A photo finish for iconic Valley business - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

A photo finish for iconic Valley business

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Mike Sakal’s column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com, or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

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Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2011 12:40 pm | Updated: 5:17 pm, Thu Jan 3, 2013.

If Robert Markow had been a fighter pilot during World War II as he planned, an iconic photography studio, custom photo lab and retail business the self-taught photographer founded 65 years ago might never have taken flight.

And Markow, who died at age 91 in 2009, might not have ever come to be considered “The Dean of Arizona Photographers” by his peers after building a business that was a portrait of success for decades. But the business, which has been owned by Massachusetts-based Liska Imaging since 2006, has fallen victim in recent years to big-box retailers, advancing technology and a slow economy.

Colormark Custom Photo Lab, 2212 E. McDowell Road in east Phoenix, was the Valley’s first custom photo lab, serving an array of professional photographers and generations of customers at seven locations throughout the Valley including Mesa and Tempe. It officially closed last Friday. A handful of customers straggled into the lab this week to pick up remaining orders.

Colormark’s closing just leaves two large-scale photo processing labs in the Valley, one of which is an East Valley staple — Tempe Camera Repair and Rental, which opened in 1972. Foto Forum in Phoenix, which also opened in 1972, is an independent large-scale camera store and now contracts with Jones Photo in Tucson for its customers’ photo processing needs. Image Craft in Phoenix also maintains a full-service photo processing lab, but mostly produces signs.

Colormark began as a small Valley business Markow expanded in the late 1960s from Bob Markow Photo Photography, a studio that he opened at 741 E. McDowell Road in 1956 and later expanded at the current McDowell Road location 40 years ago when it was the seventh-largest Polaroid film dealer in the country.

Photomark, the retail portion of Colormark that still calls itself a one-stop photography store and sells cameras and accessories, also is in jeopardy of closing. The businesses peaked with 48 employees in the late 1990s, but now employs fewer than 10.

“It’s sad for our family to see it close after 60 years after building the business,” said Robert Markow’s son, Paul Markow, who owns the three 10,000-square-foot business buildings on the property with his mother, Bea Markow, and operates a high-end photo studio there. “It wasn’t about the money, it was about the service and quality. We cared about the workers and customers, and they cared about us.”

Surviving in a fast-changing industry

Paul Markow cited a number of reasons for the lab’s closing: widespread access to computer programs as well as online camera suppliers and big-box stores winning out over personal customer service from employees who taught customers how to use their products when “reputation was everything.”

Liska Imaging bought the three photo businesses from Robert Markow in 2006 — Colormark, Photomark and Al-Cor Identification Solutions, a laminating and identification badge business. Liska Imaging declined comment on Colormark’s closing, but another longtime photo lab owner said that Colormark’s closing marks the end of an era.

Joseph Wojcich, owner of Tempe Camera at 606 W. University Drive, said he had a friendly rivalry with Colormark. Echoing Markow’s sentiments, he elaborated on how his business has continued to survive a fast-changing industry.

“It’s a very sad day,” Wojcich said of Colormark’s closing. “The independent store as we know it is fading away. Like us, Colormark was a very specialty store. Our camera repairs and rentals are what has kept us open. That difference has given us that much of a margin to keep our doors open, or we could be in the same boat as Colormark. You can’t get your camera repaired at Costco.”

Wojcich said his store caters to many students from Arizona State University as well as the University of Arizona.

“If you can’t afford a $5,000 camera, we’ll rent it to you,” he said.

Wojcich said his proximity to ASU has attracted customers from all over the world.

“Our intent is to stay in business, help the customers and treat them well, but who knows how much longer we’ll be around?”

‘Dean of Arizona Photographers’

Robert Markow, who worked into his 80s, was a commercial photographer and a regular contributor to Arizona Highways Magazine. His portfolio would make other top photographers in the nation green with envy. His archives are considered among the best collections of Arizona postwar images, and include photographs of President John F. Kennedy with Carl Hayden, as well as and Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan before they were presidents.

Markow’s widow, Bea, who was her husband’s partner or “right-hand person,” and turns 91 on Wednesday, told the Tribune she also is sad to see Colormark close.

“I’m very sad about it closing, but I try not to think about,” Bea Markow said. “I knew Bob would’ve been sad about it closing, too. It was a wonderful business with wonderful customers and workers. I feel like we’re letting them down, but it’s really out of our hands now. It’s just changes in the industry. We didn’t sign contracts — we shook hands.”

Paul Markow said, “It was a different time. Phoenix was a town of 100,000 when we opened. Everyone knew everybody.”

Robert Markow, was a native of New York and a junior art director and worked as a graphic artist before coming to Glendale’s Thunderbird Field in July 1942 after he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. But after his 6-foot-2, 225 pound frame was deemed too big for the cockpit, he accepted the job as base photographer at Thunderbird, Williams and Falcon airfields, where he took pictures of all the servicemen graduating from fighter pilot training every six weeks for their yearbooks.

Markow later shot pictures for Porter’s Western Wear Store catalogs he designed and sold 8-by-10-inch pictures for $1 to horse show participants he took throughout Scottsdale. In the early days of his studio, one of Markow’s accounts was U-Haul, and after they asked him to make 40-by-60-inch color prints, he purchased large photo processing trays. After word spread among other Arizona companies that they no longer had to order large-sized prints from studios in New York and Chicago, they turned to Markow to do the work. 

Bea Markow, who worked as an executive secretary for the Superman division of DC Comics in New York and used to respond to letters from young readers under the pen names of Lois Lane and Clark Kent, arrived in Arizona in January 1943 and said she married her “Superman” the next day. She often assisted him at weddings, managing the photo studio and hiring photographers. She later took time off from the business to raise three children. Paul Taylor became Robert Markow’s assistant in the business 35 years ago, and he continues to work for Al-Cor.

As Bea Markow looked at an early 1940s-era photograph of her husband hanging on the wall inside her son’s studio on Wednesday, she said: “We had a good business and a good life together. Like everything else, the industry is changing.”

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com

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