JOHNSTOWN – When hungry and thirsty patrons consult the menu in Drunken Jack’s, a restaurant in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, near the Atlantic Ocean, they have no way of knowing the glossy document was designed and printed here in Fulton County, in a little building whose narrow shape was determined by the proximity of some railroad tracks that no longer exist.
“I think it’s tacky to put our name on the menus and other things that we produce,” said Magenta Ann Ward, the owner and sole employee of Big Fish Multimedia, whose photography and video studios and print shop operate from 331.5 N. Perry St.
The Fonda, Johnstown & Gloversville Railroad once ran behind the building. The rail bed is now a bicycle trail, and on a recent Saturday afternoon, a few cyclists glided by as Ward sat in the customer waiting area and discussed business conditions. The reception room is a cozy space at the southern end of the narrow building. It has soft chairs and a wide-screen television and is decorated with various pieces of antique hardware: a television from 1948, a wire-recorder from the 1950s and a letterpress, circa 1897, used for printing post cards.
“I made it look like a little living room,” Ward said. “It makes people feel more comfortable.”
Ward, 43, started the business in 2011 in her bedroom in a house next door. She sold photography services online and via word-of-mouth. Four years later, booming demand caused her to move the operation into the rectangular building beside the FG & J Rail Trail.
“The real question,” Ward said, “is not what we do here – but what don’t we do here, because we do a lot.”
The company is vertically integrated. There are photo and video studios in the small building, along with digital printing presses and a letterset press that Ward is working at putting into production. “We don’t outsource to anybody,” Ward said. “It’s all done right here.”
In addition to her duties behind the camera, Ward subcontracts work to three other photographers. They shoot weddings and various events, and have people visit the studio for private sessions and public events with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
Beginning in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic evaporated most of the demand for photography from Big Fish Multimedia. Even before this, however, something else had been eating into photography revenues: the increasing sophistication of the cameras on smartphones.
At weddings, Ward and her subcontractors had to elbow their way past guests who were taking photographs and videos with their phones. “They can’t get all the special filters and lenses that we use, but for a lot of people, it’s good enough for them,” Ward said.
Some wedding business has returned but Ward believes smartphones will keep her trade from returning to the heights of 2018. Ward said she is training one of her contract photographers on printing operations and hopes to add them to the payroll as an employee.
INK AND PAPER AND A DOCTORATE
Ward graduated from SUNY Morrisville in 1998 with a degree in computer programming. She was unable to find work with her two-year diploma, she recalled, and instead found employment in food service. By 2008, she was a manager in the Dairy Queen in Crossgates Mall.
When that restaurant closed, Ward went back to school for degrees in graphic design and communications. Her PhD, in communications, was awarded by UAlbany in 2018. The owner of Big Fish Multimedia is glad that her professional life took her down a few different pathways before she was able to launch a commercial enterprise in her bedroom.
During those earlier journeys, she learned about budgeting and time allocation and how to deal with members of the public.
“It all kind of set me up with the life skills for owning my own business,” Ward said. “It’s all good. I cannot complain at all.”
The graphic design and printing side of the business has attracted customers from New York City, the Capital District of New York, and customers from out of state.
Ward showed a visitor some examples of her work. There were the many paper forms used by a Schenectady-based homebuilder, assorted restaurant menus and political campaign literature.
All the forms were appealing to the eye and to the touch. It was obvious the outputs had not been made on a home inkjet printer or an office photocopier.
“During the pandemic, photography took a hit but the print shop sales went through the roof,” Ward said. “I have so much work to do. I’ve been known to work until 3 o’clock in the morning in the print shop, just printing away.”
As for the name of her enterprise, Ward said Big Fish Multimedia took its moniker from the tales some people will tell after going fishing. “I tell people’s stories through photography and through their menu designs,” she said. “I tell stories for a living.”