GENEVA — For 44 years now, Neil Sjoblom has snapped thousands of photographs documenting the faces, places and events of the Finger Lakes.
It all started in 1968, when he was a freshman at Geneva High School. Sjoblom (pronounced SHOW-blum) began taking wedding photos that year.
His career and reputation have blossomed ever since.
In between scheduling and taking high school senior portraits, Sjoblom — who runs Sjoblom Photography at 30 Linden St. with his brother, Steve — spent a few minutes this week talking about his long career in photography, spanning the days of film, light meters and darkrooms to today’s digital world.
His interest in photography came from his father, a state trooper who did some crime scene and accident photography during his career, as well as a former Geneva Times photo editor.
“Growing up, we lived next to Bill Ahlstrom on Slosson Lane. My father introduced him to me and Bill often invited me to ride along when he went to shoot an event, an accident or fire for the paper,” Sjoblom said.
Although Sjoblom was born in Plattsburgh, where his father was stationed with the State Police, the family moved to Geneva when his father was transferred to the Waterloo substation.
Sjoblom attended local public schools and graduated from Geneva High in 1971. He attended Auburn Community College and transferred to Hobart College, graduating in 1975 with a degree in art history.
“At Hobart, I participated in the school’s first study abroad program in Italy. I took a lot of photos there and came back and put on an exhibit of my work,” he recalled.
In his youth, Sjoblom developed many of his photographs in a darkroom in the Ahlstrom basement. The Sjoblom home also had a darkroom, installed by his father.
“I found it phenomenal to see a photographic image appear on a sheet of blank photo paper in a developing tray. It was mysterious and fascinating,” he said.
He furthered his technical skills through courses at Rochester Institute of Technology and Professional Photographers Society of America workshops. He’s become an active member of the national and state professional photographers associations.
He helps set up and host the Finger Lakes chapter of the Professional Photographers Society summer workshops at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
“I’ve also learned a lot from those people when they come here and offer workshops,” he said.
He said a friend of his sister, Cheryl Sax, asked him to photograph her wedding when he was a high school freshman in 1968.
“It was not only my first, but it was a double wedding. Two couples got married together. I’ve never done that since then,” he said.
Sjoblom and his brother worked in darkrooms until the digital age arrived some 12 years ago.
After some initial quality issues, he said, digital photography today offers outstanding quality without the chemicals.
“I would not go backward. I miss the darkroom in some ways, but working with digital is a lot of fun and the quality is amazing,” Sjoblom said.
Steve doesn’t care for photographing weddings. Neil doesn’t mind, so that area of the business has fallen to him.
“I like weddings. You get to be a part of one of the best days of people’s lives and everyone is happy,” he said. ”And the food isn’t bad either.”
He’s done thousands of senior portraits, yearbook photos, family and individual portraits and pictures of people posing with their pets, musical instruments, cars, motorcycles and other props special to them.
And the growth of the Finger Lakes wine industry has meant a growth in winery photography. The Sjoblom brothers have done events, scenic shots for brochures and photographs of bottles and labels.
“That’s what I like about doing this work in a smaller city. I get to do a wide variety of photography. Many in the big city studios often specialize,” he said.
He said the Finger Lakes is a “mecca” for weddings, with such great vistas as Belhurst, Geneva on the Lake, Ventosa Vineyards and Club 86.
He said the growth of consumer digital cameras and the economic downturn hurt business for a brief time. But he said it has rebounded strong.
He also photographs historic buildings, especially those targeted for demolition. He took commissioned photos of the old Gigliotti gas station at 305 Main St. before it was torn down and will be photographing the Geneva Chamber of Commerce building on the lakefront before it comes down later this month to make way for the Finger Lakes Boating Museum and Visitors Center.
Sjoblom also enjoys photography as an art form. His portfolio includes thousands of nature scenes and artistic creations that have won him awards.
“The Finger Lakes is a treasure trove for that. The beauty is all around and the photographers who come here each summer for the workshops love it here for that reason,” he said.
Sjoblom makes it clear he loves the career he has chosen and remains enthusiastic after more than 40 years in the business.
In 1988, he joined with Ken Camera and Greg and Chris Lavin to form the Linden Group. They bought the building where the studio is located.
The main studio is on the first floor. Photographs he’s taken of President and Mrs. Clinton, Helen Reddy and others hang on the wall. The second and third floors are also active work areas, having once been the location of the H.J. Stead bifocal lens company and then the Fairfax wallpaper company.
In 1988, he was awarded the master of photography degree by the Professional Photographers Society of America. In 2006, he was the recipient of the Eastman Kodak Gallery Award.
The Kodak Gallery awards are the “Oscars” of the industry, Sjoblom said, the most prestigious awards in the business. During his career, his photos have won 25 blue ribbon awards.