The Photographic Factory, part 1

This post, and the one following, is a summary of my experiences working at a high street photography studio.

In early 2008 I saw an advert asking for photographers posted up in the hallway at university, where I was studying for an MA. As my study topic was concerned with developing approaches to portraiture, I thought some experience of working ‘in the field’ at a portrait studio would be useful, and so was very pleased to be offered a job after a short interview and a look at my portfolio.

An Overview of Working Practices

The studio operated over two floors in a period office conversion, the basement floor consisting of reception, hair and make-up, photography and the retouchers, with the sales department 3 floors above. This separation between production and sales struck me as awkward at first, but I soon began to understand the gap between the hot and busy studio and the cool, quiet sales suite.

Numbers

On my first day, I was to shadow the head photographer and watch everything she did, taking notes and asking her to clarify what she was doing. The working day was explained to me through numbers – we would shoot 8 clients in a day, each client had three outfits, each outfit needed to be shot on 3 backgrounds, with each background requiring a close-up, mid-length and full length shot. There was flexibility in this framework, but I stuck fairly close to it, for fear of being asked “why is there no close-up here?” We needed to submit a minimum of 40 images for each client, which over an 8 client day, meant that we shot enough images to make our day rate amount to about 15p for each photo. Photos which could then we whisked upstairs and sold for hundreds of pounds. The most expensive package was several thousand pounds.

My First Client

After watching the head photographer for a few hours, she asked me to take the next client: a mature lady with a number of quite glamorous outfits. I was very nervous, and felt hot and flustered as I asked her to do a series of poses. My nerves meant that I found it hard to operate the camera even though it was the same model I owned myself. I stared blankly at the camera and at the lights, waiting for them to indicate what I should do with the client. My mind had emptied of everything I had learned: the critical approaches to portraiture, along with my technical skills and familiarity with the equipment.

This sense of panic would recur throughout my job, and sometimes I would find myself trying pose after pose with a client, each one looking awkward or unflattering. The client would look at me with confusion, expecting to be led and directed. But underneath it all, I found it inexplicably difficult – the reason being, I now realise, was that I was profoundly uncomfortable with the process of discipline which constituted every photoshoot. Both me, and the client, were being controlled – me, by the framework of shots and the demand for high sales; the client, by my directing hand, firmly guiding them into performing ‘desirability’ in line with culturally defined gender norms.

Sales

The sales floor and team were an enigma to me. In contrast to the crumpled, sweaty workers who produced the photographs, sales staff wore ironed clothes and high heels. Their sales suites had natural light and air conditioning, all drawing a line for the client under their rather undignified physical ordeal, and instead focusing on business. This is where the point of the company resided, in a room with a big couch and an equally big screen. Sit the client down with photographs of themselves and a trained, sympathetic salesperson and the transaction seemed almost inevitable – people would want to buy their own photos, surely? Except that clients would often be shocked at the price and walk out, or hate their photographs and refuse to buy anything. But through a difficult, drawn-out process a sale could be extracted, the total of which being written in heavy black pen across the contact sheet and returned to the photographer, along with a grade. I often sold nothing, a big black zero indicating another personal failure to understand what was wanted, and to interpret the enigmatic rules of depicting another human correctly.

The Stats Board

At the end of each month, our sales were tabulated, compared to the ‘expected’ output, and ranked. The highest performing photographers would get a bonus, the poorly performing photographers would have their names highlighted in red, with the threat of not receiving more work. Being freelancers, the manager could simply decide not to allocate shifts to photographers whose sales were low, so the stats board was an indicator of who might be about to lose work. Aside from that, there was the sheer humiliation of having your name highlighted as being ‘poor’, and then pinned to the wall for all to see. The stats board created an unspoken hierarchy amongst the photographers: we all knew who the best performers were, along with who was struggling. I found my appearance at the bottom of the list uniquely demotivating, and suggested to the manager that an alternative way of displaying information be found. The practice remained, however, and I learned to just accept that in their eyes I was a bad photographer.

Over the next two years I found the job increasingly difficult. It wasn’t the technical aspects, which I mastered fairly quickly – it was the unpredictable nature of the clients, and the complete guesswork involved in trying to manufacture images which they would like. Some photographers were much better at doing this, largely due to being at ease with the clients and giving them a more enjoyable experience. I, meanwhile, fretted away behind the camera, veering from trying to make everything perfect to utter confusion and apathy.

Clients

The studio shot between 40 and 50 clients a day. I would usually forget the client’s name the instant I had learned it, and forgot the morning clients entirely by mid-afternoon. The speed of working, as well as the similarity of the shoots, meant that individuals merged into each other, losing their distinction even whilst you were working with them.

Awkward Clients

Clients could be awkward in any number of ways. They could start the shoot by saying to you “I don’t want to do this, I’m only here with my friend, I hate having my photos done.” This would inevitably make my heart sink, and despite brightly responding “hey, you never know, you might have fun!” inside I’d be bemoaning getting a client that would be difficult to work with, and ultimately unlikely to buy anything. More than this, they would make me feel like I was making them act against their will, blaming me somehow for being there.

