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Charmed Life

Out of Regester

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 2/4/2004

Eugene Regester based much of his 50-year career on keeping up with technology. But recently, when he stood and surveyed his 25,000-square-foot warehouse on Kane Street in East Baltimore, it was clear that he had been outpaced. A few years ago, the equipment in this building would have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today it is just a pile of high-end obsolete machinery.

Regester, owner of Regester Photo Services, was once the area's premier darkroom man. He and his staff of 47 provided film processing and other photography services for local government and big industry, and his services were in high demand. But the advent of digital photography, which made it possible for many of his clients to upload their photos directly from camera to computer, put a damper on his business. For years, he bought the latest, state-of-the-art equipment to keep his business competitive. But digital-photo equipment is costly, and Regester's dwindling client base made it impossible to keep up. Now he is trying to unload his store of huge photo processors, obscure cameras, and darkroom equipment to anyone who wants to buy it. Everything, he says, is for sale, from his picture-framing supplies to his industrial-sized coffeepot.

Regester had originally planned to close down his business this summer, but a colon cancer operation in October and two months of recovery thereafter forced him to go out of business sooner. He closed his shop for good on Dec. 24 and has been cleaning out the warehouse and offices since.

"I keep finding things," Regester says. "Like . . . whiskey and a package of dried squid that my daughter sent me five years ago."

The 71-year-old Baltimore native he started his photography career while in the Army, assigned to follow Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower through post-World War II Europe. When he was discharged, he got a job as an industrial photographer for Lockheed Martin. He kept that job for 17 years, but in 1969 he struck out on his own as a freelance photographer. He worked out of his father's Belair Road basement, processing his photos with one enlarger and a sink. He says he worked his connections with Baltimore's industrial giants, eventually obtaining getting bigger and better freelance jobs. He says business grew significantly for about 10 years straight. Eventually, he says, he was doing $2 million dollars worth of business a year as Regester Photo Services.

On a recent tour of Regester's facility, it took several laps around the warehouse, darkrooms, and idle workshops to grasp the breadth of his former mini-empire. In addition to a massive photo-processing business, Regester Photo Services also operated a framing shop, installed video studios, and did slide production. One room in the warehouse served as a giant enlarger--in it, wall-sized photos were printed so they could be slapped on the sides of buses as advertisements.

Regester says he also developed a niche business in which he would mount photos on canvas and add brush strokes to create "a painting" from a picture. He had his own airplane and crew for doing precision cartography-quality photography, a fleet of Cadillacs that he would lend to employees, and a limo service that he used to usher talent to video shoots. He was opportunistic in expanding his business and says that "wherever I saw I could start making money, I would jump into it."

Twenty years ago, Regester processed negatives for Westinghouse, Lockheed Martin, McCormick and Co., Northrup Grumman, and Bendix, among others. It wasn't unusual, he says, for Regester Photo Services to crank out 10,000 photos per day.

"His skill, his trade and his work, it was just flawless," says Dottie Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, which contracted Regester to document its repair projects for 30 years. "It was the absolute top-quality work that you could ask for."

As the photography industry changed, Regester's business changed with it. His was one of the first companies in the area to venture into digital photography in the 1990s, he says. Regester recalls purchasing a new digital camera for $17,000, and he says he sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into equipment that could convert images to CD-ROM (a process that is no longer in demand, as people can now do this on their own home computers).

But Regester says his business started to falter when some of his larger industrial clients started to buy their own digital hardware. Those companies no longer needed Regester, as they could do their photo work in-house. Even the local government agencies who hired him to do various photo projects--for example, he often processed negatives from red-light cameras for some county law-enforcement offices--have now gone digital.

"We went into the digital field when it cost a fortune," he says. "If you have a computer, you understand. If you bought the best computer there is three years ago, you got an obsolete computer today."

To stand in Regester's building, in what only weeks ago was a working photo-lab complex, is to feel like you've entered the Twilight Zone episode where people awake to find their town abandoned and empty. There's not a soul around, yet you feel like you might stumble across a warm coffee mug or a cigarette still burning in an ashtray. Recently processed photo negatives still sit in trash cans, and processing chemicals still wait at the ready in darkrooms.

Regester guides photographers through the offices, allowing them to rummage through the equipment he's selling at bargain prices. He points out to the potential buyers the original costs of things: studio chairs bought for $250 apiece, a once top-of-the-line enlarger he paid $20,000 for.

"I'll be lucky if I get $500 [for it]," he comments.

He doesn't say much about the grim topic of going out of business unless he's asked.

"It's sad," Regester says. "This is not a business that I bought. This is a business I built up from scratch."

Regester won't be giving up photography altogether. When his warehouse is finally picked clean, he may still dabble a bit. He'll probably buy a new camera, he says, and more than likely, it will be one of the cameras that helped put him out of business. It won't use film, he says, "because I have no way of processing it."

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