BEMIDJI -- A camera malfunction at his first gig couldn’t stop Bob Smith from forging what would become a 50-year career as a commercial photographer.

It was Aug. 8, 1970, and Smith was shooting the first of about 2,500 weddings in the Bemidji area. Robyn and Bill Schulke were the bride and groom. Smith, a 27-year-old Bemidji State College professor, was just starting his side job as a photographer.

“We were taking pictures after the wedding at my folks’ house,” Bill Schulke recalled, “and his camera went bonkers. He didn’t want to lose all of his film, so we found the darkest place in my folks’ house, which was a closet. He went in the closet, overhauled his camera and got everything working, and came back and finished the shoot.”

Smith added, “That taught me a lot. You learn from every situation; always analyze what you’ve done and what you could do better. In that case, we started carrying two cameras.”

Fifty years later, Smith has long since retired from his teaching career at BSU, but he’s still going strong at age 77 with Image Photography. And he has no plans to quit anytime soon.

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“It’s been a good career, and I still enjoy this,” Smith said while taking a few minutes to relax in his studio on Bemidji Avenue North. “It’s been a blessing for me for many, many years. Customers are kind of like family. You get to know them. They’ve shared their special events. I’ll be doing a hockey picture and the dad will say, ‘Hey son, he did my pictures when I was your age.’ That’s a real privilege to share that.”

For most of those 50 years, Bob’s wife, Jane, was his business partner. She had been a teacher at Red Lake and Blackduck early on, but after daughters Heather and Heidi were born, she stayed home and helped run the photography business. Jane died last month with Bob at her side.

“Jane scheduled my time around my work at the university,” Bob said. “That’s kind of how we got a little bit ahead in life.”

Bob and Jane moved to Bemidji from their native Wisconsin in 1969 when he got the job at Bemidji State. He taught audio visual classes and later helped start the mass communication program.

Bob actually started taking photographs 60 years ago when he was a high school junior in Baraboo, Wis. He later taught photography during his 2½ years serving in the Peace Corps in Venezuela.

While he got his start in Bemidji with weddings, Smith has built Image Photography into a multi-faceted business. He figures he averaged about 50 weddings per year, with a high of nearly 100. But he isn’t in the wedding market anymore, although he shot his last one this year.

“At my age spending a day on my feet doing a wedding, which is usually about 12 hours, isn’t as much fun as it used to be,” he said. “So we’ve kind of moved more to the volume type of photography.”

Much of that business is school pictures in the region. Smith said Image photographs between 3,000 and 5,000 students a year.

Smith estimates that he takes between 3,000 and 5,000 school photos each year. Submitted photo.
Smith estimates that he takes between 3,000 and 5,000 school photos each year. Submitted photo.

“Each one of those is about $10 to $20,” he said, “so you have to do a lot of volume. It’s still fun to get a smile out of a child.”

Bob Smith enjoys getting a child to smile for the camera. Submitted photo.
Bob Smith enjoys getting a child to smile for the camera. Submitted photo.

The business also does a lot of copy and restoration of photos, produces slide shows and repairs equipment.

“We’ll tackle anything,” Smith said. “People come in at the last minute and need a picture for a funeral or memorial service. It’s fun to serve the community. We’ve been blessed with good customers. This is such a wonderful town. It’s got all the amenities you would ever want and still it’s got that small town charm.”

And for 50 years, Bob Smith has been capturing some of that charm with his cameras.

“Jane and I both thought this would be a good place to start our careers and then move on from there,” Bob said. “But once you get to drive around out in the country and see the beautiful landscape and then get to know the people, it’s home.”