Powell Studio Captures Special Memories Over 75 Years
Gigi Holmes built a career out of being there for the people of Northeast Pennsylvania during their milestones.
In 2018, the Green Ridge resident reaches a couple of her own: her Scranton photography company, Powell Studio, marks 75 years in business, while Holmes celebrates her 35th anniversary with the studio.
Holmes’ parents, Louis (an industrial engineer who worked for Haddon Craftsmen and later was self-employed) and Virginia Senofonte (a registered nurse and manager at a state hospital) refused to pay for photography school unless their daughter earned a college degree first. So the Bishop O’Hara High School graduate enrolled in night classes at University of Scranton to study business, working at Powell Studio during the day as an assistant and salesgirl for then-owner Ann Boyer, who mentored her in the art of portraiture.
A photojournalist, Boyer bought the business from the Mokis family in 1983. Since it differed so much from her own news-gathering experience, she learned portraiture from Harry Mokis, who owned the studio since 1970, and she passed on that knowledge to Holmes.
Mokis had joined Powell — then the Schriever Studio — in 1937 when James Boniface Schriever, a noted photographer whose works are archived in the Library of Congress, operated it. The business moved locations in Scranton several times over the years. When Schriever died during a photo shoot in January 1943, his longtime employees, sisters Marguerite and Evana Powell, bought the business from his estate and renamed it Powell Studio. They kept Mokis and the rest of the staff, and Mokis eventually bought the business from them.
Mokis sold the studio to Boyer so he could retire after working decades without a vacation, and he and his wife, Rose, maintained a close relationship with her and Holmes well after the elderly couple left the business.
“I grew up with them,” Holmes said of the Mokises. “(Boyer) and I spent six months with them in the Brooks Building when she bought it, and they taught us everything.”
While her predecessor opted to move the studio during her tenure to Daleville into a building she already owned, Holmes quickly brought it back to Scranton upon acquiring the business in 1997. Now housed in a 6,000-square-foot Boulevard Avenue building owned by Holmes (the photo studio operates out of half the space, while a dance studio occupies the other half), Powell continues to be part of the special moments of life and has become a tradition for generations of local families.
“I always liked pretty things, and photographing them is a way to preserve them,” Holmes said. “I couldn’t wait to go to work every day, and I still feel that way.
“We have to be doing something right,” she added, noting that many residents who move out of town return for photos at her studio during the holidays. “I give a classic picture. There’s trends that come and go, but a Powell lasts forever. That’s why our catchphrase is, ‘There’s nothing like a Powell portrait.’ People said that to me for years before I realized it was perfect.”
Jeannie Ehnot of Dunmore has been a loyal Powell Studio customer since 1986 when she brought the first of her nine children in for a two-year-old portrait. Since then, Ehnot has returned for photos at that stage with each of her kids, as well as group photos with her five (soon to be six) grandchildren, first Holy Communion portraits, bridal sessions and more.
“When you look at a Powell (photo), there’s just no mistaking that it is that. It’s distinctive in the quality of work; they are unmistakable,” Ehnot said. “When (my husband) Tom and I had our children, we never had a lot of money, but one thing I insisted on was adding to my Powell portraits.
“I call them my diamonds and furs,” Ehnot added with a small laugh. “I don’t really have those things, but my Powell portraits are my diamonds and furs. They just capture emotion and they capture your children’s childhoods in their portraits. When I sit in my home and look at my diamonds and furs on my walls, it truly brings a smile to my face. I remember how they were back then. I just love them.”
Holmes listed Mother’s Day, Christmas photos, children’s portraits, engagements and bridals, family and anniversary portraits and eternity pictures — taken of senior family members to memorialize them before they pass — among her most-requested shoots. Though she snapped weddings for 25 years, Holmes began farming out the jobs to trusted colleagues about a decade ago upon request only. These days, she’s incorporated other sittings, such as soccer, baseball and school portraits instead.
Her assistant shooter and studio manager, Cara Gowden, specializes in infant portraits and also keeps Powell on the forefront of technology with digital manipulation for the perfect photo. Through post-production techniques, including retouching and head and body swaps, reshoots are unnecessary and stress is eliminated, Holmes said.
The use of computers is a stark changeover from the 1917 Kodak Century camera still found in the studio, a piece of equipment Holmes used until 2010. It’s one of only two known remaining models in the country — the other is in a museum in Savannah, Georgia, she noted.
Holmes even keeps her old dark rooms untouched at the studio, which also includes space for her office, two sitting rooms (one exclusively for newborn photo shoots), a large changing room plus work and framing rooms.
“I didn’t dismantle the dark rooms. Sometimes I like just walking in there to remember what it was like,” she said with a smile. “The quality has evolved, but I think there used to be more craftsmanship.
“But I always tell young photographers, you don’t need the best or newest equipment. It’s how you use it.”
Among her most famous portraits are ones taken of former Vice President Joe Biden in his childhood home in Scranton (Holmes lives next door to it), plus shots of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign.
Perhaps the most unique are the ones Holmes shot of actors Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling and Faith Wladyka, who played their daughter in the movie “Blue Valentine,” which filmed locally in 2009. The actors came to Powell for a series of family-style portraits in character, which were then used as props for the movie, hanging on walls just as any other Powell portrait might.
“He was a doll. All the little Green Ridge girls came, and he went out and signed all their autographs,” Holmes recalled of Gosling.
But the true stars of her portfolio are the countless brides and mothers who come to her for some of the most important photos of their lives.
“Me, as a woman photographing a woman, I think it makes a difference,” Holmes said. “I think there’s a lot more competition than before, and that’s why I always try to care. You can get a picture anywhere, but you have to remember the experience.
“What we see on paper isn’t always what we see in the mirror,” she added. “When they open it up and I see a little tear, or they can’t say anything, I know I nailed it.”
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History of Powell Studio
Late 1880sJames Boniface Schriever opens his photography business, then called the Schriever Studio, which changes locations in Scranton several times. Headquarters include above Lewis & Reilly Inc. shoe store in the 100 block of Wyoming Avenue, the second floor of the Mohican Market building in the 100 block of North Washington Avenue and the Brooks Building, 436 Spruce St.
1943 Schriever dies at the camera during a photo shoot on Jan. 3. Two of his employees, sisters Marguerite and Evana Powell, take over the business and rename it Powell Studio.
1970 Harry Mokis, a dark room technician who worked for the studio since 1937, and his wife, Rose, take over the business.
1983 Photojournalist Ann Boyer buys the studio and moves it to a building she owns in Daleville. She begins mentoring her employee, Gigi Holmes, in the art of portraiture.
1997 Gigi Holmes buys Powell Studio and brings the business back to Scranton.
2018 Powell Studio marks its 75th anniversary, and Holmes celebrates her 35th year with the business.