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Career in pictures comes full circle

A commercial photographer returns to his roots and teams up with a childhood friend to open a studio.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 2, 2002

CLEARWATER -- A photographer's tools are scattered throughout the studio at Riley Arnold Productions: a white backdrop, a kitchen to prepare food for shoots, a dressing room for models.

Most interesting is the $200,000 or so in high-tech digital photography equipment, including cameras that can capture images in 16-million shades of color.

It's the kind of small, artsy studio you might expect to find tucked away in L.A. or Miami, but here it is in a downtown storefront at 34 N Garden Ave.

"We're doing pretty well, although we'd always like to be busier," said Richard Riley, the photographer who started RAP with local real estate maven Lee Arnold last year. "I think there's a lot of work to be done in the area."

The downtown studio is often mistaken for an art gallery, and it's easy to see why. Two sunshine yellow Adirondack chairs sit in the window, with a large photograph hung behind them showing the chairs in the foreground of a Sand Key sunset. The silhouettes of a man and a woman can be seen at a distance, standing on the beach framed by the brilliant sky.

The photo has been used by local groups that try to market the Tampa Bay area to tourists, Riley said.

On any given day, Riley may have a food stylist bustling around in his studio's kitchen, preparing for a shoot of Roadhouse Grill's mixed drinks, or pictures of the offerings at Taco John's, a Western fast-food chain. The shots can be used on menus and table cards.

Or he may be creating a set to show a man sunk nose-deep in a swamp, a shot that Florida Trend magazine wants to use on the cover of an issue with an article about the Everglades.

Or he may be shooting a portrait of Gov. Jeb Bush.

Or working on a sexy promotional video for a Jamaican resort. He has also shot television promos for sitcoms and commercials in the past.

In fact, Riley has a 1985 Clio award, the equivalent of an Oscar for commercials, for a 1985 local commercial about the Missing Children Help Center.

A typical still photography shoot costs anywhere from $1,500 to $6,500, while a short promotional video can cost as much as $15,000, Riley said.

Riley's partner in business is childhood friend Arnold, founder and chairman of the Arnold Companies, including the Colliers Arnold commercial real estate empire.

"We got in a sufficient amount of trouble," Arnold says of their youth.

Arnold sees a niche downtown for photography-related businesses, and possibly even a nucleus of supporters who might be interested in someday creating a photography museum downtown.

Steve Carlisle has a classy, fine-arts printing studio nearby,Arnold notes. Also, Dr. Robert Drapkin, a collector of fine early photography whose collection has been exhibited at local museums, is going to be renting space for a nominal fee at 34 N Garden, Arnold said.

"I think there's a creative environment in downtown Clearwater," Arnold said. "You'll see some pretty neat stuff coming out of Clearwater."

Arnold encouraged Riley to come back to Clearwater. Riley had worked as a photographer in Clearwater, then in Miami and Los Angeles, beginning right after graduating from high school.

Arnold encouraged him to open his own studio at the Garden Avenue building, thinking that his real estate companies could benefit from the studio's services. Most of 1999 was spent gutting and renovating the building, where their business opened last year.

"When he started out, nobody shot just strictly digital, and he's made it an art form," Arnold said. Testimonials from several clients can be found on the studio's Web site.

Said Riley: "It's really high-end stuff."

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