Q & A: Eoff follows family tradition at Schenectady’s Photo-Lab

At the end of World War II, there were eight stores specializing in photography within a few hundred
John Eoff runs his family’s near-100-year-old business, The Photo Lab, on State Street in Schenectady.
John Eoff runs his family’s near-100-year-old business, The Photo Lab, on State Street in Schenectady.

At the end of World War II, there were eight stores specializing in photography within a few hundred yards of each other in downtown Schenectady. Now, there is just one.

The Photo-Lab, at 273 State St., just a few paces west of Erie Boulevard, is rapidly approaching the century mark, and if owner and proprietor John Eoff has his way, the business will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2014. It was his grandfather, Beverly Eoff, who opened the business in 1914, and while advancements in technology have changed the industry drastically over the years, the Eoff family has worked hard to keep the business going.

Beverly Eoff Jr., the founder’s son, took over The Photo-Lab after returning home from World War II. More than 40 years later, while not initially excited by the prospect of moving into the family business, his son John took over the reins in 1989 upon his father’s retirement. Beverly Eoff Jr. died in 2004, but his wife, Norma, still lives in Glenville and remains an occasional visitor to the store when she gets downtown. Norma, along with her mother-in-law, Harriet, ran The Photo-Lab while Beverly Jr. served in the South Pacific during World War II.

John Eoff, now 57, continues to run the family business, and while many other small camera stores closed their doors long ago, The Photo-Lab carries on. A hundred years will be an important landmark for Eoff, and he’s not planning any going-out-of-business sales anytime soon.

A 1970 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake graduate who went to college at St. Lawrence University and earned a master’s of fine arts degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Eoff and his wife, Marie, live in Rexford with their 16-year-old son, Eric.

Q: Tell us about the origins of the family business.

A: The very first store was run out of a family home on Front Street. We then had a store on Wall Street and also three locations on Jay Street, including a processing lab on the third floor of a building at the corner of Jay and State Street. We also moved to where the Department of Motor Vehicles is right next door, and then in 1948 we moved to where we are now.

Photography was a new and exciting business back then, and George Eastman was doing everything he could to make the camera a consumer item. Their advertising slogan was “you take the picture and we do the rest.” The film was always pre-installed and you’d send the whole camera back to them, and then they would process the film and send you the camera back with new film.

Q: When did the business start changing?

A: The first major breakthrough was removable film, and that allowed you to load the camera yourself. Photography has changed continuously ever since, but then the next really big change was when digital photography came into existence in the 1980s. We had always been a lab rather than a camera store, and we had done a lot of processing for other places in Schenectady, like a lot of the drug stores and places like Barney’s and Wallace’s. But then everything changed with digital photography.

Q: How did The Photo-Lab stay in business while other small stores closed?

A: We’ve always been oriented toward customer service, and we’re a specialty camera store. Probably by sheer luck and stubbornness, we’ve been able to survive. People come to us because of our experience and expertise, and they know we’re a lot different than the big box stores. We’ll find the right camera for the right person, we’ll ask them questions and determine what’s right for them. We’ll give them the options and they’ll make the right choice. As a small business, we were always very important to the manufacturer. But they don’t really need us anymore, and that makes things very difficult.

Q: Were you always interested in photography?

A: I had no interest in photography. I hated going to the store. Whenever we had a school closing for whatever reason and my parents couldn’t find a baby sitter, they would drag me down to the store. I was just a kid and I thought it was really boring.

Q: What were you interested in?

A: I had an interest in art, and during my senior year at [Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake] I was voted most artistic. Mr. Latini was my art teacher and I loved art class.

In high school we did completely different things. One day we’d be working on leather belts or something like that, and the next day we’d be doing pastels. But I had a talent for it. I was also very good in math and science, and my guidance counselor, Mr. Carrow, wanted me to do something with math. But I wanted to go to a liberal arts school and dabble in the arts.

Q: When did you start taking an interest in photography?

A: When I was a freshman at St. Lawrence I had to take a picture for an assignment and it all changed. The manager here at the store showed me how to develop black-and-white film and once the image came up in the tray I was hooked. That’s when I fell in love with photography.

The magic is gone a little bit now because of the way we do things, but I don’t really miss putting in all those hours in the darkroom and working with all those chemicals until three in the morning.

Q: When did you start working at the store?

A: After I was done at RIT I was still living in Rochester in 1977 and my dad called me up and said, ‘why don’t you come home for the summer, work a little bit, and then decide what you want to do?’ So, that’s what I did and I never left.

Q: What do you do in your spare time to relax?

A: I play a little guitar. I was one of the founding members of the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band, but now I just play for fun. I’ll take some photos of my son’s sporting events, but I consider myself just an average photographer, like anyone else.

Q: What’s the future of The Photo-Lab look like?

A: My goal is to get to 100, and then just keep on going. Every year you have to re-evaluate because things change so quickly in this business, but my intention is to keep right on going.

Categories: Life and Arts

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