Family-Run Photo Studio Has Been Capturing Maui’s Community for 87 Years
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Rick Shimomura says people still call him “Mr. Nagamine.”
The Maui photographer doesn’t mind, though. After all, “Mr. Nagamine” was his maternal grandfather, Harold Nagamine Sr., who founded Nagamine Photo Studio in Lahaina in 1931 and later opened a studio in Wailuku.
The Lahaina studio closed decades ago, but Shimomura continues to run the Wailuku studio in a newer building with the same name.
It is definitely an accomplishment for a small, family-run business to survive for 87 years, but can a local photo studio survive another generation?
“I think so,” said the 59-year-old Kula resident. “In order to have a future, that person has to be constantly changing and looking at what’s viable.”
One of the biggest obstacles Shimomura faces these days is that everyone seems to have a camera in their Smartphone.
“Right now, photography, I would say, is at its peak in popularity. Everyone wants to take pictures. Everybody takes pictures. Some of these people think they can do it (professionally). That’s the DIY (do-it-yourself) age now. And I’m guilty of it.”
Shimomura says he sometimes watches YouTube videos to learn how to repair something instead of getting professional help.
“For the photographer who wants to stay in business, they just got to be consistent on their marketing and business practices and know what the consumers want,” he says.
And, as his grandfather did, Shimomura has evolved with the times. He no longer focuses on family portraits and camera equipment sales like his grandfather did.
Shimomura’s mainstay now is student photos for schools. To keep up with the times, the students’ photos are offered in both digital and print formats for customers to order.
His photo packages also include photo key chains and, next school year, Nagamine’s will introduce PopSockets, which are expanding cellphone grips and stands. His PopSockets will feature the student’s photo on it.
“The millenials, that’s what they want — they want to see their picture and their kids’ pictures on stuff,” Shimomura said.
It’s a far cry from when the “pretty-much” self-taught Harold Nagamine Sr. opened his studio in Lahaina.
According to a 2003 Japanese American National Museum gala dinner program recognizing multigenerational businesses, Nagamine, who arrived in Hawai‘i from Okinawa when he was 10, took correspondence courses in photography and apprenticed with another local studio, Okumura Photo Studio. Nagamine began his photography career when he was 20 years old.
His first studio overlooked Lahaina Harbor. He then moved to Lahainaluna Road in the late 1950s.
Photography was a luxury at the time, as Japanese immigrants working on the plantations did not make a lot of money. Still, families spent money on photography.
Shimomura surmises that immigrants in Hawai‘i were still planning on returning to Japan after working in the fields and making lots of money. As they settled down and started raising families, however, they realized that their meager earnings would not allow them to return to Japan. Their lives would be in Hawai‘i.
He said families began having portraits taken and sending them to their families back home.
“I like to say they had good records of that time; they made it a point to have a family portrait done.”
Shimomura noted that many Japanese immigrant families have old family portraits from
decades ago. Small plantation towns also had their own photo studios, he recalls.
In the 1940s, during World War II, Shimomura said there were two Nagamine photo studios, the old one along Lahainaluna Road and the other one in Wailuku on Market Street. Servicemen would come to Maui on furlough and have their photo taken to send back to their families.
The Nagamines, including Harold Sr.’s daughters, would process the film as quickly as possible and get them back to the servicemen. The sailors and soldiers also invited the family to join them on picnics.
Harold Nagamine Sr., who has since passed away, attended photography conventions on the Mainland and was part of the Professional Photographers of America. Today, Shimomura is a member of that same organization.
Although the Wailuku studio shut down after the war, the Lahaina studio remained open until about the mid-’70s when the family sold it.
In 1951, the family had opened another Nagamine Photo Studio on Central Avenue in Wailuku. In 1991, the studio moved to its current location in the Millyard, named after the old Wailuku Sugar Mill, previously located at the site.
In the Japanese American National Museum program, Shimomura said his grandfather was still alive when they moved to the Millyard.
“I know he was proud of the move to the Mill-yard. It was a big move after being in the same location for over 40 years,” Shimomura said.
Rick Shimomura never dreamed that he would make professional photography his career, even though he grew up in the studios and the darkrooms in Wailuku and Lahaina.
“We used to hang out there and help. It was fascinating, but it was something I never wanted to be.”
Shimomura helped his grandfather and his mother, Florence (Nagamine) Shimomura, with the business over the years. He even flew back from college at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa to photograph weddings on Maui. It was a way to earn extra money, he said.
In his junior year at UH, Shimomura decided to leave UH to attend Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif. The school came to be known as the Brooks Institute. It has since closed.
His uncle, the late Harold Nagamine Jr., attended the school, as well.
Harold Jr. was poised to take over the business from his father, but it wasn’t in the cards, says Shimomura. Father and son could not work together.
The “two guys were really strong-willed,” Shimomura said.
Harold Jr. decided to move to O‘ahu, where he worked for the Honolulu Police Department. He opened the department’s photo laboratory. He was later hired by the Maui Police Department and set up the Valley Isle’s photo lab.
The Nagamine family on Maui kept the business going in the ’70s and ’80s by doing photo processing, passport photos and camera sales until Shimomura returned as the sole photographer in 1982. His younger brother, Ty, now 53, began working at the studio full-time in 1985. He, too, is a photographer.
By then, their grandfather’s active photography career was long over.
Although Rick Shimomura knew photography, what he didn’t know was how to manage a small business.
”It took a while to try to get myself established,” he said, noting he was only 24 years old when he took over the business.
He was starting a family and suddenly realized that his career and making a living were “for real.”
Shimomura and his wife Jeri have three adult daughters, ages 27 to 34, two granddaughters — and a soon-to-be-born grandson — at the time of this interview.
“Over the years, we did everything,” Rick Shimomura said of the business.
He’s done commercial photography, aerial portraits, weddings and photographed local events, including the former Mercedes-Benz Championship golf tournament at Kapalua.
While at Brooks, he was in the school’s first video production class, which helped him get hired as an on-call “stringer” for KHON’s TV News. He would respond to requests for video of Maui events whenever the Honolulu news station called.
The Shimomura family is busy processing high school senior portraits this summer. When the school year starts up again, he will be on the road at different campuses, snapping up the smiles of youngsters.
“I like to go to the school and see the kids, being in a different location every day,” he said.
He has a staff of five full-time workers, including himself. At times, he hires seasonal workers, bringing his staff up to as many as 12 or 14.
Rick Shimomura said he recently realized that he has been working with digital images longer than he has with film. He began digital photography in the early ’90s.
“We pretty much jumped in.”
Even as the tide has turned electronic, Rick Shimomura still stresses the importance of getting old-school prints. Many people take photos and have the digital images locked into their cameras or devices for years.
And if the photographs are stored on sites with passwords and the owner forgets the password or worse, passes away, those images will be hard to access and may even be lost.
But with hard copy photos, people physically do a search to find them and see them immediately. He compared this to old photos people may still have in a physical photo album.
“You see the value of a hard copy picture.”
Melissa Tanji has been a reporter for The Maui News since 2000. The Maui native earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.