MPI Brings Old School Approach to Photo Business

ROBIN GALLAHER BRANCH | Special to The Daily News

C. M. Neal of C. M. Neal Photography, a professional photography business in Memphis, uses MPI, Memphis Professional Imaging, as his photo lab.

Cliff Satterfield is CEO of Memphis Professional Imaging, which provides small and large format film and digital printing and film scanning. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“I can get anything I need from MPI – from a small print for a wallet to a billboard,” Neal said.

MPI has been in business on Summer Avenue since 1999. It serves professional photographers with processing and offers the only black-and-white lab in town.

MPI also maintains an Internet hosting service for its professional photographers like Neal, provides photo mountings that don’t require frames and – a little reluctantly – meets the needs of its amateur clients who are part of the digital revolution.

In his 35 years in the photography business, MPI CEO Cliff Satterfield has seen the industry revolutionized from the old 35-mm camera to the SLR (single lens reflex) and now to the digital camera.

“Everybody takes pictures now. Even cell phones take pictures. Everybody can edit,” said Satterfield.

Furthermore, amateur photographers can burn CDs and make prints at home. New developments like these decrease the need for both professional photographers and professional labs. In short, photography businesses have struggled.

Consequently, MPI has had to keep current. In good years, MPI makes $300,000 in gross sales, Satterfield said, adding that the recession has slowed revenue.

“Our market niche here is that we do the processing for professionals around town and in the Tri-State area,” he said.

Satterfield is a Memphis native. His father and grandfather, Drs. William Satterfield Jr. and Sr., were Memphis physicians. Cliff laughs that he and his four siblings all chose not to go into medicine. For him, he loved photography. He had a job in high school at the old Fox Photo and stayed on until it became Wolf Camera.

At that time, Satterfield and a colleague at Fox, Alan Large, started MPI. Satterfield bought out Large in July 2010.

Tommy Lynn of Lynn and Lynn Photography, a professional service in Oakland well known for its children’s portraits, also heads to MPI.

“I can go work with Cliff and look at the prints. He gives me one-on-one service. He has a really, really good lab and does a really nice job on everything,” Lynn said, adding with a laugh, “and he makes my work look good!”

MPI is the only lab in town with what’s known in the trade as “the soup,” wet chemical processing.

“It‘s helpful for students who want to know the old purist ways of doing things,” Satterfield said. “So many universities don’t even have dark rooms anymore.”

A lab like MPI does air brushing and other phototraphy shop artwork, a service that competition from a drugstore with its 13-cent prints cannot provide.

Customers also bring their old photographs for repair and copying. Satterfield remembers in particular a photo of an old saloon somewhere in downtown Memphis at the turn of the century; a lot of men stood at the bar. Another interesting job was a glass negative of an old Indian chief in full headdress; the client who brought it in had found it at a yard sale and was trying to learn the chief’s identity.

“And there’s always the excitement of a roll of 20-year-old film, and you wonder what it will be,” Satterfield said. “That’s always interesting.”

Some old photos he cannot copy, however, because of copyright information stamped on the back. In those cases, he requires written release from the photographer because he he said he has to “honor the right of ownership.”

A big change in wedding photography in recent years is that digital images are stored on CDs rather than in wedding albums. That trend cuts into his printing services.

He cautions modern couples who choose CDs rather than a traditional, printed wedding album that they need to be aware of two problems. First, the CDs lifespan is shorter than that of print photograph, which often lasts more than 100 years. Second, CD technology changes rapidly.

“Sadly, there may be a lost generation of photographs out there because of the digital revolution,” Satterfield said.

Consequently, he advises customers that when in doubt, go print.

“Prints are always a good investment to pass down to the next generation,” Satterfield said.

MPI made a transition to digital imaging five years ago. Satterfield reluctantly admits the digital revolution has some good points. Yes, it enables amateurs to edit their work and thereby control what an image looks like.

But he still favors the old print method.

“It’s distinct,” he said. “There will always be those people who like the traditional wet print look … like me.”