Like the hundreds of thousands of photographs he has snapped over six decades, Richard Sterling's studio is frozen in time.
The turquoise vinyl chairs are so dated they are chic again. The paneled walls shout “Sixties!” A note on a steel desk gently asks customers to wait three minutes before ringing the bell.
Sterling typically emerges from a back room within a few seconds – making the bell unnecessary. And he's happy to talk photography, the career that made him an institution in Lackawanna.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, Sterling, 86, has written a library about Western New York, and in particular, this faded steel town and its people.
Photo gallery: http://www.buffalonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Site=BN&Date=20121021&Category=PHOTOGALLERIES&ArtNo=102109999&Ref=PH
But after nearly 60 years of portrait-taking, Sterling is closing shop. He sold the building at auction in September and expects to move out this month, ending a run as perhaps the most known name in Lackawanna after Father Baker.
Catholics often marked their children's First Communions with a trip to Sterling's studio for a portrait. Sterling estimates he photographed “quite a few thousand” weddings in Western New York – including the 1968 nuptials of Margaret McMahon and James Griffin, who later became the feisty mayor of Buffalo. And Lackawanna's large Yemenite community for years relied on Sterling for immigration or passport photos. Aside from their husbands, Sterling was the only man to see the faces of “covered” Muslim women who removed their veils for the required photos.
Sterling was the go-to photographer for Our Lady of Victory's Homes of Charity and for the city. In a pinch, Lackawanna police officers called him to photograph crime scenes. And he still takes the annual group picture of the “world's shortest St. Patrick's Day parade” along Ridge Road, including this past March when hip surgery couldn't keep him from leaning out of a second-floor window for the best shots.
Each year, it was a similar routine: Sterling carefully framed the photograph, while dozens of subjects stood anxiously waiting for the click.
“He was always taking his time and everybody was yelling, 'Come on, take the picture already!' ” said former Lackawanna Mayor Norman L. Polanski Jr., who appeared in several of the photos.
Sterling has photographed Catholic bishops, New York governors, movie stars and popular singers such as Andy Williams and Tony Bennett. For years, he took photos of the graduating class of Nardin Academy on the front steps of the all-girls high school on Cleveland Avenue.
In his early years as a photographer for New York State, he documented the construction of the Skyway and the Thruway in Cheektowaga.
He caught Ronald Reagan at the former Armondo's Restaurant in Woodlawn during a presidential campaign stump visit in 1980.
School functions, dances, church gatherings, athletic events – Sterling chronicled them all.
“You name it, he was photographing it. It wasn't just portraits,” said Loretta Sterling, his wife of 48 years. “He's like the fly on the wall. He's been everywhere.”
Even now, Sterling can't venture anywhere in town without somebody recognizing his name or face and explaining how Sterling took a photo of the person, 10, 20, or even 50 years ago.
“My wife says, 'Is there anybody that doesn't know you?' ” Sterling said.
Daughter Karen Sterling, who lives in New York City, sometimes meets former Buffalonians in the Big Apple who proudly show off portraits with the Sterling label.
“It shocks me to hear some of these people tell me how almost all of their professional photography was done by my father,” said Karen Sterling, herself a freelance photographer.
Sterling's studio may not have changed in the past half century, but photography itself has been turned on its lens by the digital revolution.
The industry's all-time most recognizable brand name, Eastman-Kodak Co. in Rochester, declared bankruptcy last year and stopped making cameras. Dark rooms like the one in the basement of Sterling's studio have become obsolete.
And the studio picture has gone the way of the handwritten note – both victims of iPhones and Facebook.
Sterling doesn't rail against the digital tsunami, and he's by no means giving up photography. He will continue his photo restoration work, and he has no plans to stop taking pictures, albeit with a digital camera.
“I couldn't wait to go to work every day, and I feel the same way right now,” he said.
Raised in South Buffalo, Richard Sterling was a graduate of South Park High School and studied business at the University of Buffalo prior to being drafted into the Navy during World War II. He worked as a Navy postman for 18 months and never saw battle. Upon his discharge, he enrolled in an intensive 20-week portrait and commercial photography program at the Progressive School of Photography in New Haven, Conn.
