Updated: Feb 21
The century-old school photography business can trace its roots back to a conversation between an enterprising young salesman and a school superintendent.
Here's the story of how S.P. Barksdale saw an opportunity to help a friend, serve a customer, and launch an industry, all at the same time. In the early 1920’s, Barksdale was employed by the Wilson Magazine Co. as a photographer/salesperson. Through a personal connection, he knew the superintendent of the Philadelphia School District; the district was looking to add photos to student files.
“He contacted our great grandfather and asked him if he'd be interested in helping him take those pictures, but the district couldn't pay,” recalls Wayne Barksdale, owner of the multi-generational family business, Barksdale School Portraits. “He said, ‘If you'd give me the opportunity to sell them to the parents, I'd be more than glad to help. It started out with record-keeping photos.”
He gave parents the option to purchase the photographs ranging in cost from 10 cents for one to 50 cents for six photos.
Barksdale realized there were no suitable cameras for the nascent volume photography business, and invented his own. The "box camera" of the time was outfitted with a custom magazine holding a long roll of film, a lens, a flash of light, and a painted background.
In 1922, S.P. Barksdale launched his own portrait company in Philadelphia, Pa.
Wayne Barksdale says company records of that time period are sparse, so it’s unclear exactly what the photo packages entailed.
The Barksdale family has continued to own the studio founded by their great-grandfather. After a two-decade career in telecom, Wayne returned to the company in 2001. His siblings are also involved in the business.
Barksdale says having a perspective outside the business for a time can be valuable.
“I worked for Bell Atlantic for almost 20 years,” he says. “It's a good prerequisite; it gives you something to bring back to the business. You rarely see businesses take it to the third or to the fourth generation. Less than 3% of the companies in America make it to the fourth generation."
When Wayne Barksdale came to the company in 2001, the business had become static, focusing primarily on school portraits. “When I got here, the business probably had 110 schools, whereas we have a couple of thousand now. At that time, the industry started to change. It would put us all on the same playing field where the film was going away and digital presses started to come out.”
In the 2003-04 time frame, Barksdale School Portraits was an early adopter of digital printing. Wayne Barksdale says the company had to adapt quickly as digital printing processes - both silver-halide and inkjet - changed the competitive landscape.
“When the digital presses came out … everything became software-driven,” he said. In the days of analog, large-scale volume photography companies had advantages from building their own printing processes, workflows, and cameras. Barksdale saw the digital revolution as an opportunity.
Barksdale School Portraits also began doing more marketing, by attending conferences and trade shows for principals, PTOs, and PTAs. Districts were making photographer selections at the district-level, so the company had to offer a district-wide solution, which included yearbooks.
Initially, Barksdale invested in a digital press to produce yearbooks.
“What we were looking for at Barksdale was to be a one-stop shop for the school,” said Barksdale, including elementary, middle school, high school senior portraits, yearbook, and other printed materials. This helped establish the company as a year-round business, as well.
By 2007-09, the company was in a position to look at acquisitions, as the time was right. Some business owners were at an age where looking to sell was attractive, said Barksdale, while others were resisting the technology and business changes underway. He plans to continue to grow the company through acquisitions.
“The disruption in the industry has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he explains. “I don't think there's been a disruption in the industry like this for 50 years. There's been a disruption in technology but that technology didn't necessarily lead to more business. The disruption is in the sales opportunity.
“The independent school photographer has an opportunity now to do great things if they're interested in doing it,” says Barksdale.