By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
Photo Texas Photography — the 7th largest school photographer in the nation — works with hundreds of thousands of students at nearly 600 schools each year as the official photographer for school portraits, team photos and group shots.
When the pandemic hit, the company — founded by River Place resident Cindy Gallien in 1999 — had to scramble to reinvent the way it took school pictures.
“We leave for spring break (in 2020) and everything shuts down,” said Gallien.
Photo Texas photographed nearly 42,000 students at 44 LISD campuses alone the year before the pandemic hit. Gallien has been working with Leander ISD for the past 24 years.
Due to COVID protocols, all school and team photography was significantly changed last year. It was not only cumbersome with processing and keeping names and photos organized but also keeping everyone distanced during the shoots.
The company put up tents and took pictures outside while keeping everyone spaced. Students signed up for time slots. Labor costs increased for Photo Texas.
“Honestly we survived on some graduation (business) money from March until September,” Gallien said.
Federal Paycheck Protection Program lending helped Photo Texas stay afloat with its near 75 employees. “We did not close any of our offices, six across Texas and SW Louisiana,” she said.
Gallien also realized because of the pandemic that Photo Texas did not need as much office space since the team was proving it could do excellent work remotely. So earlier this year she cut the company’s footprint nearly in half by moving headquarters from River Place to 7804 Bell Mountain Dr. Suite 101.
“I think we are coming out of this stronger,” said Gallien, whose daughter and son both graduated from Vandegrift: Katy, now 27, was part of the first class of 2012, and Matthew, now 24, VHS class 2015.
Gallien, who is an educator by trade, is grateful to be able to work with schools. She likes to encourage school staffs by dropping off donuts on occasion. She says it always brings out the smiles.
Not only is Gallien working with schools in Texas but is sharing her expertise nationwide. Just as the pandemic was unfolding, Gallien became a founding member of School Photographers of American which includes the 15 largest school photographers in the country. They launched in March 2020.
The organization couples Gallien’s two passions: education and photography.
A 6th generation Texan, Gallien was born and raised in Beaumont, northeast of Houston some 80+ miles. She stayed close to home and attended Lamar University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in school administration.
After several years of teaching and coaching at Beaumont ISD, she was being groomed to become a principal but she walked away from the field because of racial integration.
“In 1979, BISD refused to integrate the children in their schools and spent more money on court costs than the kids,” Gallien shared. “With tears streaming, I realized I didn’t want to be in (that) district. I didn’t believe in what they were doing.” She was 23 at the time.
Gallien also coached middle school basketball and boys’ little league baseball. While coaching baseball, she spoke with the “picture man” and family friend Roger Wynn — father of former Austin mayor Will Wynn. Gallien shared with Wynn her desire to leave education, but was uncertain of what change to make. Wynn sparked Gallien’s interest in considering a sales job with the photography company for which he contracted.
In 1979, Gallien was offered a job by that photographer, who had taken her school photos since first grade.
An epiphany came to Gallien on her first day on the job.
In August 1979, Gallien was at an East Texas school in Zavala, Tex. The K-12 school was small and most of the students were from modest families.
“A mom with three children approached me that day. She didn’t have enough money to purchase her students’ photos. She offered all sorts of solutions to pay me,” Gallien remembers. “I assured her that she would receive the photos of her children and not to worry about the money.”
On her way home from that shoot, Gallien realized something profound which has been a guiding principle of how she runs her business.
“I realized these children were the most important thing in the world to her. At that point, I realized that every child in front of my camera was the most important child to someone,” she said. “So on that first day, I realized this would not become my job, but rather my purpose.”
As the first person in her family to earn a master’s degree, Gallien herself — and her parents — questioned her decision to leave a promising career in education to pursue a job she didn’t even understand. The photography job initially had no contract, no health insurance, no retirement, and was one in which she had no experience; however, she was under the wing of Wynn who would show her the ropes.
Founding Photo Texas
After years working alongside Wynn in the business, Gallien saw the coming of the digital age in the mid-90s and knew advancement in the industry had to take place. She approached the president of the company with ideas and a resolution of embracing the digital change, but her ideas were rejected.
In 1999, Gallien left her contract job, and focused on building her own company which she reorganized and renamed to Photo Texas Photography a decade later.
Photo Texas moved from Anderson Mill to River Place eight years ago, in the fall of 2013. Back then Gallien had her eye toward expanding into more Texas markets.
And that is what she did. Since then Gallien has grown the company from 35 employees covering Austin, Houston, Beaumont, College Station and San Angelo to now 75 total employees and added markets of Dallas-Ft. Worth, Lubbock and southwest Louisiana.
Now 42 years later, Gallien goes back to that discovery on the first day on the job taking school pictures.
“Every decision and process must fit our belief that ‘every child is the most important child,’” Gallien said. “I attribute any success to that standard and by supporting our communities, schools, parents and children.”
In 2013, Val Olivas interviewed CEO Cindy Gallien when she moved Photo Texas Photography headquarters to River Place.