Spokane Journal of Business

Libby keeps lofty perspective


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A person gets to know Spokane in an entirely different way from 2,000 feet in the air, says Ray Aguirre.
He should know. Hes the newest proprietor of Libby Photographers, a nearly 100-year-old venture at 508 W. Second that has specialized in aerial photography for much of its storied history. Aguirre has opted to carry on that focus.
The photography studio is well known for having documented much of Spokanes growth, both from aloft and from ground level. Thousands of photos taken by its founder, Charles A. Libby, and his son, Charles Jr., and bearing the familiar Libby signature, now are preserved by the Cheney Cowles Museum. Reproductions of some of the more popular images grace the walls of many businesses here.
So whats it like to become the caretaker of a business that has been such an important chronicler of local history?
Its a responsibility, I suppose, Aguirre says. Its not something that I would want to walk away from. Hopefully, the business will go another hundred years.
He adds, Maybe the younger generation doesnt know about it or appreciate it, but a lot of the older people do. Whenever you see any pictures of old Spokane, they (probably) came from Libby, so I take a little pride in that, I guess.
Aguirre, a former San Diego resident who moved here with his family only about five years ago, bought the venerable photography studio last summer from Keith Henry. Henry had bought the business from Charles Libby Jr. in 1969.
Aguirre studied photography while serving in the U.S. Navy in the 1960s. After his discharge, he returned to a job as a telephone-company lineman, but decided to pursue photography as a profession about eight years later, when a close friend of his made a similar career move. He attended a community college photography program in San Diego, then opened a photo studio there in 1977, doing mostly portrait and light-commercial work. We did real well for a little mom-and-pop operation, he says.
By 1991, however, Aguirre and his wife were mulling a move to the Pacific Northwest. I was getting burned out. We just wanted a change of pace, a change of lifestyle, he says. They researched Spokane, and moved here the following year.
Once in Spokane, Aguirre opened a photo studio in the Garland business district. He met Keith Henry at a local photographers association gathering and later accepted Henrys invitation to move his business into and share Libbys 2,200-square-foot leased space downtown. About a year after the move, Aguirre agreed to buy Libby from Henry. Henry had been operating it by himself and had decided to retire. The longtime studio had struggled in recent years, but Aguirre says, I just decided theres a lot of potential here.
Aguirre had pursued a couple of side business interests briefly since moving to Spokane, including selling real estate and owning a small restaurant, but he now has devoted his full attention to revitalizing Libby.
He has established a separate division, called Air Photo of Spokane, to help promote that important part of Libbys business, which generates about 85 percent of the studios revenue. He adds that he also is working to expand Libbys presence here in portrait and commercial photography.
Aguirre is the businesss lone photographerand employee, too, for that matter.
His aerial photography work includes everything from potential building sites and new commercial developments to intersections where traffic accidents have occurred and areas where environmental planning is being done, he says. The typical charge for a specially requested aerial photo is $150.
Shooting from above
Aguirre isnt a pilot himself. He typically waits until he has received a half-dozen orders for aerial photos, then hires one of several pilots at Felts Field to take him aloft in a Cessna 172. The Cessna, with its wing-above-the-fuselage design and a passenger side window that can be flipped wide open, is well-suited for photography, he says.
Learning how to take aerial photos wasnt particularly difficult, Aguirre says. All of photography is different, so its just a different kind of different. The key is just having a fast shutter speed because of all the vibration, he says.
For the aerial shots, Aguirre normally uses a Pentax 6x7 camera fitted with a 105mm or 200mm lens and loaded with Kodak Pro 100 color negative film. The Pentax 6x7 looks like an oversized 35mm camera, but the negatives it produces are 60mm by 70mm, or roughly 2 1/4 inches by 2 3/4 inches, in size. Aguirre normally uses a shutter speed of one-thousandth of a second, an aperture setting of F/5.6, and a rubber band or two to hold the lens focus at infinity. Most often, the pictures are taken from an altitude of about 1,000 feet, which is the legal minimum for flight over urban areas.
Libby sends its color film out for processing, but does its own color printing, so our turnaround time can be very quick, Aguirre says.
Historic archives
Along with taking new aerial photographs, Libby maintains files containing thousands of older prints, along with negatives from which new prints can be made. The business took aerial photos of all of Spokane County in 1962 and in 1979, and has them organized in small geographical quadrants for easy reference.
Aguirre marvels at some of the intriguing photos he has stumbled across in the few months he has owned the business. I keep finding these treasures of old Spokane, he says.
The Cheney Cowles Museum bought the bulk of the Libby collection from Keith Henry in 1986. Karen DeSeve, the museums curator of special collections, says the Libby collection includes probably 65,000 to 80,000 uncatalogued negatives and at least 20,000 print images that are catalogued and easily accessible to researchers. The museum also sells prints made from some of the Libby images.
They are an incredible treasure. I probably couldnt overemphasize their historical significance, DeSeve says.
She notes that the Libbys were prolific photographers who took pictures of all sorts of things, and says, for that reason, The breadth of the collection, the depth of the collection, is just marvelous.
It constitutes the heart of our archives, our photographic material, and is used regularly by the news media, architects, interior designers, and others who find it to be a valuable reference tool, DeSeve says.
The museum currently is studying how best to preserve the collections old nitrate negatives, which deteriorate over time, she says. Options being considered include cold storage, which retards the deterioration process, and negative-to-negative reproduction to a more stable material, which is the best choice but also quite expensive, she says. Funding is always the greatest issue, she says.
Charles A. Libby, who previously had been involved in the food-services business, turned to photography in 1898 when he joined his sister, Addie Libby, in the Libby Art Studio here. In 1901, he opened his own photography studio.
Charles Jr., who was born in 1907, assisted his father after school and on weekends. He developed a keen interest in aerial photography and later worked for the U.S. Army Mapping Service. He returned to Spokane after completing his military service and joined his father as a partner in the family business.
The business at first did mostly portrait work, but expanded into commercial and aerial photography, the latter in about 1925, as cameras became less bulky and as better transportation became available. Many of the early images were created using 8-inch-by-10-inch negatives, while others were made on 8-inch-by-30-inch negatives with panoramic circuit cameras.

Kim Crompton
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