|The man behind the lens|
|Wednesday, June 6, 2012|
To the best of his knowledge, Al Ashworth operates the only photography shop in Lebanon that still operates a darkroom.
Ashworth and his wife Claudine will celebrate the 27th anniversary of their photofinishing business, Custom Color, in July. Here, everything begins and ends with the photograph.
Al is as passionate about photography as Claudine is about customer service. For the man, who has taught more than 200 local Wilson Countians the art of photography, it started when he was 20 years old and won a 35-millimeter camera through the mail.
“I had to figure it out. How does it work? I would shoot pictures and then send the film off. I had to see what they were (the developed photographs),” said Ashworth, 50, who was born and raised here and graduated from Lebanon High in 1980.
“There used to be a photo lab in this town called Quick Color. I would go in there about once a week and spend my paycheck. I would shoot a roll of film and didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I wanted to get better,” he recollected.
“I was spending 80 bucks a week, and my wife was not happy. It came for sale, and the two ladies who worked in there said, ‘Why don’t you buy it?’ I was making maybe 7 or 8 bucks an hour in a factory, and I thought, ‘Why not?’”
About a year-and-a-half later, Al and Claudine started Custom Color, their own photo lab, from scratch.
“To own a business like a photo-finishing lab was more difficult than I imagined: putting the pictures together, finding the equipment and the cost and getting the experience. I had never worked in a lab,” he said.
“I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know what the equipment was supposed to do, but I loved photography. We were doing one-hour printing long before Walmart and other places. We were the only one-hour photo lab in town. Those were the heydays of one-hour photo labs,” he said of the mid-1980s. “The biggest thing going out of business now are the photo labs, big and small.”
The grandson of renowned Lebanon educator Hattie Bryant, Ashworth worked at Texas Boot as a mechanic from 1980 to 1984. He quit that job on a whim to sell vacuum cleaners for three or four months.
“I learned the best lesson of my life selling Kirby Vacuum Cleaners. I learned about getting to the chase,” he said.
From peddling vacuum cleaners, he enlisted with Campus Computer Corporation in Nashville as a computer technician. He kept that job for two years while he and Claudine established Custom Color.
About her inquisitive husband, she said, “He’s always learning, constantly. His brain is never still. He‘s always either reading something, looking at something on TV, studying something, birthing an idea in his mind. He's constantly thinking, and he stays well abreast of all the issues. He’s not satisfied with where he is at this point and always strives to learn more: that ever learning thing.”
Claudine's role at Custom Color is multi-faceted, but she serves as greeter and handles projects great and small.
“Al is more technical, and I am the people-person. Everybody that comes through this door, I will probably speak to them first,” she said. “I realize every time the door opens that God has guided their steps here, and I have to treat them in the right matter. If not for our customers we would not have a business. Customer relations is my priority.”
The business offers a myriad of services, but their bread and butter is placing photo images on commercial products or personal items.
“There are so many things you can do with pictures. We print on metal, cloth, cardboard, puzzles, dog tags. There is a lot more to do with a picture than just putting them in an album,” Claudine said.
With Ashworth, the photograph is everything.
“First and foremost, I am a photographer,” he said in earnest. “After getting started, I gravitated toward a 35-millimeter because of convenience and ease of use. I started doing portraits and pet photos for friends, and they paid me. So now I’m a photographer.”
Educating himself, Ashworth read all the photography books and magazines that he could lay his hands on. That led him to open a portrait studio, and two years later he built a darkroom. But he didn’t stop there.
“Used to, we could survive on the printing. We would do about 500 rolls of film a week. Anyone that needed film processed in a hurry.
“Over the years we became more of a diverse company because we had to,” he said. “Things are vastly more different because of our competition. So, I turned the portrait studio into a photography classroom. What I teach is that the camera is a box with a hole in it. That’s my slogan.”
Indeed, he not only offers individual photography lessons but teaches a 16-week series to classes of 10 that meet Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings. The 76-page instruction manual he wrote himself. A year ago, he initiated the Wilson County Photographers Guild, and its 25 members meet monthly in his studio.
“I was always working to be the first one to get my hands on new stuff. There was risk involved because all those ideas didn’t work. We were the first lab in Middle Tennessee to own a full photographic color copier in the late 1980s and early ’90s. It was very good and very profitable,” he said.
While Al loves taking photos, Claudine enjoys taking it another step.
“I love pictures. I’m not a photographer. I don’t even want to be one, but I love pictures, being creative with them,” she said. “I love helping customers decide what they want to do with their pictures.
“Photography doesn’t mean you have to have a camera around your neck. It doesn’t stop with the photograph. You have to be creative with the picture: framing it, cropping it; but the number one thing I love is working with people,” she said.
As for her inquisitive mate, he shoots more than photos.
“I‘m a troubleshooter. I look at problems and figure them out. We answer a lot of questions for photographers,” said Lebanon’s go-to-guy for photography challenges.