“I was taught by the best in the country. It's a rash statement, but it's true,” said Sterling. “They taught us lighting, and that's what photography really is.”
The New York Department of Public Works – forerunner of the Department of Transportation – hired him in the late 1940s as staff photographer for the region. Sterling spent just a few years with the state before embarking on his own, setting up a studio in 1953 on Ridge Road in Lackawanna, which at the time was flourishing thanks to Bethlehem Steel and other large manufacturers.
More than anyone, Sterling captured the changing face of Lackawanna from its boom days to more recent hardscrabble times.
“It's going to be different. He's been a fixture there forever,” noted Polanski, who in 2006 presented Sterling with a key to the city. “When you see him you think, 'Lackawanna.' ”
That's despite the fact that Sterling never had a home in Lackawanna.
“I tell everybody I sleep in Blasdell, but I live in Lackawanna,” he said.
Sterling retains something of a photographic memory for many of his subjects.
He recalled marveling at the extent of the labor involved in building the Skyway.
“It's very embedded in my mind, all the work they did on that,” he said.
He still remembers the commotion of Reagan's 1980 breakfast visit to Armondo's on Route 5. Secret Service and the presidential candidate's handlers crowded around the photographer, making it difficult for him to snap anything compelling.
“None of the pictures of him were really good,” said Sterling, “but it was an experience, I would say.”
The Reagan photos hung on the restaurant's wall for years afterward.
Sterling enjoyed chronicling weddings, and he was fond of telling people that if it wasn't for the photographer, the couple wouldn't know what to do over the course of the wedding day, “because it's always a first for them.”
Sterling often started a wedding day as a complete stranger to a couple, but “before you know it, I'm one of the family,” he said.
He could be equally disarming in the studio, where he possessed an uncanny ability to relate to just about anyone.
“What characterized his work is that he brought people's personalities into the photographs,” said Dale Moreau, an accomplished photographer in Portland, Ore., who worked at Sterling's studio in the late 1960s. “Everybody loved him, and consequently that came out in the pictures. He captured their personality and their spirit.”
Moreau, who now specializes in automobile photography, credited Sterling with taking a chance on him in 1966.
“It was my first real photography job in a studio,” said Moreau. “He had to straighten me out a little bit.”
Elaine Meier, who worked with Sterling from 1967 to 1972, when she opened her own studio in West Seneca, said he gave her plenty of responsibility and creative leeway.
“He recognized my talent more than I did,” she said. “He even said to me one time, 'I can't believe how natural it is for you to take portraits.' How many bosses would ever say that?”
Karen Sterling, the youngest of four Sterling children, considered taking over her father's studio.
“I always thought that it was in my future to do it,” she said. But the portrait work just isn't there anymore.
“It's tough for him to not pass it down,” she said. “It was always in his future to pass it down to one of his kids.”
History on film
Sterling has accumulated tens of thousands of negatives, stuffed into hundreds of boxes that sit on shelves in the basement.
For Lackawanna resident Ray Anderson, Sterling's archives offer a unique opportunity to explore how the city looked years ago. Anderson is compiling images of buildings long since torn down, particularly in the city's First Ward, for an online history project.
Michael Sobaszek, executive director of the Lackawanna Chamber of Commerce, will use some of the old images for the chamber's 2014 calendar.
Sterling is also selling portrait negatives and negatives from wedding shoots.
Marion Ortiz was delighted Sterling still had a negative of her 1963 engagement photograph. She lost her print years ago. As an added bonus, Sterling tracked down Ortiz's daughter's pre-wedding photo shoot negatives from 1999.
“He had all different poses and proofs and everything,” said Ortiz, who bought the negatives and plans to give them to her daughter, Megan, when she visits later this month. “I think it will be a nice surprise for her.”
Most of the images will end up in the Lackawanna Public Library, which has agreed to store the negatives.
In Blasdell, the Sterling home will now have an office where Richard Sterling can do as much photo editing as he wants, Loretta Sterling said.
“I told him, 'If you're still taking pictures at 94 or at 102, that's fine,' ” she said. “That's the way he wants to go out.”