CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's a sign of the times that no full-service photo store remains in West Virginia's capital city, but there used to be two: Merrill's and S. Spencer Moore Co.
For young wannabe photographer Patrick Dodd, working in photography was a dream job, except for one other contender in town.
"I had two dream jobs," Dodd, now 50, recalled. "One was to work at Budget Tapes and Records. The other was to work at S. Spence Moore."
At age 19, he got his second wish. His dad helped him land a Christmas season job at Moore's, which along with offering books, office supplies and other items, sold cameras and photo supplies with a developing lab located elsewhere in town.
Dodd worked there several years. It was the start of a career that would start with swirling darkroom chemicals and continues to this day with digital photographic products hard to imagine when Dodd was a teen.
This September, Dodd's company, www.photoproduction.com/">Photographic Production Services, marked 25 years in business. The company's quarter-century run has seen the photography world turned upside down and inside out.
After Moore's, Dodd worked for photographer Gary Simmons, who needed an extra hand in the darkroom. Then, he decided to branch out on his own, settling into a darkroom in a studio in photographer Steve Payne's basement.
"I was able to move into his basement and started the business there with really no capital investment," said Dodd. "I did his work for basically half-price, used his equipment and took in work from other photographers."
He remembers the day he began: Sept. 21, 1987. "I think I spent a week training with Peggy, his assistant. I stayed there for five years in Steve Payne's basement."
He had veered from his original notion of becoming a full-time photographer as his darkroom and technical skills advanced.
"I was doing developing. I didn't do any photography. There were a lot of photographers in the area. Basically, there wasn't anyone doing black-and-white printing, which was my specialty at the time."
He gradually replaced Payne's equipment with his own. He had settled on a career direction as he added slide processing to his photo development mojo. "I already knew my talent was in the darkroom and not behind the camera," said Dodd.
He became a go-to guy for commercial photographers and local institutions, among them Rick Lee, Charles Ryan and Associates, the Arnold Agency, CAMC, Columbia Gas and others.
In 1992, he decided it was time to come up from the basement. He partnered with Tom Scudder and moved to North Central Avenue on the West Side.
"We bought some more advanced processing equipment. We expanded the square footage and had a store front, so people knew where we were instead of having a basement door."
He bought out his partner in 1999, at a time when the company had found enough business so that it had five employees. By then, the first waves of change had begun to lap against the doors of darkrooms and photo stores everywhere.
"Digital printing was just coming along. Digital cameras weren't big yet, but wide-format inkjet printing was the new thing," said Dodd.
He bought just such a printer in 1996, he said. "We got into that really early and actually did well with it."
It was good timing because, as Dodd puts it, "2000 is the year when the world went digital, if you will."
Timing was everything as the digital revolution developed steam. The Fuji Frontier digital photo printer was an expensive buy -- the lease on the equipment was something like $40,000 a year, he recalled.
"The Fuji Frontier basically changed the industry. It was a huge purchase. If I had been a year too early and bought into optical equipment, the story could have been different."
It helped that he had just remarried and his wife, Beth Forester, was a photographer (they met while he was developing her black-and-white photos). But she had to send her color work to out-of-state labs -- at an annual cost of about $40,000.
Were Dodd to buy one of the new Fuji printers, he could take on Forester's color business --and thus afford the machine.
"It was one of those things," said Dodd, recalling the conversation with Forester. "'I can afford it if I can do your work.' And because I have this machine, I can do work for every photographer in the state. I was able to swing the deal barely."
The Fuji printer remains a workhorse to this day, he said. "It's my biggest moneymaker."
To print even wider prints -- the Fuji's widest output is 10 inches -- he bought a wider format digital printer in 2001. He was positioning himself to ride the changes afoot.
"By 2001-2002, when photographers were starting to switch to digital, everyone was struggling with color management and camera settings. One way I was able to set myself apart is because I was small and able to have a little more one-on-one relationship with people. So, I could help them with that transition."
Meanwhile, his wife decided to buy one of the early model digital cameras and "get her feet wet," Dodd said. "I got to see her photographer's end and she got to see the lab guy's end. We were able to work out a lot of those kinks over dinner."
He relocated the company in 2004 to its present location in South Charleston's Mound District. The phrase used to describe the business in a press release announcing its 25th year is a little different than when it began: " A technologically advanced boutique printing and finishing shop."
For a measure of the complete transformation of the photo industry, three years ago "we stopped doing any film processing period," said Dodd. "I'm all digital."
Of course, the ability to email photos and burn massive numbers of them to DVD has also led to a decline in conventional printing, as the digital wave rolls on.
"A lot of photographers don't even sell prints. They sell a DVD of files to clients and leave it up to the customers to pick a lab. That's really hurt us a lot."
That means, his company has had to look to other types of image reproduction and other kinds of printing.
"We print on metal now. We print on fabric and ceramic," Dodd said. "Some of those areas are things I said I'd never get into. But I just try to turn around and look at is a new opportunity."
What comes next? It's a question Dodd has been wrestling with for years.
"I was having this conversation over the weekend with my wife. As a photographer, she's worried about the whole business. I don't think anyone has a crystal ball. We can't see the final outcome of what the industry is going to be."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.