Aspen Grove left with photos after studio's sudden closure

Hundreds of family pictures await owners at shopping center

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Aspen Grove shopping center staff are working to reconnect hundreds of family photos to their owners, after the Portrait Innovations photo studio closed suddenly after Christmas.

The studio is one of dozens of Portrait Innovations locations that closed without warning in the final days of 2019, according to news reports from around the country.

“We had no notice,” said Aspen Grove spokeswoman Allysen Santilli. “They fired everyone, locked the door, and that was it. We're as surprised as the customers, and it affects us as landlords too.”

Portrait Innovations left everything behind when they closed, Santilli said, including furnishings, photography equipment — and photos belonging to more than 200 people. The studio had operated at Aspen Grove since 2006.

Because management doesn't have keys to individual shops, Aspen Grove management went to court to gain access. A judge's ruling allowed management to re-key the store, and Aspen Grove staff retrieved the hundreds of photo prints.

Now, staff are working their way through the photos, reaching out to families whose contact information is printed on the photo packages. Some, however, have no contact listed.

Worse, Santilli said, are those orders that weren't printed or completed before the store shut down. Those customers should dispute the charges with their bank, she said.

Portrait Innovations, which was based in North Carolina, declared bankruptcy in 2017, according to court records. The case was closed in October 2019, but the company was still tens of millions of dollars in debt.

Locations from coast to coast closed around New Year's, according to news reports. The company's website and Facebook pages have been taken down.

Reporters who visited the company's headquarters in North Carolina found the doors locked and the lights off. Owner John Grosso did not answer multiple phone numbers listed for him, and reporters got no answer at his Charlotte, North Carolina home.

Santilli said a photo studio creates meaningful products for people, and it was sad to see how Portrait Innovations treated customers.

“Lots of people have been coming for years,” Santilli said. “There's heart behind these pictures. One mother had newborn pictures taken. They're not a newborn anymore. I spoke with a grandma who told me she got her photo taken because she didn't know how much longer she'd be around and wanted to leave a nice photo for her grandkids.”

April Lahr said she has been getting family photos at Portrait Innovations twice a year for the last eight years — once in the summer for her kids' birthdays, and again every Christmas. She drove to Portrait Innovations from Parker twice in January trying to get her most recent round of photos.

“The first time I thought maybe the manager had just stepped out for lunch,” Lahr said. “The second time I realized something was wrong. I'm really thankful Aspen Grove is stepping up.”

The JCPenney photo studio at Park Meadows mall in Lone Tree is offering free Portrait Club memberships to former Portrait Innovations clients, said studio manager Melissa Falkenberg. The membership gives clients free sitting fees for two years.

Portrait Innovations' closure wasn't a surprise to Falkenberg, who worked for the company for years before going to JCPenney.

“It's a dying business,” Falkenberg said of old-school portrait studios. “In the era of digital photography, everyone's a photographer. The difference with a portrait studio is we're professionals who undergo a lot of training to give you the best presentation. We're trained to work with children, and we handle all the prints as well.”

In the meantime, Aspen Grove management is working on selling or disposing of the furniture and equipment left behind at Portrait Innovations, while tracking down the owners of the photos.

“We're working extra hard,” Santilli said. “We're always here for our customers.”

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