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Scott Henry, owner of the Old Time Portrait Studio, is completing his 38th year as an Old Time Portrait Photographer – photographing 1883 since 1983. You can take a step back in time to the era of …bad men and bargirls, gangsters and gun molls, Winchesters and whiskey bottles, top hats and crinolines, soldiers and southern belles. He has opened Old Time Portrait studios in Lake Tahoe, CA and Fish Creek, WI and continues to operate studios at major state fairs around the county. What started as a part time job in a darkroom one summer has grown into ownership of the largest mobile Old Time Photo studio in the country.
For Scott, a career in Old Time Photos began the summer of 1980, two years after graduating from high school in the small town of Onalaska, Wisconsin and during his second year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. A full-time job as a motel desk clerk was not making him enough summer income: he needed a second job. His brother worked in Wisconsin Dells and told him about a job opening at a local photography studio. Even though it was well into the summer season, Scott was able to get an interview with owner, Dave Jahnke, of Bennett Tintypes. He was offered a job in the studio’s darkroom.
"I actually worked in the same building H.H. Bennett used from 1875 until he passed away in 1908," Scott recalls. Mr. Bennett was very famous for his views of the scenic Dells area and the studio remained in his family after his death. The studio was a museum for many years, before being turned into a State Historic Landmark, and is well known today for having the only working Victorian era darkroom in the world. "Back when I worked there, the Old Time Photo studio sat in what is now the recreated studio space."
Scott grew to like Old Time Photography and soon moved out of the darkroom: the second summer he became the studio’s manager and by the end of the third he became its general manager.
After his third summer season at the Bennett studio ended, Scott decided he wanted to start his own studio. With equipment he rented from his boss, Scott was able to set up a temporary studio in a shopping mall during the Christmas season in Madison, Wisconsin. "I set up in the center of a large discount store," Scott recalls, "right between the ladies lingerie and the sporting goods! I was only able to be open on weekends and evenings because I was still in graduate school at the time and I would have had to hire help for the days, which I could not afford to do." In 1983, Scott graduated, receiving a MBA degree. Dave Jahnke, his boss at the Bennett studio (and a good friend by now), suggested he travel and take Old Time Photos at special events. Accordingly, Scott sent out letters and applications, and one of those that were answered was from the Iowa State Fair— which also sent a contract. The life of a traveling Old Time Photographer beckoned.
The booth spaces he was offered were located in a stockade-like building called International Place, a small attraction near the center of the large Des Moines fairgrounds. He took portraits by shooting a Polaroid proof in a view camera and enlarging the small print onto Agfa copy proof materials and processing the prints in the darkroom while his customers waited.
"I didn’t have much of a studio," Scott recalls. "But I was sure busy!" The Iowa State Fair, the largest family oriented agricultural fair in the country, is considered a ‘rite of summer’ by many Iowa families (many come for the full eleven days of the fair). For his second season, Scott purchased a twelve year-old school bus to carry the studio and house his help. When he traveled, he loaded the bus with the studio. That second season, Scott got into the Tulsa State Fair in Oklahoma: his second state fair.
1985 was the last year Scott would work for Dave Jahnke in the Dells. That same year, a relative of Dave’s hired Scott to train people for a studio he was opening at Lake Tahoe, on the California-Nevada line. Little did Scott know, as he trained these people, that two years later he would buy this studio and have his first permanent studio
Colonel Frank M. Colby’s Old Time Portraits was situated in what used to be a carport, next to a t-shirt shop on the side of the busy highway one block from the State Line Casinos. Outside, he parked his attention-getting 1901 Olds replica. His short lease ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when the space reverted to a ski shop.
For the next five years, he operated the Tahoe studio and the summer fair circuit at the same time. From 1985 to 1988, he would travel to several small county fairs throughout the summer in Massachusetts, Indiana and Wisconsin, and the Tahoe studio would be run by a manager. He continued doing the Iowa and Tulsa State Fairs and added the Florida State Fair in Tampa. This gave him three big fairs to anchor the traveling studio’s season, while still maintaining the seasonal studio in Tahoe and a temporary studio in a mall at Christmas.
By 1990, Scott had tired of the Tahoe studio. The long commutes, the short season and the limited income from the studio had him looking around for another, closer location. While at Fox River Mall in Appleton, Wisconsin, where he had set up for the Christmas season, he heard of Fish Creek, a small picturesque tourist town in Door County Here, among the fruit orchards and rugged lakeside towns, Fish Creek was a popular tourist destination. "I drove up there to check it out in the dead of winter," Scott recalls, "and I found an empty, locked up town- but I was able to secure a 20 x 30 foot studio space in the end store of a small newly built three-store complex in town."
