Highland News Leader

Highland photographer has captured a half-century of Highland history through his lens

Listen to how this photographer made it 50 years in the business

Mike Voegele of Voegele Photography Studio in Highland recently celebrated his 50th anniversary of his career in Southern Illinois near Belleville, IL and St. Louis, MO.
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Mike Voegele of Voegele Photography Studio in Highland recently celebrated his 50th anniversary of his career in Southern Illinois near Belleville, IL and St. Louis, MO.

The saying is “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” But Highland photographer Mike Voegele thinks a good picture is worth much more than that.

“I think having a printed image is worth it’s weight in gold,” Voegle said.

To Voegele, pictures are more than just something to look at. They are the immortalization of what would otherwise be fleeting moments. Each snap of the shutter forever freezes an event, a person, or even a feeling, for posterity. And photos are media that can be understood better than any spoken or written form of communication.

“I just really love taking good images,” Voegele said.

On April 1, Voegele celebrated his 50th year developing memories at Voegele Photography Studio, located at 1012 Laurel St. in Highland.

“I still enjoy it,” Voegele said.

As Voegele recalled his half-century behind the camera, a subtle smile touched his face.

“It was an interesting career. I could really say that,” Voegele said.

He has taken millions of photos. Through his lens, he has documented generations of Highland family history — weddings, newborns, family portraits. Weddings all always interesting events. Some of the more memorable ones have included grooms passing out at the altar, and earthquakes disrupting the ceremony.

“I wish I could remember all the stuff. There’s just so many instances that just shocked the heck out of me,” Voegele said.

Origins of Voegele Studio

Photography has always been a focal point in Voegele’s life. His family has been in the photography business in Highland going on a century.

Alfred Voegele, Mike’s father, opened a studio photography studio in 1926. On top of his regular work, Alfred would take commercial images for businesses in Highland. He also photographed historic period images, like new buildings and infrastructure.

“He did a great job of documenting the city,” said Shaun Voegele, Mike Voegele’s son and business partner.

Alfred also photographed many Highland World War II veterans. Some of these portraits still hang in the Veterans of Foreign War Post 5694.

However, Mike said his father’s path was not always framed for success. Ten years of Alfred’s career was spent during the Great Depression. During those times, Mike said his father was only allowed to buy one roll of film, one day a month.

“You’ve got to credit, these times and what they did,” he said.

His father retired from photography in 1959. But his craft was still in the picture of his life. Alfred retained a small dark room lodged in the corner of the family basement. There, Mike would develop his amateur pictures side-by-side with his father.

After graduating from Highland High School in 1963, Mike spent four years in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam and the Mediterranean Sea. On his return, Highland’s only photography studio would close.

“My father said, ‘Highland needs a photographer,’ because at that time, there were no other photographers. So guess what?” Mike said with a chuckle.

An ever-changing career

The modern version of Voegele Photography Studio officially opened on April Fools Day in 1968. The business specialized in portraits and commercial photography.

When Mike Voegele began photographing, his camera of choice was a Hasselblad. To use the machinery, a person would have to step under a cover and use a flash bulb to take the photo. But, like the light in his exposures, Mike would learn shifting technologies in the developing world of photography would not make the career simply black and white.

“Actually, at that time, color portrait photography was just coming into being,” he said.

The first thing the business started to shoot in color were weddings. Soon, the rest of the business would follow suit. Since the studio printed all its own images, it meant some long and strenuous hours.

“I’ve spent many, a many of nights in the dark room,” Mike said.

However, the shift would not stop him.

In 1989, Mike Voegele became president of the Professional Photographers of Illinois, and became a certified professional photographer. Other leadership positions he would hold include becoming a councilman for the Professional Photographers of America from 1994-2010 and president of the Southern Illinois Art League.

In 1990, he would earn his master of photography, which goes only the professional photographers who have shown superior photographic skills, and have earned many merits with the PPA.

Three years later, eh would also earn a photographic craftsman degree. This degree is awarded for service as a speaker, author or mentor, and shows Voegele stemmed from creating images and moved to help educate blooming photographers. Later, he would become a director of Illinois Workshops, a photography school for professional photographers.

He also received the Professional Photographer of America National Award in 1996 and a Lifetime Award from the PPA in 2008.

His dedication to his craft brought another family tradition into his lens. Like his father taught him, Mike would become a photography mentor to his daughter, Bridget, and son, Shaun.

While Bridget would eventually move away from photography, Shaun officially joined the business in 1998. Together, the father son team would take on another challenge that would frame photography in a whole new perspective.

It was around 1999 when digital really started to take off, according to the Voelges . At this time, Shaun had been working for the business for a couple of years, so father and son decided to take the dove in head first.

“I traded all of my film cameras in for one digital camera,” Mike said.

Shaun Voegele said the camera was a Kodak 14n. It had 14 megapixels. For some perspective, today, the newest iPhone has a 12 megapixel camera. The Voegeles said that it cost somewhere around $15,000.

“Everybody thought I was crazy, because we were one of the first ones to take the plunge, really,” Shaun said.

However, setbacks from technology advances never stopped the business from picking up steam. At his busiest moments, Mike said he was shooting a wedding about every weekend.

“In fact, I did three weddings in one day — by myself. That was stupid,” he said.

Eventually, he also endeavored to take on photographing schools. Next year, the Voegeles will shoot student and faculty photos for 13 schools, as well as some content for yearbooks, including sports photography.

“It was just change after change after change in 50 years, and I don’t know where it is going to go from here,” Mike said.

A sun-setting legacy

While Mike still runs part of the business, he said he likes to operate from the sidelines while letting Shaun take hold of the creative reins.

“He does probably about 95 percent of the photography now,” Mike said.

Shaun became a full business partner around 2010.

“We’re hoping this year that I will buy the remaining portion of the business out,” Shaun said.

While he gives his father a hard time about retirement, Shaun said he does not want to give up their time together.

“It’s kind of nice always having his ear to bounce ideas off of and so he can relay on his successes and failures and we can try to capitalize on the successes and minimize the failures,” Shaun said.

Mike said that, while he knows the evening of his career is in the close he does not know when he will be ready for the sunset.

“They can’t kick me out,” he said with another laugh.

But, when that day does come, he is at peace knowing that the business will carry on in the family name.

Mike also wants to thank the community for the loyalty they have shown his family and wished to share how special it has been to have photographed and grown with their generations.

“Overall, it was something I really, truly enjoyed, and I think that’s probably why I’m still here (after) 50 years,” he said.