There are a lot of anniversaries Vogue Photographic can commemorate: there’s the building at 565 Baker Street which has been its home since 1980. There’s the name, which dates to about 1936. And there’s the business, which traces its roots through two earlier photo studios to 1910.
But a celebration this Saturday will mark 60 years that Vogue has been in the Mayrhofer family. Sadly, patriarch Helmuth Mayrhofer won’t be there: he died in February, age 89, but leaves a significant body of work as well as insight into why he first picked up a camera.
“I never thought of becoming a professional photographer, not even an amateur, even though I grew up surrounded by relatives, friends and people in general who took pictures,” he recalled. His father used to photograph family outings and make prints in a makeshift darkroom.
During the Second World War, the Austrian-born Mayrhofer was drafted into the German army and wounded twice. Afterward, he helped pay for his education by teaching British troops stationed in Austria to ski. He came to Canada in 1951 and worked first as a logger around Prince George but was soon recruited to Rossland by the Red Mountain Ski Club.
In Trail, he found a job with Cominco in public relations but was told his English wasn’t polished enough. He recalled: “I thought then that expressing my thoughts with pictures would be the proper way to go and suddenly my attention was directed toward photography.”
Mayrhofer bought a 35 mm camera and enrolled in a correspondence course, which he quickly outpaced and began working as a freelance photographer. He also met wife Alice, who worked for Camera Craft Ltd. in Trail, and at her urging they bought Vogue Studio in Nelson in 1954 (see related story below).
“It was tough going at first, learning the rudimentary of photography as a business and at the same time earning a living for a growing family,” he said, “but eventually, with help of my spouse’s driving force and support, success was on the horizon.”
Helmuth and Alice had five children, including four boys who were all involved in the business at some point. For the first ten years, due to a non-competition clause with the Ramsays, they were strictly a portrait studio and unable to sell cameras. But they diversified as soon as they could.
Good times and bad
Helmuth and Alice were well-connected and respected within their industry. In the days of black and white photography, Alice was an award-winning hand-colourist, who taught others her techniques. As his skill and renown grew, Helmuth also won awards and was asked to judge provincial competitions. Both worked and studied with leading national and international photographers and belonged to several professional associations.
When colour film arrived, they took out a bank loan to become the first studio in the Kootenays with the equipment to process it. They were also the first in the area to process slide film (and the last as well).
“They did portraits, film processing, color processing and enlarging, custom framing, camera and film sales,” says son Michael, second youngest of their kids. “This diversification was key to their success and it still is today.”
Many other photo businesses in Nelson have come and gone over the last 60 years, notes daughter-in-law Gabi. “Some were due to retirements, others due to lack of business or not diversifying. They concentrated on one thing and would succeed for a year or two and then fade away.”
The Mayrhofers’ success came not only from enjoying good times but enduring hard times. In 1980, wanting a more accessible location, they bought their present Baker Street building, which had previously been a shoe store, pharmacy, and bakery.
Accountants and bankers advised them it was a good idea, but their timing was unfortunate, as it coincided with Nelson’s biggest economic downturn. “All of a sudden, things were tight,” Michael says. “But they just toughed it out and kept pushing on.”
At one point they considered leaving Nelson for a bigger centre, but opted to stay for the lifestyle. When they weren’t in the studio, Helmuth was instrumental in starting the Silver King ski hill and Alice was a key proponent of Nelson’s downtown heritage revitalization.
Michael, who started in the business when he was 12, took over upon his parents’ retirement in 1994 and runs it to this day with Gabi. They employ the equivalent of five full-time people, in contrast to the film days, when about a dozen were required to process all the film orders — in summer, it could be over 100 rolls per day. Before digital photography, Vogue also had the local processing contract for provincial government ministries and was the photo-finisher of choice for real estate agents.
But the digital revolution has meant once again adapting to changing times and technology. A few years ago, the business was renamed Vogue Photographic to reflect the fact it’s not just a portrait studio, but also does restoration, digital processing, and custom framing, among other things.
Michael followed in his parents’ footsteps as a trailblazer: over 30 years ago, he was among the first to shoot outdoor portraits. “I always broke with tradition and pushed out,” he says. “People thought I was crazy. We used to go to conventions and hear ‘You can’t do that!’”
When Helmuth retired at 70, he literally hung up his camera — but it only lasted a few years.
“I clung like so many others to the notion that digital photography, then still in the Stone Age, was nothing but a passing fad,” he said. It wasn’t until 2008 that he accepted the old way of processing photographs “had to surrender to the digital world.”
“Eventually I fully embraced the new technology yet never lost sight of the fact that a camera is merely an instrument, a tool to capture one’s vision and facilitate one’s desire of self-expression.”
Michael says neither he nor his father ever stopped learning nor being hungry for work.
Saturday’s celebration from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. will include hourly specials, anniversary cake, and refreshments, plus door prizes including a camera and Kootenay getaway.
A brief history of Vogue
Vogue Photographic’s ancestry stretches back to 1910, when Edward James Campbell established Campbell Studio (later Campbell’s Art Gallery) at 715 Baker Street in Nelson.
Some of his best known and most significant images were of the funeral of Doukhobor leader Peter (Lordly) Verigin in 1924. The following year he sold his studio to George A. Meeres, who remained at the same location but operated under his own name. Meeres moved to the Okanagan in 1936 and sold the business to Robert Nelson, who renamed it Vogue Studio. Not much is known about Nelson who, unlike his predecessors, doesn’t seem to have left much of a photographic legacy.
In 1942, he in turn sold to Bill and Isabelle Ramsay. The civic directory that year shows them operating at 652 Baker, but then there’s a three-year gap where the business isn’t listed.
“From 1943 to ’45, Bill was in the air force, posted at a station about 30 miles from London, Ont., and I moved down there too,” explains Isabelle, 95, who still lives in Nelson. “We stashed all our photographic equipment at 912 Kootenay Street. My mother and dad were were living there and had a couple of rooms in the house. It was quite big.”
When they returned to Nelson after the war, they re-established themselves at 416 Ward Street — later renumbered 460 Ward, where Eclectic Circus is today. They also started a second business in the same building, Ramsay’s Cameras, which fronted on Baker Street, next to Wait’s News. It was connected to the portrait studio by an interior staircase.
The Ramsays sold Vogue Studio to a man who only operated it for about a year before it reverted back to them. They then sold it to Helmuth and Alice Mayrhofer in 1954, whose family has had it ever since.