By JULIE CARLE
BG Independent Media
Photographer Cheryl Hagemeyer has developed thousands of relationships and captured more life-changing memories than she can count.
August 2022 marked its own milestone. Hagemeyer Fine Photography celebrated 35 years of activity. She and her studio director sister Kathy Wilhelm recently sat down to talk about the successes and pivots they’ve made since opening the photography studio in August 1987.
For Hagemeyer, photography came into the picture after buying a 35mm camera in high school. She remembers taking pictures during the senior class trip and during other school activities. Around the same time, she heard about the Ohio Institute of Photography (now the Ohio Institute of Photography and Technology) and took a leap of faith by enrolling in the two-year program.
“I remember on the first day the instructor asked how many people had never developed a film reel before and I was one of only two people who raised their hand.”
After graduating, she worked for a studio in Illinois where she traveled to 15 states in six months and photographed 10,000 head shots of college seniors. “I got really good at it,” she laughed.
She then took a job at a Findlay studio where she helped arrange weddings. When she decided to open her own studio, she connected with David and Lissa Addington of Sundance Studio in Bowling Green. They helped open her business as she helped them close theirs.
The first studio was on Railroad Street. A year into the business, she heard a speaker talk about the value of senior high school customers generating additional business. She was so enthusiastic about the idea that she told her sister to quit her job as a social worker at Napoleon’s Lutheran homes to come work with her.
Wilhelm, who had just had twin daughters, realized that working full time and raising 18-month-old twins just wasn’t working. A few months later, she quit her job and told Hagemeyer she was ready to work with her.
With the speaker’s advice to sell the elderly a distant memory, Hagemeyer had a moment of panic, fearing that the business could not support the incomes of both. “We agreed. We had to make it work,” Wilhelm said. And they made it work for over three decades, in three locations and with huge changes on both the photography side and the marketing side.
The move from film to digital in the early 2000s was monumental for Hagemeyer, the company and the industry.
“We had just moved from our second location on South Main Street to our current building (at 13226 County Home Road) and the economy was kind of taking a dip at that time as well,” Hagemeyer said. “We weren’t very quick to go digital, but we weren’t very delayed either. The investment was huge, but we knew changes were needed to move forward.
“For us, image quality was a big part of our decision-making. There was a time when film looked better than digital. Going digital just to be on the new format wasn’t the best thing for our customers. We spent a lot of time studying side-by-side images,” Wilhelm said.
Once they were convinced that digital images could produce the print quality they were proud of, they made the switch. The switchover and move to County Home Road took place in 2007.
The shift from film to digital photography has made it difficult for many photographers to maintain a business, Hagemeyer said.
“With billions of photographs taken on cell phones these days, the value of the photographs has gone down. Luckily, there are still a lot of people who appreciate what we do, because obviously there is a difference in quality,” added Hagemeyer.
Quality is especially important in marking family milestones, whether capturing the many interests of graduating seniors, the uniqueness of multi-generational family portraits, or the wonder of newborns.
“The quality of this image and the last ability are all things that Cheryl and I have based the foundation of what we do on. We continue to believe so strongly in the importance of printing these images, although so many people don’t do it anymore,” Wilhelm said.
They fear there will be a lost generation if the images are not printed. “If you don’t print the poignant ones that mark the milestones that mark the memories you want to remember, they’re probably going to get lost in the numbers,” she said.
A four-generation photo of Wilhelm with his mother, one of his twin daughters and his grandson is the perfect example. The photo was taken when their mother, who has been battling cancer for four years, was feeling well. A similar photo was taken with great-grandmother, grandmother, other twin and grandchild.
“The portrait(s) show(s) that we appreciate for ourselves what we do. We captured a milestone that we never want to let go of and a day that only marks that memory,” Hagemeyer said.
In addition to change in the industry, changes in marketing and communication have also impacted the business over the past 35 years.
“I could probably write a thesis on the evolution of adolescent communication,” Wilhelm said.
They had to switch from phone calls to emails, text messages and social media. And each medium required a pivot to understand how to reach seniors.
“Three years ago I spoke to students about the possibility of collecting their contacts and they told me that they had no contacts on their phone. Whereas a year or two before, they had 500, 600, 700 contacts in their phones. Now their contacts are on Snapchat, so they don’t know their friends’ phone numbers. So I had to rework all of that on the fly,” she said.
Today, the majority of conversations with seniors, their parents, and others take place on the web, but Hagemeyer and Wilhelm strongly believe in the power of face-to-face conversations.
“We build personal relationships with students and parents and explain how we are different, what we have to offer. This is how we share with them who we really are and what we have to offer. The message hasn’t really changed, but the delivery is very different over 35 years,” Wilhelm said.
“If you want to do anything for 35 years, you have to be willing to change, appreciate change, and not be afraid of it,” Hagemeyer added.
In addition to technological changes, they included new printing options. They still rely on archival paper for prints, but have added printing on canvas, metal, wood, books and cards.
Hagemeyer has also recently added nature photography to his repertoire and markets them on an Etsy site.
What has remained stable throughout the three and a half decades is the support of the community and the studio team.
The sisters are quick to point out that their strengths and weaknesses complement each other. “We’re lucky to have each other to brainstorm ideas, so we were able to figure things out along the way,” Hagemeyer said.
They also rely on their staff to have a voice in their conversations and decisions. In fact, they’ve been key to understanding how to navigate Covid. Together they decided how to keep the building, staff and customers safe throughout the pandemic.
Surprisingly, business has been good during the pandemic except for the two months when they had to close.
“What happened was people’s attention shifted back to their relationships and they had time for those relationships,” Wilhelm said. “People were focused on the family. For seniors, while so much was not normal for them that year, senior portraits were perhaps the only traditional senior experience children could have.
They also captured many small children eating watermelon. “We kept booking and booking because people were craving normality and they needed pictures of their young children. We offered a safe environment next to our woods; they brought the watermelon and we stayed socially distant. We made the kids laugh and we continued to create experiences that allowed people to continue making memories,” Wilhelm said.
“We are lucky to be in a community that supports us. There is a strong sense of rootedness in Wood County and our roots run deep here as well,” Hagemeyer said.
For more information about the studio or to make an appointment, visit the Hagemeyer Fine Photography website or call the studio at 419-354-2359.