For someone who doesn't appear on local television or preside over local civic government, Randall Barker is one of Bakersfield's most recognizable businessmen. It is his work behind the scenes and in back of the lens that has made the 50-year-old native the "big man on campus" these days. The high school portrait photographer of choice attributes his success to nothing more than being a "people person."
Barker has photographed celebrities, politicians and generations of families, but his favorite subject is the high school senior, on the brink of the milestone of graduation and a bright future.
"I like engaging people and pulling out the individual personalities," Barker said in his office, surrounded by dozens of framed fresh faces captured by his cameras. "When I can have that one-on-one with one person, it maximizes the connection."
Able to coax smiles out of frowners, and lure spunk out of wallflowers, Randall and his business Randall Photography is the coveted and contracted photographer for some area schools, and sought after by families throughout the state, and others across the country.
Jack of all trades
A graduate of now-defunct Horizon High, who bounced from school to school, Barker said he never imagined becoming a photographer.
"Yet, my mother was a school portrait photographer, and I took 90 percent of the pictures in my high school yearbook," he said. "Photography was not on my radar. Yearbook was an elective for me."
His goal was to become a registered chef working in the food services industry.
After a semester at Bakersfield College, he started a string of odd jobs that included a stint as a singing waiter, and street sweeping.
"I became an entrepreneur early on," Barker said laughing. "I think I'd had nine jobs in the first eight years of marriage."
A jack of all trades, but he was a master of none, until opportunity came calling.
While sweeping streets, he'd met a man who owned a photo lab. Barker purchased it in 1992, and changed its name to Timeless Photo.
"We were developing 100 rolls a day until digital came out," Barker's wife, Debbie, recalled of the business' dental lab service.
By 2004, the tsunami of digital photography was taking the industry by storm. The Barkers decided to ride the crest of the digital wave and started Randal Photography. Self-taught, Barker said he spent the early years attending every seminar possible, taught by some of the nation's top shutterbugs.
"The first year was low volume, carriage trade of commercial, family portraiture and high-end weddings," he said.
But the following year, life was not developing as he planned. Business had fallen off, and a staph infection landed Barker's wife and daughter in the hospital.
"For the next two months, I would work maybe two hours a day," he remembered.
They recovered, but not long after, Randall was diagnosed with double-pneumonia.
"I was working by myself, and I considered bailing on the photography business," he said.
He loved what he was doing, but love alone couldn't pay the bills.
So in August of 2005, at the suggestion of a friend, the business went through a bit of "photo-shopping" when Barker decided to bid for high school contracts.
"Garces Memorial was looking to make a change," he said, calling it the studio's turning point. "That was our God moment, when I thought, 'If photography is for us, then that is the way we will go.'"
His pitch was honest and candid.
"I basically said, 'We have never done this before, but we will do everything in our power to make you happy.'"
The candor paid off. Two weeks later Randall was awarded the lucrative school contract.
"Randall goes above and beyond to help out at all of our student activities," said Garces Memorial's spokeswoman Lou Ann Durrett.
Echoed Myka Peck, Garces Memorial's director of student activities: "Randall is so easy to work with, and he comes to everything he can with his camera in hand. He makes it fun for the kids, feels like part of our campus, and he is definitely part of the Garces family."
Staying old school
In 2006, the studio picked up Bakersfield High School. Later came Highland High. The couple estimates they have photographed probably thousands of students, easily 600 seniors per year, if not more.
Today, Barker remains one of just a handful of local veteran photographers with storefront studios. With an effusive smile and twinkle in his eye, Barker remains old-fashioned to the core.
"We want to stay old school, keep that human connection, but within that we embrace the changes of the Internet age within a warm environment," he said.
Several years ago, Barker decided once again to take his enterprising instincts "outside of the box" by renovating the 8,000-square-foot property on Buck Owens Boulevard -- turning his back lot of the props he designed and built as a saloon front, with mission doors and urban scenes -- into a full-service venue and backdrop for special events.
The Barkers arrange all of the details for those occasions, but Randall said he never pulls out a camera.
Looking back on the business' evolution, Barker -- a 2005 recipient of the "Kodak Excellence Award" for western states' commercial photographer of the year -- said the ups and downs helped "build them on the backside." For now, the Barkers are content with the size and scope of the business.
"We want to be a photography studio of purpose, not convenience," he said.