Within the first few minutes of visiting Gitchell’s Photography, several individuals pass by the business’ large windows with only their smiling faces and waving hands showing over the front window displays of vintage cameras. It’s as if each individual knows, from daily experience, that Christa Gitchell, her husband, Bruce, and her son, Jon, will be there to return their smile. As she and I sit down together to chat in the lobby area, it feels as though I’m back in Southern Virginia, having a glass of iced tea with a wise neighbor. Christa’s nature is one which makes you forget that you might have only known her for minutes. She leans in when she talks to others; she calls people by their name and looks them straight in the eyes. “Integrity is everything,” Christa says. She believes that every business, and individual, must possess this attribute in order to survive and thrive, especially in today’s world.
When the mailman arrives, she knows him by name. She’s not afraid to tell me that she needs to speak to a client on the phone while I’m there. Her customers and community members are more than a means to sustain her business; they obviously, and unapologetically, mean the world to her. This is a businesswoman who knows about the community she serves–that’s what happens when a business has been a part of downtown for 109 years. “I was born here. It’s home. I grew up running the streets of downtown Harrisonburg,” she says proudly.
There’s a strength which Christa exudes as we speak about how she came to know photography and to own the business. “This wasn’t handed to me,” she said. “I had to work for it.” She told me of the difficulties learning the trade, but not once does she speak of her struggles as though they ever held her back in any way. Her father was reluctant to teach her the trade (due to it being a predominantly male trade at the time, but she was determined to learn any way she could). In 1986, and after her father’s health failed, she carried on her family’s tradition and became the owner of the business. Christa’s nature is one that realizes she wouldn’t be where she is without her own diligence; however, she is grateful for those who taught her life lessons, and who made what she learned from each of them possible. She’s not an on the sidelines sort of person, and the business isn’t either–it transitioned from film into digital photography in 2003.
Gitchell’s Photography helps others keep memories in a visual form, and Christa does the same throughout her own business’ walls. While taking a tour around the building, we enter a dimly-lit room. In it, we are surrounded by vintage photography equipment, in a similar fashion as it was probably used prior to 2003. Black and white photographs cover the right-hand wall. Although we don’t have a large amount of light, (being that the room was once used for film development and enlargements), I notice a softness in Christa’s eyes as she tells me the story of the business, and as she sorts through the memorabilia and portraits of her deceased family members. One of her eyes glistens with a wave of memories.
“Is it difficult to look back through it all?” I ask, although it was a rhetorical question which her expression had already answered. Each time she presses the shutter button of a camera, she’s a part of many community members’ celebrations and memories, and also connected to her own family history.
The way she runs the business is mindful of its past and history, as well as the future. It’s obvious that every piece of furniture and decoration are where they are for a reason. The mirror, which hangs above a side table, is a family heirloom. On the lobby walls, alongside portrait photographs she and her family have taken throughout the years, are photos of family members passed. A picture of her father, sits on the table below the mirror, as it is an obvious testament to her respect for her life lessons and the hard work it took for her to be the one that our community members see while passing her windows. Christa Gitchell has a perfect balance of honoring the past, yet making sure her business adapts to the future of photography–and our community.
These are not just photographs to her. When it comes to photography, she speaks of it as something which must be respected. She speaks of photography as though it is a living, breathing person that she’s formed such a bond with–one that requires a tremendous amount of patience, respect, and courage to get to know. With Gitchell’s Photography having contracts with over 1500 sports teams a year, as well as two weddings a month, this business only needs to advertise through its long-lasting example of integrity. I have no doubt that the longevity of Gitchell’s Photography is due to their trustworthiness, but it’s rare to meet an individual as friendly, and simultaneously strong, in nature, as Christa.
“I’m not a teacher,” she said. As she tells me that many have reached out wanting to learn from her, I couldn’t help but think that each person teaches by example. She may not be a businessperson who has the time to teach photography, but she’s taught our community a valuable lesson–tradition and adaptation are a perfect combination for a sustainable, successful business.
From darkrooms to beach-front photography sessions, Gitchell’s Photography has helped create over 100 years of memories for our community, and beyond. You best believe that your photographs are taken with care. From the glisten I witnessed in Christa’s eyes while receiving the tour of her family’s business, her business understands, and respects, what all memories are made of.
Written by Angela M Carter
Author, poet, artist and Outreach and Engagement Coordinator at Skyline Literacy