Company that invented school photography is reinventing itself


Fourth generation leader works from Los Al and Philly after local acquisition

Sometimes working from his small office in Los Alamitos, using the same innovative traits employed by his great grandfather to establish the nation’s first school photography business, Wayne Barksdale has returned Barksdale Photography to national prominence.

In 1921, S. P. Barksdale was a young man in Philadelphia selling photos and ads door to door.

Working for a local magazine, he called on schools and other clients. Although photography itself had been invented in 1826, the technology was still somewhat primitive with the industry still in its infancy.

And for sure, the school photography industry was not yet being considered.

With the country’s population just over 100 million in the 1920’s, the need for more schools was evident as education became a national priority.  While “class pictures” did exist for a select few country schools, even those photos were always taken as groups, and then, only sporadically.

One day, while calling on schools, S.P. Barksdale had an epiphany. He would begin taking individual portraits of students, then share the photos and proceeds with the schools.

Barksdale founded Barksdale Photography in 1922. Quite ironically, that same year, Congress voted on legislation to begin the process of sending federal funding to schools. The public-school population was about to boom, and the Barksdale business would boom along with it.

S.P. Barksdale, according to company archives, realized that there were no cameras suitable for portrait photography, so he invented one. Building a wooden box with a small indention where a lens could be fitted onto it, he went into business as Barksdale Photography, the company that still today exists.

Barksdale then recruited a small army of photographers. He trained them and sent them on their way in their own cars along dirt roads to rural schools. Barksdale Photography began to grow quickly along with the nation’s burgeoning school population.

With the expansion of public schools, Barksdale Photography was universally recognized as the first school photography company in America. Four generations later, the company has experienced rough and tumble times following the founder’s death.

In recent years, however, under its fourth-generation leader, things have changed again. By using some of the same visionary ideas employed by his great grandfather, another Barksdale has rebuilt the company, having now established a west coast office in Los Alamitos.

Wayne Barksdale, S.P.’s great, great grandson, now runs the company from both offices, one in a Philly suburb and the other in Los Alamitos.

Under his fourth-generation leadership, Barksdale says the company has vastly changed, though its core business remains the same. School photography today is a $1.6 billion business and Barksdale Photograph is again a major competitor.

From the archives, capturing photos of a school administrator in the 1950’s.

Together, with his wife Susan Sheridan, who oversees the company’s sales operations, the couple now operates the business by splitting their time between the east and west coasts. They now own a home in southern California as well as on the east coast.

Ten years ago, said Barksdale, the company had a mere handful of clients in California. Even so, he and Susan would come to conventions of state school photographers here. There, on a fateful trip, they met Leslie Whitley, who had founded and operated the “Pictures with Class” school photography business.

“We liked Leslie very much and was very impressed with the business she built,” said Barksdale. “We asked Leslie if she was interested in selling her business. She said no.”

However, when Whitley’s family situation changed a few years later, she remembered Barksdale’s offer and, in a flash, Barksdale established a west coast office by acquiring Whitley’s “Pictures with Class” in 2008 when Leslie finally decided to sell.

That was obviously more than a decade ago, said Barksdale, and Whitley is still associated with their business, sometimes even calling on her former customers. “We enjoy a very good relationship,” he said.

While it is true that the technology has changed, the iconic act of sitting for the school photographer remains a staple in most of the approximately 200,000 schools across the country. Even in our fast paced, and increasingly isolated digital lives, maybe the most common memory among most anyone living today is taking a class picture while in school, says Sheridan.

“Perhaps loving or hating our school photos is our most commonly shared memory,” she quips. Ironically, says Susan, the industry began as a way for school administrators to keep better records as schools expanded across the nation and Barksdale made it personal.

To remain competitive, Barksdale Photography recently purchased a modern, digital printing complex near Philadelphia. Barksdale and Pictures with Class now have the capability of digitally printing their own photos, yearbooks and providing innovative, digitally produced products.

Los Alamitos High School is one of the area schools served by Pictures with Class, and Barksdale says the business in showing solid growth in California. “We try to leverage what we’re really good at,” says Barksdale, and having a printing press “allows us to offer “more value to schools.”

“Even as school photography has become a very competitive business,” says Barksdale, “we have managed consistent growth.”

Schoolchildren photographed in the 1940’s.

“Some of our competitive edge is the way we manufacture our products,” he noted, adding that Barksdale uniquely delivers their products in a customizable photo book, instead of an envelope with the various sized prints. This is only an example of Barksdale’s many innovations that include digital backgrounds, more parental options, etc.

Slowly, yet steadily, Barksdale’s great grandson has rebuilt the company and put it on a path to rank among the leading competitors in the school photography space. In addition to offering innovative products, Barksdale said the company is also growing by acquiring ideal “mom and pop” photography business that have a “book of business” of about 50 or more schools.

Barksdale, a telecommunications executive before his reentry into the family business, is quite comfortable with his own vision of the future. Under his leadership, the oldest school photography company has not only regained its innovative footing, it is now showing strong bi-coastal growth.

With the introduction of digital printing capabilities, Barksdale has perhaps become the digital reincarnation of the company founded by his great grandfather. Like S.P. Barksdale, Wayne stared into the lens of a digital generation and believed it was still “full of opportunity for the right people.”

While his great grandfather built his own camera to create an industry, Barksdale has built his own digital delivery system which is, in itself, slowly reinventing the company and creating a very promising photo of the future.

Author: deplorablesunite

I am a divorced father of two daughters. I am a proud Deplorable.

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