Varden Photography


Varden Studios? 


Yearbooks come out with the end of the school year, and for generations of Rochester-area high school students, that meant a trip to or a visit from Varden Studios.

The South Union Street studio documented all kinds of celebrations, like weddings and engagements, and shot publicity photos for businesses. But the company’s bread-and-butter work was with high school senior portraits.

Varden’s began with a different name in the Midwest before the founders moved the business to Rochester. At one time, the company had outlets throughout the country and employedhundreds. Some former customers raved on Facebook about the quality of Varden photos, particularly the professionally retouched wedding portraits. Others groaned about Varden’s onesize- fits-all, assembly-line approach to yearbook photos that discouraged individuality and offered limited choices.

So, Whatever Happened to…

Varden Studios? Let’s start at the beginning.

Paul McGuire and Irving Stern started the company in 1929 in Sioux City, Iowa, and moved to Rochester in the early 1930s because of the abundance of photography products here. Another early company official was Berthold Eidlin, who was born in the Crimea, fled Russia shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually settled in Rochester.

Originally called Gold Tone Studios, the company changed its name to Varden Studios in 1950. A move from Andrews Street to South Union Street came around the same time. The place created and preserved lots of memories that spanned generations, as evidenced by dozens of Facebook posts.

Steve Barnhoorn, of Honeoye, wrote that Varden did his parents’ engagement photos in 1959 and their wedding photos the following year, as well as his college graduation portrait in 1985.

“The wedding portraits… looked like an artist did a paint job. Beautiful quality,” Barnhoorn wrote. “When it came to photographing special moments…Varden was the gold standard.”

Patricia Ellen Powers of North Tonawanda posted that Varden shot her high school and college photos along with her mother’s first wedding portraits.

“Varden went an extra step further by having staff artists embellish these portraits with delicate painted accents by hand,” Powers wrote. “The results were exquisite and today are really indicative of a lost art.”

As for the high school photos, memories came from students who graduated from schools including Bishop Kearney, Greece Olympia, Cardinal Mooney, Monroe, Aquinas Institute, East High, Brighton, Madison, Nazareth Academy and St. Agnes. Some of those schools are no longer around.

“Girls had to wear a plain dress…guys wore jacket and tie,” wrote Jan Levenberg Feldman, of Pittsford, who graduated from Monroe. “Crappy smile, no smile, they didn’t care. It was a no-frills photo factory.”

Karen Rowe Marcocelli from Rochester, who went to St. Agnes, wore an orange sweater to Varden’s but “They changed it to blue for me.” Linda Holz Alexander, a Bishop Kearney grad, wrote “All the girls had to wear the same blouses in the pictures…no multiple outfits like senior pictures people take now.” Nazareth Academy graduate Judith Long from Rochester also commented about the uniformity: “Same blouse and a strand of pearls. Clones!”

Joe Territo of Greece, who now is one of the Rochester Red Wings’ official photographers, shot several weddings for Varden’s before he started his own photo business. He admired the quality of Varden Studios’ portrait work but wasn’t as enthused with the yearbook procedures.

Varden took Territo’s Greece Olympia senior class photos at the school.

“They set up a studio on the auditorium stage. You would go and it was a production line,” he said. “It was very, very basic: Look here, look there, stare straight at the camera. Over time, girls, especially, wanted something more. They started looking at other studios that offered almost ‘modeling shots.’ People were seeking more variety in the portraits.”

Stern died in 1974 and McGuire died in 1986. McGuire’s obituary noted that the company then included branches in markets like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh and employed more than 500 people. But the headquarters remained here in Rochester— at least for a few more years.

Varden’s opened shortlived shops in Greece and in Victor in the early 1990s, but the end was near. All were closed by the middle of the decade. The longtime South Union Street shop was auctioned off in 1995 and the site was sold to a local church.

Paul Bilgore, who was vice president of Varden in its final years, now lives in California and is president of Lauren (photo) Studios there. His grandfather was Irving Stern, one of the Varden founders.

“It was our family business,” he wrote in an email. “The market for senior portraits started to change in the late ’80s and early ’90s and Varden decided to shut its Rochester operation down.”

Remaining Varden shops in Syracuse, Binghamton, Albany and Pittsburgh also were closed.

The company may be gone, but the photographs Varden produced for so many years left lasting impressions. In at least one case, so did the absence of such photos.

John M. Voellinger of Rochester posted on Facebook that he missed his senior-portrait appointment at Varden as well as a designated make-up time. The result has been a gaping void at the family homestead.

“To this day, my Mom still asks me why my nine siblings’ portraits are on the wall and not mine,” he wrote.

Alan Morrell is a Rochester- based freelance writer.

This article appeared in the Rochester D&C on Sunday, May 28, 2017 [LINK]