100 years of portraits, love

Corvallis family has run the studio for 4 generations

Bennett Hall / Corvallis Gazette-Times /

Published Oct 8, 2012 at 05:00AM

CORVALLIS — Mickey and Holly Peterson have a hard time distinguishing between love and photography — for them, the two have always been inextricably linked.

Mickey, 85, and her daughter Holly, 56, are the third and fourth generations to run Ball Studio. The Corvallis photography business was founded in 1912 by William Maurice Ball, Mickey’s grandfather, who eventually passed it on to his son, Robert Ball.

Robert’s daughter, Mickey Ball — a nickname; her real name is Elizabeth — started helping out in the shop in 1942, when she was 15. Her first job was sorting prints and mounting them in folders.

The studio’s specialty was — and still is — portraiture, and the prints Mickey sorted formed a kind of chronicle of personal milestones: births, graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, reunions.

“It was very pleasant working there,” she recalled. “We were in the business of recording happy times in people’s lives.”

Mickey studied accounting at Oregon State College and went to work full time as the studio’s bookkeeper after her graduation in 1947. In the meantime, a young photographer named Keith Peterson had come to Corvallis to apprentice with Robert Ball.

Keith and Mickey Peterson were married on Feb. 15, 1947, and worked together in the studio for the next 50 years, taking over the operation after Robert Ball died in 1973 and staying involved in the business even after their own retirement in 1997.

“It is a love story,” said Holly Peterson, who followed in her mother’s footsteps and started working in the studio during high school.

Her older sister, Heather Jager, did the same thing. Though she continued to help out from time to time, she decided to go into teaching, recently retiring after a long career with the Corvallis School District.

Holly, however, was bitten by the photography bug. She became a portrait photographer like her father, grandfather and great-grandfather before her and came to work full time at the studio following her own graduation from Oregon State University with a liberal arts degree in 1979. Now she’s the one running the operation.

“I grew up in the family business,” she said. “I enjoyed working with my parents for 20-some years.”

Keith Peterson died in January 2010, but Mickey still comes into the shop from time to time. So does Heather, who continues to pitch in when needed, as do her sons, Casey and Colby Jager.

But it’s primarily Holly who’s carrying on the family tradition. Like her mother, one of the things she loves about portrait photography is documenting the joyful moments in other people’s families.

“You’re portraying love,” she said. “A lot of times a family will come together in our parking lot, they’re coming from different parts of the country, and they haven’t seen each other for a while. It’s a privilege to do what we do.”

The studio did lots of institutional photography, from Oregon State University yearbook photos to portraits of Camp Adair soldiers to pictures of champion laying hens for a successful local poultry breeder. Governors and university presidents, judges and business leaders — all had their portraits taken by William Ball and his descendants.

They did other kinds of work as well, photographing buildings and landscapes, street scenes and community events, people at work and people at play. Taken altogether, this 100-year body of work forms a document of the changing physical, social and economic fabric of Corvallis and surrounding communities.

And somewhere along the way, Ball Studio achieved a rare and possibly unique distinction: The Petersons believe it might be the oldest continuously operated family-owned photographic studio in the country.

Angela Wijesinghe, a marketing specialist with the Professional Photographers of America, said she can’t confirm that claim for certain, but she’s not aware of any other family studio that’s been in business that long.

“It’s not easy to run a photography studio successfully, let alone keep one healthy for 100 years,” Wijesinghe said.

“Today, photographers face increased competition and a slow economy. Yet the Ball Studio has managed to withstand those pressures, along with two World Wars, the Great Depression, the recession of the ’70s, two studio fires and more. We at PPA think that indicates an ability to adapt to changes and a strong commitment to quality, service and craftsmanship, forming a reputation that has stood the test of time.”

Changes in technology have been even more far-reaching as photography advanced from nitrate film and darkroom developing to digital cameras and Photoshop, but Ball Studio is still going strong.

One reason for that success, Holly and Mickey Peterson say, is that the elements of good portrait photography have remained the same — elements such as composition, lighting, rapport with the subject.

“And it’s still fun — it still has magic,” Holly said.