The Day the Shutter Died

Photo courtesy of ivan | sciupac
Holga CFN 120
courtesy of ivan | sciupac

January 4th 2012 was not a good day for the DC photography community. As is common knowledge, local photography chain Penn Camera filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection yesterday, closing the majority of their stores. Their long term future is uncertain. In addition, Eastman Kodak, the film company who’s name is synonymous with photography, is reported to be close to filing for bankruptcy as well. Either piece of news is bad; taken together, it’s hard for anyone who is a photographer not to go hug their SLR, film or digital.

Before we remind you of the fine print of clearance sales, I wanted to talk about why this is a big deal. Anyone in DC who was remotely serious about photography, went to a Penn store at some point; either to develop film, rent a piece of equipment, or to make a purchase. And above all, to talk with their great employees, who are photographers themselves. Their stores are a place for photographers to meet and talk, something hard to do with such an isolating form of art. Kodak’s fate, while less clear, is still an unhappy step in the demise of film photography. While still alive and practiced by many great photographers, film photography is slowly going the way of daguerreotypes and collodion wet plates. Everyone is reading between the lines and is expecting to hear that Kodak film and developing supplies will no longer be produced.

Now, about the clearance sales: it’s important to keep expectations in check. If you expect to get a top of the line DSLR at 50% off, think again. Any high-end or new camera gear will likely be going back to the manufacturers; it’s what happened when Ritz Camera liquidated in 2009. That stuff still has value and can be resold. However, I would not be surprised to see prices for the used gear Penn sells to be marked down; and the film developing equipment and supplies as well. The peripheries, such as camera bags, filters, tripods, etc, will probably be a case-by-case basis; these are the products that have the highest margin for profit, which means there is more room to cut the price. However, the more the product is in demand, the more likely it will not be marked down (ie: simple economics). And what happens to their rental stock is an open question; will it be sold or is this something Penn wants to hold on to? All of this is personal speculation; I have no insider information. I have a message in with Penn right now for comment, and I hope to get more information to share.

In closing, as a life-long Washingtonian, this hurts. My father purchased a lot of camera gear from Penn before I was born and in my early childhood. Most of this gear I’m now using. I have a teleconvertor which still has the Canon limited warranty card, signed and dated (August 1985), with Penn Camera’s E Street address. Then there are my own memories of shopping at E Street, and talking with the salespeople there. Great conversations about equipment, photography styles, and places to shoot in the city. I hope Penn doesn’t completely fold in this, and will emerge from Chapter 11 as a stronger company. Because I’m not ready to lose this piece of the District.

Brian is so DC. Born on Pennsylvania Ave (not there) to a lifelong Federal worker father and a mother who has worked for Garfinkel’s, the Smithsonian, and Mount Vernon. Raised on the “mean streets” of Cheverly, MD; went to high school at Gonzaga College High School (Hail Alma Mater!); and now trolls the corridors of Congress as a lobbyist, you couldn’t write a more quintessentially DC back-story. When he isn’t trying to save the country from itself, Brian can be found walking DC looking for that perfect photograph.

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11 thoughts on “The Day the Shutter Died

  1. I have to wonder what Penn Camera could have done differently. Surely there were some lessons to be learned from Ritz’s near collapse.

  2. I don’t think the two companies situations are similar. Keep in mind that by the time Ritz collapsed they were in such weird side businesses as boat detailing (yeah). Also, Ritz was a huge national chain that some thought had expanded to aggressively.

    I have a feeling Penn’s main problem was the internet. Amazon could consistently beat them on all products, sometime by wide margins. And B&H and other online camera stores can have Amazon level prices. Add in that Penn had not an insignificant number of brick and mortar stores, it was only a matter of time.

    A lot has been made about how the internet is bringing down bookstores; I think electronic stores are going to be next.

  3. Nice post Brian, this closing hurt me as much as it sounds like it did for you and so many other DC photographers… very depressing. I hope that re-organization and preservation of some sort of retail presence is possible. It seems ridiculous that the DC-Metro area can’t sustain a single line of camera shops.

    I bought my first DSLR from Penn in ’08 and was happy to be able to put my hands on the product before I bought it… however I haven’t made any other significant retail purchase from them as used and online prices are so much more competitive.

    My hope is that the film development, printing and rental departments can some how be maintained in a new form. I use all three regularly (as regularly as a non-pro anyway). Add to that some of the accessory retail stuff and maybe keep the major stuff a special order only… I don’t know. Fingers crossed, I’m going to swing by on Saturday at the E St location if their open.

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  6. I stopped by the Rockville location this morning, and was not surprised to see very slim markdowns. I understand that it’s still early in their clearance sale, but most online outlets still have the exact same goods at cheaper prices.

    I bought my first DSLR from Penn because I “needed” it right away. I was only 2 weeks away from an African safari, and had selected a model that had just become available. Otherwise I would have purchased from an online source, like I did my subsequent DSLR and accessories. I found that their assistance may have been adequate, but no better than hanging around a camera club, or participating in a number of on-line forums.

    What could they have done differently? They could have transformed, like the industry did. The bulk of camera sales are done on the internet, and they were still an old-fashioned store front operation. And not a store front like B&H in NYC, either. They just didn’t change with the times (like Kodak).

    As for printing images … I once sent digital images to them for print, and was very disappointed with the prints. The paper was flimsy, and the color was way off. Not to mention that there was a strange streak running down the paper. They did refund what I paid, but I found much better, and more reliable service online.

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  9. Even if Kodak does discontinue film, which is very unlikely in the near term since the film division is still profitable, there are other companies that will fill the gap. Ilford has for years taken over the lead in all films black and white and had their best year ever. Two new companies are producing film in Europe, one for Polaroid aficionados, and another one in the Boston area has started field trials. Articles like this one often focus on a single store, film (like Kodachrome) or enterprise, such as Polaroid, and declare “the end”. One look at online photo site Flickr will remind you how very large an interest Photography still is, and a good portion of the online activity consists of scanned in film photographs.

    Family snapshots have all gone digital, which means that many childhood memories will be just that – memories, and not archived by pictures in shoe boxes. Where will they be? Gone. Lost on SD cards, hard drives, and in deleted facebook postings.

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