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Remembering Camera & Craft: Pioneer Chattanooga Photo Store

The digital era obliterated the photography speciality store. Most people today own no camera other than their smart phone. If they want a dedicated one, they buy it at a "big box" retailer, or order it online, and learn how to operate it watching YouTube.

Yet even as the internet boom lit up the dawn of the 21st century against a twilight of film photography, in 2000 Chattanooga still had a few "brick and mortar" retailers selling nothing but cameras and film, and staffed by clerks who knew how to operate the equipment, and teach customers how. Regional chains like Wolf Camera, with suburban mall stores in Northgate and Hamilton Place, still offered classes to budding photographers about the photographic craft. In the last 16 years, every one of them closed. Superior Camera Service was the last, in 2015, and when it did, the era of the full service photography speciality shop ended in Chattanooga, probably forever.

Superior Camera may have been the last, but Camera & Craft was one of the first stores opened in Chattanooga with a business model, from the beginning, to sell both camera equipment and offer photographic instruction to it's customers. It may not have been the first photo store in Chattanooga (Violet Camera started out as a studio in 1915 and evolved into an equipment retailer), but Camera & Craft, with it's simple motto of "we teach you how," perfectly filled a market niche as photography exploded in popularity among middle class Americans in the post World War II period after 35mm equipment became both affordable, and the standard format for amateur photography and photojournalism.

Camera & Craft began in 1953 with a store located in East Ridge, at 3720 Ringgold Road. The founding owners and operators were Ramon "Ray" Solomon and his wife Helen (Barton) Solomon. Ray was a native Chattanooga, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants Meyer and Rose Solomon. He graduated from Chattanooga High School in 1942, where he was a school photographer. After studying at UTK for two years, he joined the Navy during the closing days of World War II, and met Helen in Washington, D.C. in 1945 just after the end of the war. Helen Barton was from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and had just graduated from the University of Arkansas with a chemistry degree and a minor in geology. She was working as a chemist in the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., helping to develop coolant for the first nuclear submarine. Ray and Helen married in 1947, and moved to Knoxville where Ray completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering at UTK while Helen taught chemistry. After Ray graduated in 1948, they moved to Chattanooga where Ray worked designing HVAC installations for the local Carrier dealer, and at the Dupont nylon plant in Hixson. Before opening Camera & Craft as a retail photography store, Ray and Helen also worked in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Chattanooga as wedding photographers, covering over 500 weddings in five years.

From its beginnings in East Ridge, the business by 1961 also operated the camera department in the downtown Loveman's department store. It opened another retail store in Eastgate Mall, and leased space in the Osborne Building in Brainerd for an industrial division. The business incorporated in Tennessee in 1963 as "Camera & Craft, Inc.," and registered as a foreign corporation in Georgia in 1966. The small local chain eventually grew by the early 1970s to a total of five stores in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. In addition to the East Ridge store, at varying times during its heyday in the 1970s, Camera & Craft also had retail stores in Highland Plaza, Eastgate Mall, Cleveland, TN, Dalton, GA, and Rome, GA. The Hixson store later moved from Highland Plaza in the 1970s to Northgate Mall.

In November 1972, the East Ridge flagship store moved into a newly constructed building then at 3448 Ringgold Road (currently occupied by Ready Set Sew!) which housed both retail operations and the industrial (wholesale) division, relocated from the leased space in the Osborne Building. The Solomons continued to own the business, but by 1978 B. Peyton Brien (who later operated AP Photo on Brainerd Road) was president of the company. That same year, the company promoted employee Robert Copeland, Jr., a recent first place class graduate from the Brooks Institute of Photography, to head the industrial division. Mr. Copeland also significantly expanded Camera & Craft's existing series of photography classes. The chain had always, since it's inception, presented itself as a full service retailer offering training in how to operate the products it sold, and had in 1966 won a "national retailer of the year" award from the NYC-based Brand Names Foundation. The award was based on excellence in brand promotion, sales promotion, and sales training.

Just as the local chain seemed to reach the pinnacle of market penetration and success in the late 1970s, the Solomons were losing interest in the business. In 1978 Ray began a third career as a Certified Financial Planner with Lincoln National Life Insurance, and taught evening classes at Chattanooga State. The Eastgate and Dalton, Georgia stores closed in 1980. In 1981, with only two stores remaining, the flagship store in East Ridge and one in Northgate Mall, the Solomons sold Camera & Craft to Atlanta-based Wolf Camera, which in 1981 with 22 stores in five states was already the South's largest photography speciality dealer. Wolf continued to operate stores in both locations into the 21st century, and expanded to Hamilton Place after it opened. The Northgate store was one of the last Wolf Camera stores to close in Chattanooga, having outlived the East Ridge store by several years.

Ray Solomon later developed his insurance business into Solomon Financial Group, and retired in 2001 from that career. He died in 2010, and Helen in 2014. Though his parents were Jewish, Ray was a founder, president and lifelong active member of Unitarian Universalist Church of Chattanooga.

Camera & Craft may be long gone from Chattanooga's retail landscape, but the business model it offered and championed during its heyday should be remembered. In an era of automated telephone reception and outsourced pay by the hour email support after the sale, what the Solomon's offered their customers may seem quaint nowadays, but good service after a sale should never go out of style.

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"Camera & Craft," Business Entity Detail, Tennessee Secretary of State, (

"Camera & Craft," Business Search, Georgia Secretary of State, (

"Camera & Craft Plans 3rd Store," Chattanooga Times, January 23, 1961.

"Camera Store Plans To Move," Chattanooga Times, October 19, 1972, p. 15.

"Camera & Craft Will Move to New Facilities," Chattanooga News-Free Press, October 17, 1972, p. 4.

"Camera & Craft Winner of 'Retailer of Year'," Chattanooga Times, March 7, 1966.

"Copeland Heads Division of Camera & Craft," Chattanooga News-Free Press, September 12, 1978, p. C8.

Effron Abelson Adams, Joy, "Jewish Community of Chattanooga," p. 77 (

Helen Solomon obituary, Chattanooga Times-Free Press, ( July 8, 2014.

"Mays elected Camera, Craft vice president," Rome News-Tribune, August 10, 1975, p. 8B.

Ray Solomon obituary, Chattanooga Times-Free Press, ( August 25, 2010.

Solomon, Ramon "Ray" obituary,, ( August 13, 2010.

"Wolf Camera Buys Camera & Craft Shops," Chattanooga Times, August 8, 1981, p. C4.

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