THE PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF CANADA

The Old Time Photo Studios - April 18, 2007

Gerry Loban

Loban by Loban c1975

Gerry gave his first talk to the PHSC in late 1978/early 1979 on his favourite topic - portraiture. Now retired, he has enjoyed a varied career including a stint operating a portrait studio business in London, and engineering upgrades to Canada Post mail processing facilities. Like many recent speakers, Gerry chose to use a digital PowerPoint presentation rather than the now old-fashioned Kodachrome slide show. 

Gerry told us he first saw a reference to "Old Time Photo" studios in the early 1960s. A Canadian Photographic magazine mentioned the studio (possibly at the Calgary Stampede). A few years later in the mid 1970s celebration of the American bicentennial sparked more interest in old images and "Old Time Photo" studios quickly spread throughout North America.

Loban by Loban c1975

Loban portraits in the old style c1975 Beautiful Loban portrait in the spirit of the Victorian era c1860s cabinet card portrait c1860s cabinet card portrait character studies in the old style fake Hollywood style fake Hollywood style
Loban portraits c1975
Typical Victorian portraits of the late 1800s Examples of "Old Time Photos" of the character and Hollywood movie style.
Images by Loban showing the old time photo style

The studios began by offering portraits mimicking the Victorian cabinet card portraits found in  the antique shops and flea markets of the days before images were recognized as valuable artefacts. 19th century style costumes and backdrops coupled with soft lighting gave the old daylight studio look. Subjects were encouraged to adopt stiff poses and even stiffer expressions. To complete the look, the photographs were sepia toned and placed in an ornate folder. As time went by, many of the studios offered character and Hollywood scene photos that kept the old look but stepped outside the Victorian portrait boundaries. 

 In the early 1970s, David Bloodgood of Santa Barbara CA, operated an "Old Time Photo" studio which was so popular he decided sell the concept with an instant studio package consisting of camera, processing system, costumes, handbook, and hands-on training. It was an expensive undertaking for the entrepreneur. The key to success with a studio was speed - how quickly the average customer was registered, costumed, photographed, and shown the way out with her portrait photo in hand - ideally in under ten minutes. "Prof. Bloodgood's Handbook" which purported to show you "Everything you need to know to open your own character photo business" came with his studio package. 

The new business owner was instructed to print promotional flyers like the example shown here produced by Wayne Sproul, an award winning Toronto photographer and early member of this society. An example of his work is the portrait of PHSC executive members taken in 1979. You may recognize some of the subjects. John Linsky, one of the society founders and its first president is in the front row centre and Ron Anger, another past president, is lounging against a tall skinny tripod at the back right.

Bloodgood's business flyer Wayne Sproul's portrait flyer Bloodgood's manual cover
Left - typical business flyers
(yellow one by Wayne Sproul).
Right - cover of Bloodgood Manual
PHSC 1979 Executive by Wayne Sproul
1979 PHSC Executive portrait by Wayne Sproul

Tourist destinations with the impulse buying of souvenirs made the best locations for these studios. The necessary costumes matched the styles of the late 1800s but were made in "break away" fashion with an open back that velcroed together to go over the subject's clothes. These costumes were sold by many companies including Bloodgood and Glorianna Buynak (Glory-B). 

Bloodgood used soft boxes set close to the subject to replicate the soft shadow-less northern light of the Victorian studios - harsh electric lighting which was available in the larger cities from the 1880s wasn't suitable for a portrait studio. Some modern operators eschewed the soft light and used flash instead with a dark background hiding the typical shadows. Most operators used a view camera with a 4x5 Polaroid back. To match the theme, a wooden view camera like the Deardorff or a modern reproduction was the preferred instrument. 

A diffusion transfer process was used to make "instant" prints up to 11x14 inches in size (this  process was used in the Photostat machines which predated Xerox copiers). The processing chemistry could be modified to give the positive a sepia tone. In use, the 4 x 5 Polaroid negative was placed in a fixed-size copy camera/enlarger to make enlargements on diffusion paper. The exposed paper was sandwiched with a sheet of diffusion positive paper and fed through the processing machine rollers and chemistry. Like an early Polaroid, the two papers were then slowly pulled apart to get the finished positive. 

As the Old Time Photo gained popularity, Polaroid published a booklet showing photographers how they could make Polaroid prints look antique. And of course the various sepia tone formulae could be used to tone a traditionally processed print. While there was no magic in making "while you wait" old time prints, some of the hardware was expensive and it took a prosperous business to support the capital cost.

