35 years in full-time photography, 47 years making Merrill their home
Phil and Mary Ziesemer retire from business ownership, but they aren’t pulling up roots
TINA L. SCOTT
Phil and Mary Ziesemer are probably best known in the Merrill community as co-owners of Phil Ziesemer Photography, Ltd., a business they operated together full-time from 1985 through 2020. Thirty-five years of photographing high school seniors, children, families, sports teams, dancers, products for brochures, and much more, as small business owners in Merrill, came to a close when the Ziesemers sold and moved from their E. Seventh Street home/studio location on Sept. 30, 2020. But the Ziesemers aren’t going far. Along the way to building and growing a small business in the community, Merrill became their permanent home, and now they wouldn’t think of pulling up roots.
A $5.00 rangefinder, 150 rejection letters, and 2 daughters later
“I was drawn to photography by my parents,” Phil recalled, “who, I thought, took a lot of photos of my siblings and I. I eventually got my own camera and started taking photos myself, but lacked the money to have the images processed and printed.” As a result, his camera sat more or less idle for a few years.
Then, when he was a Junior in high school in Milwaukee, his best friend came to school and showed him a camera he had received as a gift. “From then on, I was hooked,” Phil said.
“I bought a used rangefinder camera for $5.00 and started photographing almost everything,” Phil remembered. “I bought photography magazines and read them cover to cover.”
A high school teacher soon became a mentor and taught him how to develop his own film, from spooling the film to enlarging to making black and white prints. And Phil was indeed hooked on photography. As a Senior in high school, he decided he wanted to make photography his career, “a decision that my guidance counselor discouraged,” he recalled. His guidance counselor wanted Phil to pursue a four-year program, rather than the two-year photography program that was tugging at Phil’s creative heart. “You can always study photography,” the counselor told him.
“Naturally, I didn’t listen to him,” Phil said.
“I enrolled in the photography department at the Milwaukee Area Technical College [MATC] in 1969 and graduated in 1971,” Phil said. “By graduation in 1971, I had decided that I wanted to be a photojournalist. I fancied myself as a globe trotting photographer who was going to save the world with his camera, but one thing was standing in my way–the lack of the four-year college degree. So I went off to UW-Patteville, where I learned I could start as a Junior when they accepted my photography credits from MATC, to study visual communications in the College of Industry.”
Mary and Phil were wed in the summer of 1972.
“We spent our senior year in Platteville,” Phil recalled “and, as expected, started applying for jobs in 1973. After 150 letters to daily newspapers throughout the Midwest, I got a tip about a paper in Merrill, Wisconsin, that was looking for a photographer.”
“It was a weekly,” he said. (Not his first choice.) “But, after 150 ‘No’s,’ I felt it was time to be flexible,” Phil added.
Phil interviewed with L. James O’Day, then owner and publisher of the Merrill Foto News and started with the paper about four weeks later. “There was a twist, however,” Phil recalled. “My desk had a typewriter on it.”
It was a compromise Phil was willing to make to achieve his goal of getting paid to be a photographer.
“I covered sports, city, and county news with both camera and words,” Phil said. A year or so later he was named Editor.
“It was a great six-year run,” Phil said, and a position that enabled him to meet lots of people that would help him and Mary in their future as business owners in the community. “We will always be thankful to the O’Day family for bringing us to Merrill.”
In 1979, Phil resigned and took a position at Weinbrenner Shoe Company.
Meanwhile, Mary “who was educated as a teacher” was teaching third grade at St. Robert’s Catholic School (now St. Francis Xavier Catholic School). After teaching for seven years, Phil and Mary adopted their first daughter, Amy, and Mary became a full-time mother. Then they adopted their second daughter, Jessica.
By 1983, “I was feeling the need to photograph more than I had been,” Phil said. The couple started a part-time photography business out of the home they lived in on E. Ninth Street in Merrill to satisfy that need.
The call of the camera … to full-time career
By 1985, the call of the camera was even more intense and a part-time photography career was no longer enough. The Ziesemers made the leap to a full-time photography business. Phil resigned from Weinbrenner, Mary took occasional substitute teaching jobs during the early years of the business, and Phil photographed portraits “on location and in our home’s basement.”
“Mary and I worked the business as a team,” Phil said. “My name was on the sign, but she was the brains behind the outfit! If there was a difference of opinion between us about what was to be done next, she’d remind me that she was the studio manager.”
Within three years, the Ziesemers were ready to take the next step to a downtown retail location. They set their sights on newly renovated 813 E. First Street where, “Ironically,” Phil said, “the builder of that location, many years before, was a photographer.”
