Diane Mastrull: Heir to photo-development legacy goes digital

Joel Bender at Fotorama at 18th and Chestnut Streets. Under pressure from digital competition, he sold it in 1997. He died in 2007.
Joel Bender at Fotorama at 18th and Chestnut Streets. Under pressure from digital competition, he sold it in 1997. He died in 2007.
Posted: May 07, 2013

In even the most functional family, there can be a painful something that triggers a strong emotional response, despite the passage of time.

For the Benders, it's the digital camera. "Digital killed the family business," Ben Bender says.

Yet digital just might be the route to a family-business revival, as well.

Bender has become the region's only franchise owner for TapSnap, a social-media-equipped replacement for the party photo booth.

To fully appreciate this cycle of commercial irony - a primary motivator of which was his cancer scare three years ago - a little history is required.

In 1940, Bender's maternal grandfather, Benjamin Kadransky, opened Mid-City Camera on 11th Street, eventually moving it to the 1300 block of Walnut Street. The shop, popular among professional and amateur shutterbugs alike, was sold in 1960.

Two years later, Kadransky opened Fotorama on 16th Street near Sansom, relocated to the 1800 block of Chestnut Street in 1986. Joel Bender, Ben's father, joined the business after marrying Kadransky's daughter Andrea.

For much of the family's nearly 60 years of selling cameras, photography was an "art," said Ben Bender's sister, Ellyn Cohen, 42, who as a girl worked weekends and summers at Fotorama.

"My job on Saturday was open the fridge, take the film out," Cohen recalled last week.

Ah, film. Little more than a collector's item today.

The Bender family business thrived when film was essential to photos and camera owners invested in a variety of lenses.

That all changed with digital, which made picture-taking less of a production and made picture-viewing as simple as downloading a camera's contents onto a personal computer. There went Fotorama's film-developing revenue and high-margin equipment sales, the latter a victim of the hard-to-improve-on quality of the iPhone.

"Photography became less of an art and more instant gratification," Cohen said.

Joel Bender sold Fotorama in 1997. He lived until Father's Day 2007, fortunately missing his son's Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis in June 2010.

Chemotherapy and radiation have rendered the 40-year-old Lower Merion father of two girls cancer-free. But the experience inspired Ben Bender not to let opportunities pass.

That's why this year, Bender - whose day job is in logistics procurement for Merck & Co. in Lansdale - paid $10,000 for a TapSnap franchise from Canada-based DVDNow Kiosks. He also paid an undisclosed amount for two touch-screen photo machines, which can cost $15,000 to $17,000 apiece.

The home office says a TapSnap franchisee can expect to make $60,000 a year if it averages one event a week, Bender said, adding, "We're aiming much bigger."

He was instantly wowed by such features as the ability to e-mail photos directly from the 42-inch-wide screen and post to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Each screen, resembling a giant iPad, is attached to a sleek, white stand and a Canon EOS Rebel T3 digital camera.

Pictures can be tweaked - say, with bunny ears. Comment bubbles have been the most popular add-on, Bender said. Thirty-second video clips can be made, too, so wedding guests can congratulate the happy couple.

Especially popular with corporate clients, Bender said, is a feature that collects the e-mail addresses of guests who use the TapSnap machine at an event. That's invaluable for follow-up business. So is branding.

At a recent EATS Philly fund-raiser, TapSnap "turned out to be a great marketing tool," said Kimberly Ettinger, who managed the event's publicity. "Each photo . . . was branded with an EATS Philly 2013 logo so that wherever people chose to share their photos . . . that logo would be seen by a whole new audience."

Rental cost for TapSnap depends on the event. A four-hour Saturday-night wedding would run $1,300 to $1,400, Bender said.

Cohen, vice president of sales, has been pitching event planners, such as Marybeth Keyes and Anthony Vennera, owners of Hot Hot Hot Entertainment in Horsham.

Instead of framed pictures taken against entertaining backgrounds, Keyes said, they intend to steer clients toward TapSnap. "Social media is so strong nowadays, especially for bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and corporate events. Everybody is sharing pictures on digital media, as opposed to sharing hard copies."

What would the man digital forced out of business think?

"He would ask me if he could do some jobs," Bender said, laughing as he noted his father's lack of technological proficiency. "I once tried to teach him how to use a [computer] keyboard. It was torture."


Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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