In a way, I was making them do it – being the person directly making them feel awkward, posing them in ways they did not feel natural doing, and hovering over them with a camera, issuing instructions. People’s responses to this would vary from the quiet and sullen, to the openly hostile and critical – “why are you making me do this? I don’t want to do that.” The irony is, of course, I didn’t feel comfortable doing my side of it either, but it would have come across as very strange to start complaining to a client “I really don’t want to do any of this, I feel like a bully.”

The in-house handbook for photographers deals with this issue in the following, unintentionally humorous, way:

“ask them why they ended up here and say something like ’well you’re here now, and I’m here to take photos of you, so we might as well try to have fun’… Try to have a laugh with them about it.”

Time

Clients might be happy to do a shoot, but otherwise awkward in terms of not really understanding the fact that I have more people than them to see in a day. The shoot timings would be very tight – around 40 minutes for each client – and seeing as that includes 3 changes of outfit, it’s not surprising that I often (if not always) went over that. Sometimes that would be down to me wasting time, unsure what to do next. But more often than not I would be hanging around the changing rooms waiting for clients to finish dressing, gently urging them to hurry up. One memorable client took 15 minutes just to choose bangles – she’d brought a whole sportsbag full of them. I was so surprised that I forgot to be angry at how much this would eat into my lunch break.

A client that disappeared into the dressing rooms and then failed to emerge again was called a Narnia. Secretly we wanted them to never come back out again, as it only meant heavily rising back up to our tired feet and leading them off to again make them do something they didn’t really want to.

Physical Awareness

I was surprised at the lack of body awareness of many clients. In an unfamiliar situation it’s only natural to become awkward and a bit disorientated, but sometimes the client would seem entirely disconnected from their body.

A request to put their hand under their chin would result in a heavy lean on a fist, and a crumpled face, which I would have to delicately put right (verbally of course, as were strongly discouraged from ever touching the client). Another request to lean forward with hands crossed over the knee might result in a hunched back and crossed fists. I found it very difficult to explain to clients why a hunched back, or a fist, or folded arms, were to be avoided. Sometimes I found myself trying to explain to a client what I meant by “shin” or “elbow”, even demonstrating on myself, as the client moved or covered some other body part instead.

The most difficult of these situations would be when the client had an idea of a pose or facial expression that they wanted to do, but which didn’t particularly suit them. I couldn’t very well say “stop doing that face please, it really doesn’t work for you” so would delicately ask that “we try a range of expressions.”

It was only in retrospect that I realised such acts of controlling another person’s body and facial expressions constituted an outright act of discipline, ‘fixing’ and ‘correcting’ the minute details to make each client look ‘their very best’. Best, of course, meant normalised, and as much like everyone else as possible. At the time, I really thought I was doing the right thing. Now, I look back with sadness and shame, unhappy that I was part of a process of regulating women, for profit.

Managing Client Expectations

There were ways in which we could hope to predict and manage the client’s expectations, and we would garner information from a person’s appearance and demeanor about what we could do with them. This cynical process rested on making snap decisions based on stereotypes.

The framework for shooting people according to type assigned each client a certain range of poses and shots designed to make them look ‘their best’. People who were more heavily-built, for instance, had a certain type of shoot designed for them, namely a series of well-lit close-ups and mid-length shots, styled to conceal and reveal in the right amounts. To conceal a large stomach, I would sit the client sideways in an armchair, and have them twist round and lean forward onto the chair’s arm. The chair would hide the body, and the focus would stay on the face and chest. I would often ask a client to move their head forward a little, to stretch their underchin. A hand placed lightly under the chin could achieve a similar effect. I often worried that the client knew exactly what I was doing by posing them like this.

The studio handbook says of larger clients:

“Larger clients will often buy more photos than pretty clients if you can make them look good because they will never have seen themselves in that way”

“Black clothes on black background will make their body disappear”

The guidance for older clients is equally clear:

“Older women suit more traditional sets”

“Older women tend to like the more traditional poses”

“Be careful with moody lighting on older clients. Use bright uplifting colours and very soft lighting”

This direct linking of age / size with a certain style of photograph shows how rigidly compartmentalised the attitude towards the client was. Stereotypes were unavoidable, and practically compulsory. The question in my mind was why these stereotypes produced photographs the clients preferred – what lay underneath our notions of  being “flattering”?

A Good Client

To be easy to work with, a client would need to engage with the process. Ideally, they would have an idea of the kind of look they wanted, but be able to adapt and take direction. Unfortunately, and again I am ashamed to admit this, often the best clients would be those that asked little of you, and ultimately enabled you to work quickly without too much interruption. It was this attitude towards the clients that the process fostered, as well as the underlying fact of deception (‘this shoot is unique to you!’) and stereotype reproduction (women must be shot like this) that ultimately led to my decision to leave. My relationship towards photography had been irrevocably altered, and it had become symbolic of social and economic forces that I did not wish to engage with.

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