The SOPHA community
Amateur and professional photographers join Manchester studio
By Heidi Masek firstname.lastname@example.org
The storefront of Croteau Photography in a distinctive downtown Manchester building has quietly taken on a new role in the same industry.
The way the Studio of Photographic Arts (SOPHA) functions, it sounds like a nonprofit. It’s not, but owner Bud Thorpe frequently uses the word “community” when he talks about the place. SOPHA now has 39 member photographers, up from about six when they moved into 941 Elm St. near the end of 2008.
SOPHA offers studio rental, including use of lighting, props and a make-up room. They run classes geared to help people figure out what they can actually do with their fancy new digital cameras.
Professional members use SOPHA’s reception area/gallery for client meetings, and the $100 per month pro membership fee allows unlimited studio usage (depending on availability). There’s also a large format printing service.
The studio was busy with a set-up for a fashion advertisement shoot Thursday, June 18. On a recent weekend, 30 ballerinas were at SOPHA and around downtown for a member dance photographer’s shoot.
Thorpe calls himself “studio manager,” and everyone who helps out seems to be called “staff.” Interns come from local art and photography schools, including Boston University’s Center for Digital Arts in Waltham.
The first SOPHA members’ gallery show opening on April 30 collected 185 pounds of tuna for the New Hampshire Food Bank (it was their canned tuna month).
Gallery shows run for four or five weeks in their storefront space and are meant to show and sell member work, but are always tied to a charity, Thorpe said. Since SOPHA is about a photographic community, the shows should be tied to the larger community, he said. It’s “a very simple business practice ... don’t be greedy,” he said.
Their second show, “America,” opens Thursday, July 2, with a reception from 7 to 10 p.m., and is up through Aug. 1. Members were challenged to represent the theme without using an American flag. Thorpe stressed that it’s not meant to be unpatriotic — the purpose of the rule is to avoid cliché and force the photographers to think beyond the obvious. Those showing work are making donations to the New Hampshire World War II Veteran’s Memorial Fund; visitors can also donate at the reception.
Thorpe expects about 20 members to show about 100 photos; prints will probably start at $30.
SOPHA originally opened two years ago at 62 Elm St. in Manchester and included a lot of car photography. The partnership split, and Thorpe wanted to focus on SOPHA as a community in a more visible location. He saw an “opportunity that couldn’t be missed” when his friend Dan Croteau planned to close his studio. Croteau now works mainly in real estate, but is a SOPHA member and still meets clients there.
“The digital world presented some challenges” to portrait and wedding photographers because more and more people have access, Thorpe said.
Thorpe’s idea for dealing with that is to bring in the new photographers. SOPHA’s not a school — “It’s more like a community art center in the way we run our classes,” Thorpe said.
SOPHA runs four-night “KickStart Digital SLR,” “Intermediate Digital SLR” and “KickStart Photoshop” classes regularly ($199 for nonmembers, $159 for members).
Many enroll because they bought a digital SLR (single lens reflex) and want to know what all the buttons do. Thorpe said the class is a lot of fun to teach and he enjoys students’ “eureka moments.”
“We have a tremendous retention rate,” Thorpe said. Ninety-five percent take a second class.
Eric Arnold, of Hunt’s Photo in Manchester, has a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art. Finding “qualified instructors” with the “right personality” is a challenge, Thorpe said. Arnold teaches “Urban Landscapes” for SOPHA; the one-day workshop is rescheduled to June 28 because of rain.
Dave Dawson, also of MassArt, teaches one-day workshop “Dastardly Dames, Alternative Glamour” (July 26, $199 or $179 for members). “The Artistic Nude” is scheduled for July 12 ($249, or $199 for members).
While sunshine may work outside, indoor shots on digital cameras can be tricky (that’s an understatement in this reporter’s case).
Thorpe said the first way to address lighting issues is to learn to use the flash properly. SOPHA spends one evening of a four-night digital SLR class on this.
“There’s a lot people can do to improve the quality of their pictures,” Thorpe said.
SOPHA teaches studio lighting to those who want to take that a step farther. Studio lighting has “never been so approachable,” Thorpe said. That’s because with a digital camera the photographer can immediately see the result.
SOPHA has 6,000 square feet of first-floor and basement space — the upstairs was bricked off in 1945, Thorpe said. They use the bricked back alley and basement for shoots. The basement also stores props and is the home of T-shirt business, 603 Clothing. It also houses a darkroom.
“We’ve got a range of members with a range of photographic interests,” Thorpe said. Some have always shot in film, some are discovering for the first time because great film camera equipment can currently be had for very little money, he said.
Thorpe is a self-taught photographer, with undergraduate work in infectious disease. After 25 years in paramedics, he still works as a paramedic one day per week in Townsend, Mass. — “People call during the worst moments of their life,” Thorpe said of that job.
Thorpe mainly shoots portraits, families, frequently corporate or executive portraits and some weddings.
There’s a number of wedding photographers at SOPHA in all price ranges, Thorpe said. Others use the studio for product photography, advertising and portraits. Members come from Manchester and father afield, including Keene and Portsmouth.