Old Photo Studio Old Photo Studio
Old Photo Studio
Old Photo Studio
Some studios and signs. Lower right is the Loban studio set-up
Prf. Bloodgood in action with soft box
Unidentified photographer using flash and a dark background
Left - Bloodgood using the soft box
Right - flash and a black background
Polaroid brochure for colour and sepia materials Polaroid booklet on antiquing their materials
Prof. Bloodgood's Central Casting costume catalogue
Glory-B's Memory Lane costume catalogue
Agfa Gevaert diffusion transfer machine Agfa Gevaert diffusion transfer machine instructions Bloodgood's catalogue page for diffusion transfer and camera gear
Polaroid P/N film showing the layers
Polaroid P/N film and instructions
Costume catalogues
The diffusion transfer process machine
Gerry's style book

Gerry decided to try the "Old Time Photo" studio as a side venture at a low capital outlay. Instead of spending $10,000 US for an out-of-the-box set-up, Gerry poured over the magazine ads offering "how-to" information and used set-ups for sale. In Shutterbug Ads (remember when it was mostly ads in a newspaper format?) he spotted a studio offered by a Buffalo NY entrepreneur. After some negotiations and trimming of the package, Gerry closed the deal. Only the costumes attracted high duty fees - they were classified as apparel. 

The next step was figuring out how to make the old photos. To do this, Gerry had to step into the shoes of the studio photographer of a century ago. Period photos from catalogues, books and old flea market photographs showed the typical poses. The pictures went into a "poses" reference book. Gerry's wife Pauline browsed catalogues and bought extra costumes from Glory-B and visited prop shops and thrift store to source props not included in their outfit. One costume dress was used so much it wore out and Pauline took it apart, using the pieces to make a couple of replacements. She also made hats using materials purchased at a millinery store. 

Gerry made a portable kiosk from 1x2 framing lumber assembled with carriage bolts. White bed sheets on the kiosk frame nicely simulated the soft northern light of the Victorian studio. A shelf on the back of the cash counter served as a processing station. To make the booth sign, Gerry used Letraset, photographed the words, and enlarged them on contrasty paper. A business name was registered, flyers printed, kiosk assembled and they were in business!

Gerry's style book
Old Time Photo by Loban Old Time Photo by Loban
Old Time Photos by Loban
promotional flyer Toning a Polaroid print

On the technical side, Gerry bought a Prinzdorff camera (a cheaply constructed India-made replica of a Deardorff). Masking the ground glass on the camera ensured the portrait would fit the oval presentation frame.  Rather than buy the pricey diffusion transfer equipment, Gerry featured 4 x 5 prints made directly from the Polaroid print, using Kodak's toner to give them a  traditional sepia colour. Customers wishing for a larger size print or multiple copies had them in a day. Gerry made them at home on ordinary enlarging paper using the negative half of the Polaroid film in his 4 x 5 enlarger.  In 1996, Polaroid brought out sepia-toned material eliminating the toning step. Photographs Gerry brought tonight were taken over 20 years ago and still have good contrast with no evidence of fading or staining. 

Gerry opened for business at the various county fairs where he attracted lots of interest and  business. A test opening at the local Bridlewood mall was not successful - most of the interest came from curious mall employees. I remember visiting Gerry and his booth at the 125th anniversary of the Markham fair in the summer of 1980. At Gerry's urging, the PHSC  put up a display of cameras and large posters highlighting the 19th century milestones in photographic processes. I did the write-ups for the posters while Pim Schryer, who was printing Photographic Canadiana at the time, printed them. 

Gerry's business venture paid for itself over a few years. At its peak he had both of his sons and their wives helping out. The local fairs kept them busy from opening day until closing. He closed the business in the 1980s when the Unionville fair went commercial. He later sold his business to an entrepreneur in Niagara through an ad in Photographic Canadiana. In 1997 the studio was moved to its current location in Toronto's Pioneer Village.

Left - advertising flyer
Right - toning a print
slipping a print into a folder
slipping the print in a folder
character portrait by Loban character portrait by Loban
your Wanted Poster photo by Loban

Most images on this page were taken from Gerry Loban's PowerPoint presentation. A couple were shot with a Sony F828 digital still camera. All images were subsequently adjusted in Photoshop CS2 and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom V1. The picture of the 1979 PHSC executive was scanned from the cover of an old Photographic Canadiana. Unlike modern day issues of the journal, print quality at the time was poor.

Contents and most images are ©2007 Gerald Loban and may not be used without his permission. Any PHSC images may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Contact PHSC at info@phsc.ca if you would like more information on the items discussed on this page.

Click on most of the small images to see a larger version in a separate window.

Bob Carter

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