Snapshots of the past preserved in photo sanctuary

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by Sayaka Matsuoka

Ken Toda has a certain familiarity about him.

At 65 years old, the Japanese expat is only five years older than my dad and has similarly wrinkled lines on his face, evidence of decades of life experience. He even has a familiar smile, a sort of crooked, half-smirk that says, “Sit down, let me tell you a story.” But instead of collecting stamps and model airplane kits like my father does, Toda collects cameras — hundreds of them.

The shabby warehouse off an unassuming side street in High Point sits in the middle of a gravel parking lot lined with old Celicas that evoke a time dominated by Michael Jackson records and turtleneck sweaters. From the outside, the building looks like a modest metal shack and the stickered sign on the door that reads “Huemax” — the name of the store — is barely legible from a distance. In other words, you’d have to be looking for this place to find it.

As you walk in the door, the obscurity of the outside of the building gives way to a cluttered museum-like interior crowded with cameras and various photography gadgets. Cameras taller than me greet customers near the entrance of the shop, while walls lined with hundreds of photography artifacts draw visitors in.

This is Toda’s homage to a lost art.

Born and raised in the Kansai region of Japan, Toda began tinkering with cameras in elementary school. He recalls being interested in landscapes and remembers taking a picture of a burned-down school near his home. By the time he was in high school, he had his own darkroom and was studying photographs in publications like Time magazine. Fifty years later, he’s still adding to his collection and spends his days selling pieces and repairing cameras for customers, shooting images from time to time.

Toda’s photography obsession closely follows his journey to the states, which began when he was in high school. He met a group of North Carolinians at the 1970 Osaka World Expo, and he befriended an interior designer from Winston-Salem named Reginald Styers. He visited  Styers in New York the following year and from there, Toda found his way to Kernersville where he lived for five years while going to school at Randolph Community College and later Elon University. He was hired as the university photographer and used his skills as a cameraman as a way of communicating with the outside world. Just as food was my Japanese father’s entry into a new country, for Toda, photography was his way of assimilating into American culture.

 Huemax is located at 2313 Geddie Place (HP) and is open via appointment only. 

As he fondly recalls his time working at Elon, Toda shows me various pictures he took for the 1975 yearbook including action shots of basketball players and students sunbathing on the lawn. He looks back on this time with pride as he points out a younger version of himself, complete with a bowl cut, posed with a camera. It was during this time that Toda began his camera collection.

Displayed in chronological order from the mid-1800s to 1975, more than 1,100 cameras grace the walls and cabinets of Toda’s shop. For the collector, the latter year holds significance because it marks the time when digital cameras made their debut. Thirty years later, with the onslaught of cell phones featuring high-tech cameras built in and the invention of gadgets like the GoPro, the era of film cameras is rapidly fading. For Toda, limiting his collection to film cameras is his way of preserving a recent, yet quickly disappearing past.

“Digital photography killed us,” Toda says. “The camera is not a camera anymore, it’s a computer. I don’t hate it, it’s just a different beast. You can’t improvise as much. That’s why you have to go back to retro.”

His oldest piece, a looming portrait camera, epitomizes this sentiment. It dates back to 1860, a time when portraiture was the main subject of photography and the art was just starting to take off. His rarest artifact comes in the form of a $1,200 Leica camera from 1931, displayed in a glass case towards the back of the building.

Listening to Toda describe the various pieces in his shop, it’s more than evident that his passion for cameras goes beyond just the mechanics of the art form. He describes how the medium has changed over the years and what it meant to him as a teenager in a new world. Both the warehouse and Toda’s vast knowledge provide a glimpse into the history of photography as well as a preservation of High Point’s own history with the medium.

According to Toda, the once-booming furniture market made High Point a prime spot for photography dating all the way back to the early 1900s, when the medium was used for furniture catalogs. The strong tradition of photography continued into the 1980s, perpetuated by the furniture market and the foundation of NASCAR in the region. Toda’s longtime friend and photography partner Worth Canoy remembers their time working at racecar shows and shooting thousands of shots of furniture just decades ago. Now Canoy, who works as a security officer at High Point University, says he has a hard time finding work in photography.

“The digital revolution destroyed photography,” Canoy says. “Now people buy their own cameras and do it themselves. There’s no professional photography industry anymore.”

For both Toda and Canoy, Huemax seems to be more than just a photography shop; it’s a preservation capsule of a precious art.

Graham Kennedy, a UNC School of the Arts student, is evidence of a younger generation taking an interest in the dying form. He has been coming to Toda’s shop regularly for the past year since he discovered Huemax through school friends. This morning, he buys 10 rolls of film for a whopping $90, which the student says is a good deal.

“More and more people are finding it important and it’s making a bit of a comeback,” Canoy says of film photography. “I think it’s cool. I’m glad to hear that people even realize there was a world before digital cameras.”

Going forward, Toda hopes to keep inspiring younger enthusiasts like Kennedy to continue the tradition of film photograph. He envisions one day letting someone with the same passion take over his store.

But for now, Toda works behind the counter in his warehouse, day after day, repairing relics from decades past and spreading the gospel of his beloved craft to any who will stop and listen.