Since the space was new, the owner allowed Scott to modify the shop to his needs-and he took advantage of the freedom. Out in front of the "Professor H.H. Scott’s" studio, he parked a 1930 Model A Ford Roadster beside an old restored gas pump for a gangster set. On either side of the double front doors, he hung huge enlarged Old Time Portraits in elaborate frames. A dress form displayed a dress, the windows were filled with sample portraits, and potential customers could view people as they posed. Inside the lobby, several low counters, covered with matted and framed samples, separated the lobby from the studio posing area. Hats were arranged on long boards above the costumes, which spanned the entire far wall of the studio. An old bathtub on casters sat under the costumes, ready to be used. A single painted canvas backdrop, framed by curtains, was placed on the back wall.
By 1991, Scott now owned two permanent, very seasonal, studios thousands of miles apart, as well as a traveling studio operation that traveled thousands of more miles. With three studios operating at the same time, Scott found himself racing back and forth to deal with the constant problems of each studio. Eventually, something had to be done: the Tahoe studio was sold in 1993 to his manager." In 2000, he also sold the Fish Creek studio to concentrate more on the mobile old time portrait studio.
In 1985, the Iowa State Fair demolished International Place, forcing Scott to buy a tent to put the studio into. For the next three seasons, his studio’s new home was a yellow and white striped enclosure measuring twenty feet square with nine- foot sidewalls. 1985 also saw Scott using a 16-foot cargo trailer, which he parked at the back of the tent and divided into a darkroom and storage area. "We processed our prints in a five foot by six foot section at the front of the trailer," he says.
Scott spent a great deal of time thinking of ways to improve his traveling operation. He decided the biggest improvement he could make was to find a trailer for his traveling studio to operate out of, not be stored in. "Nothing was set up to suit Old Time Photography," he recalls. "The ceilings were too low, the depth too narrow or they sat too high off the ground. So I listed my needs and designed a trailer to fit those needs." The trailer would have to fold, drop, swing and slide from an eight by twenty-one foot traveling unit into a twenty by twenty foot marvel of trailer making. It would need running water, air conditioning, fans and lights galore. It had to have changing rooms, a darkroom and ten-foot high ceilings inside. The body would fold out into a large stage area that would be protected from the elements and able to be lowered close to the ground. Of course, all of this would have to travel safely and yet be easy to setup and teardown.
Building such a trailer would not be easy. Scott found a company in Tampa, Florida willing to attempt to build his unusual design. Scott took delivery of his extraordinary trailer in 1988.
When the trailer was built, Scott was using Agfa copy proof materials. Today, the darkroom is no longer needed and serves as an office and air-conditioned break room. In the center of the trailer stage, separating the posing area from the costuming area, sits a large cabinet housing the electronic computer equipment for the digital studio Scott purchased in 2000. The Ashley’s Nostalgia digital studio system uses a digital camera and computer software to produce Old Time portraits in sepia-tone, antique color or modern colors. Customers can preview the images immediately, orders taken, and then the prints made while the customer changes back to their street clothes. The prints are made using a four DNP roll dye-sublimation printers in about fifty-five seconds. At the sales area, all portraits are shown in custom oak 11 x 14 inch frames Scott has manufactured for him.
In 1996, Scott got into the Minnesota State Fair, held during the eleven days before Labor Day-his largest fair. Unfortunately, it starts just three days after the Iowa State Fair ends, making for a very quick move. The large Minnesota State Fairgrounds are situated between the two biggest cities in Minnesota. The studio is located near The West End Marketplace: a collection of historical buildings and nostalgic venues in one corner of the fairgrounds.
Today, Old Time Portraits travels to four large fairs: the Iowa State Fair, the Minnesota State Fair, the Eastern States Exposition and the Miami-Dade County Youth Fair in Miami, Florida. Scott also continues to set up a temporary studio at a shopping mall for the Christmas season, as he has every year, but three, since 1982. Twelve of those years have been at the Fox River Mall in Appleton WI. Since 2001, Scott’s customers have been able to place orders for extra prints, posters and frames at www.mobileoldtimeportraits.com or www.extracopies.com.
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