That was 1988. Enter baby number three: “Our third daughter, Nicole, was born to us, in Merrill in September 1989. (A surprise blessing!),” Phil said. Life, and their business was busy but blessed. A couple of years later, Phil Ziesemer Photography, Ltd., again moved. This time it was around the corner to another renovated downtown location, 120 S. Mill Street, in the lower level of what was formerly the Lincoln House. [The building was razed years later and Kindhearted Home Care built their new facility on the site.]
“In 2001, we were convinced that we needed a new location,” Phil said, and they decided in favor of a home and studio combination once again. “[We] found that a large home at 1200 E. Seventh Street was available … made an offer on the property just before leaving for a Labor Day vacation … [and] by the spring of 2002, after renovations were mostly done, we were ready for business again and were open for 19 years at that address.”
Phil is quick to point out that 35+ years of operating a successful small business was because he and Mary worked together so effectively as a team. “Her people skills were invaluable to our success as a business,” Phil said. “She would often laugh and tell people that I was the artistic brain and she was the logical side of our studio. As an example: she would be in the reception area with dozens of dance moms, talking, laughing, accepting payments, answering questions, accepting phone calls, and keeping everything organized for me while I played photographer in the camera room. On those nights, I would only enter her area in extreme situations.”
Mary contributed vital communication skills, handled most of the sales after the studio transitioned to digial imaging, helped keep things organized and on track during on-location sports team sessions, and became a second set of eyes during studio locations.
Throughout his career as a photographer, Phil has continually focused (pun intended) on perfecting his craft. He became one of the few Certified Professional Photographers in the country, and the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) honored him with two degrees: Master Photographer and Craftsman.
Not content simply to learn, Phil shared his knowledge and experience with other professional photographers. He was active as an educator for 19 years with the Wisconsin Professional Photographers School at Treehaven (at the UW-Stevens Point Treehaven campus in the Town of King) and served as the assistant director and registrar. “We held professional level seminars with nationally known instructors in the spring, before the environmentalists from UWSP took over the campus for the summer,” Phil remembered.
Phil and Mary became active in a northern Wisconsin photography group called Indianhead Professional Photographers (IPP), the Wisconsin Professional Photographers Association (WPPA), and Phil is a lifetime member of the PPA.
Retirement … from business but not photography
“Retirement was a scary word for us, because of all of the years that we flew solo and provided for ourselves and family with an independent business,” Phil said. “But now it feels right and we are comfortable with it.”
Phil and Mary are quick to point out they are retiring from business ownership, but they aren’t leaving the Merrill community. They describe Merrill as “the beautiful community that we fell in love with, after moving here in 1973 after our college graduations.”
“We were asked by some if we were going to move to a new town after we retired,” Phil said. “To be honest, that thought never entered our minds. We raised our three beautiful daughters, have friends, and a strong church association here. God’s country, the city that Jim O’Day, former owner of the Foto News, brought us to so that I could fulfill my first dream of being a photo-journalist, is our home.”
“There is no other place we’d rather be,” he added. “There is only one thing that would make our lives happier here; that would be the relocation of two of our daughters and their families back to their home town.”
Phil and Mary credit the people in the Merrill community for their success and their desire to continue calling Merrill their home. “Many, many people and businesses have made our career in Merrill very enjoyable (including our daughters who would work summers with us during their high school years), and we thank you all very much. We have been blessed and, quite frankly, as a small business, we beat the odds of being successful, again, because of the fine people that patronized our studio.” One of their greatest joys was families that returned year after year for children’s and family portraits, And the moms they photgraphed as high school seniors who brought their own children for senior portraits a generation later. So many of their clients, the Ziesemers say, have become not just customers but family friends. Other photographers and business owners also became close friends.
The Ziesemers have moved to a condo on Thielman Street and, “after the COVID scare is past us, we hope to be able to travel a little and spend time visiting family and friends,” they said. They also plan to stay active in the Knights of Columbus [for Phil] and their church home, St. Francis Xavier Catholic parish.
“After 35 years of serving Lincoln and northern Marathon Counties, we have decided to retire from living the dream of owning a business in the photography industry,” Phil said. But he isn’t retiring from his passion for photography. “I still love photography and want to concentrate on topics that intrigue me, like landscapes, still lifes, and nature. I have an interest in infrared captures and using specialized lenses for artistic effects.”
Clearly, for Phil Ziesemer, retirement doesn’t mean putting the camera down. It simply means he can focus on whatever catches his eye next. Perhaps that will be landscapes in far off lands or still lifes of his own design right here in Merrill, but it’s good to know his travels will always bring him back here to the community where his children have their roots and now they do, too.