The Washington School of Photography has been in Bethesda since 1976, steadily growing in size and reach and surviving a major technological shift that changed the industry forever.
But in December, the school on Rugby Avenue will move from Bethesda for at least the next decade. Development of an apartment complex on the site is imminent. The crane already looms over the administrative staff’s offices. And they say it’s time to move on up Rockville Pike, out of their hometown of almost 40 years.
“There’s a cost involved. There’s an inconvenience,” said WSP Executive Director Missy Loewe. “Whether we feel happy about it or sad, it’s happening so we may as well be happy about it.”
Unlike some forced out by the wave of apartment development hitting Bethesda, Loewe and WSP will survive (and perhaps even benefit) from the move to an industrial area of Wilkins Lane near the Twinbrook Metro station in Rockville.
They provide a unique service: Living Social-friendly beginner photography workshops, specialized courses in shooting weddings, fashion, food or a well-recognized year-long intensive course that produces many of the area’s professional event photographers.
The new space will have 15,000 square feet, triple the size of the 5,000-square-foot space on two floors of Rugby Avenue.
“This is a huge opportunity for us to sort of take the next step in our 36 years, 37 years of growth and become sort of the largest photography center in the Mid-Atlantic that’s dedicated to the craft,” Loewe said.
“The potential is so exciting,” said Don Becker, an instructor and local fashion photographer who took his first class at the school in 1977.
The potential has been exciting enough for developers near the school’s new location and the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development to encourage them and provide guidance with the move.
Loewe estimated 15,000 people have taken some form of workshop or class at the school since 1976 and she said her budget has tripled since she arrived 13 years ago.
Despite the film-to-digital shift that left photography available to anyone with a cellphone, the educational component of becoming a quality photographer has remained popular.
“There was a period for a couple years where it was not clear if digital was as good or if it would stand the test of time or if it would get any better. And we took quite a dip because people didn’t want to learn film in case digital took off. They didn’t want to learn digital in case it was just some fad,” Loewe said. “Then when it became clear that this can be as good as film, that this was the new direction, we had a whole new audience.”
Becker first started teaching at the school in 1983, when it was in a commercial copy center building across from Tastee Diner on Woodmont and Norfolk Avenues. In 1978, Ed Riggins came to the WSP as a teacher and eventually director and came up with the small five-to-10 person workshop class structure that Becker said has sustained the school to this day.
“It’s a very powerful teaching tool,” Becker said. “Even with film, just watching how the student is shooting can tell a lot about what they’re getting. It’s so much stronger than having a lecturer talking to a group of people and having the people go out and try to put it to use themselves. It’s made it a little bit easier with digital. Now, we can just see what they have.”
The school won’t be moving far.
Loewe said the search for a new location began almost three years ago. Bethesda was the preferred location but space was difficult to find. The school considered Silver Spring or even farther east, but wanted to remain within roughly the same distance for Northern Virginia customers.
The space in Rockville, on Wilkins near a number of auto repair shops and the federal government offices on Parklawn Drive, will have free parking but miss the walkability and arts scene Bethesda provided.
Becker and Loewe are already devising some sort of art studio exhibition in that area, though they know that at least for now it won’t match the Bethesda Art Walk that has become popular in downtown Bethesda.
“It’s been a struggle,” Loewe said. “But I think once we’re in there, we’ll be glad that we did.”