. In the beginning, Bell Photographers used full-70 Nord cameras, which they later modified as split 70.

“We started doing a product called double image,” says Mike Bell. “We had a flat built-in the box on the front of the camera and we could shoot double images; that became a big popular thing for us. We also did a lot of group pictures.”

Back then, Bell Photographers would build its own equipment, including making cameras and film backs. There were no mechanical printers back then. Arlen became a 50/50 partner in the business and, after working out of a basement for a few years, they built a small building with a studio on one side and a lab on top. Eventually, the business began growing and needed more specialized equipment. Among the first purchased pieces of equipment were Lucht Engineering Step One printers.

“Orren Lucht himself came out and installed it,” says Mike Bell.

Today, four of the five Bell brothers are involved in the business. Mike runs the production side, Steven handles finance, Nathan runs the photography department and Dave handles the print side. About 35 years ago, Bell Photographers bought a printing company and started with printing a few black and white yearbooks.

“That kind of changed our little market,” says Mike Bell. “We really went out after the market in the Utah area and started into southern Idaho about 30. Then, about 20 years ago, we went into Las Vegas and then into the Reno market and into the Phoenix market. And it just kind of evolved from there.”

Digital printing and more

Today, Bell Photographers is a full-scale digital printing powerhouse, with multiple HP Indigos and Heidelberg presses running 24 hours a day, six days a week.

One of the aspects of the business Bell likes is the enduring appeal of school photography.

“It doesn't matter what the economics are,” he said. “The world can get hard, and things can get tough but people still have babies who go to school.”

Mike Bell says the 140-person family-run operation is a “very tight ship” with no debt. The brothers have weekly meetings to discuss employment matters, expansion possibilities and equipment/production topics. Currently, the business is housed in four separate buildings and may be expanding.

“Our local building that we're in we built in 1986,” says Mike Bell. “Our production facility is about 9,000 square feet. At the time, it was great for chemicals and wet processing. We do have some silver halide, but everything else -- our big processors and printers -- has gone. We print everything in our print shop and we have another 10,000 square-foot facility that has our Heidelberg presses and digital presses. We run our sports out of another building and we run our photography out of another building.”

Bringing these operations together will reduce some overhead and improve internal order routing. The company also does commercial printing, so there will be benefits for that segment as well. This business is complementary to the school volume photography business because, in many cases, the schools become customers for commercial work, too. That has also spurred investment in apparel printing.

For Mike Bell, becoming an early supporter of SPOA was necessary to ensure the continued prosperity of the volume photography industry. Bell, who is active in SPAC, was also past PSPA president and was thus well aware of the value a strong industry association can provide.

“PSPA was a great organization,” says Mike Bell. “It helped guide the industry, with training and networking. SPOA's main goal is to help our industry be better. It’s filling the void to help the industry grow and to help the leaders of the industry establish best practices.

“We really want SPOA to lead the industry,” he adds. “Not just in legislative matters but also to establish standards in the yearbook industry, in the school photography industry, and in the software industry.”

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