“A monkey can do this job.” the Manager says as we chat between sits on a slow Shoot. “All you have to do is show up and follow the Manual.”
“I think there’s a little more to it than that.” I say, not that fond of being compared to a monkey.
“Not much more.” The Manager says with a smug smile. “It’s not exactly rocket science.”
That was a couple of years ago, back when the people who run Assembly Line Portrait companies were still making out like bandits by mass producing standard posed shots, portraits sold by the sheet, and working the law of averages to make one sale for every five people that just got The Freebie. And they could always blame that trained monkey for not making the other sales.
Now the world of Photography has shifted, the landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. Everyone has a cell phone with a camera and anyone who wants one can buy a Pro caliber camera for under a thousand dollars. It’s cheaper and easier than ever to start a Portrait Photography business. Most of these Studios are one person operations-not mass production lines-creating one of a kind images made by craftspeople. The only rule that matters is that someone is willing to pay for what you are doing.
The Old Model of hiring people without any skills and training them for three weeks is still pretty much the standard in Assembly Line Portraits. This worked fine when all you wanted was someone who could get everyone is the frame and looking in the same direction. The Subject is a little more educated these days, a little more savvy about what they want. They expect to have a choice of backgrounds, poses, and Photoshop style effects. Very few companies get by with selling images straight out of the camera any more-but some of the Big Assembly Line Companies are still pretty close.
One of the results of this brave new world is that The Photographer in Assembly Line Portrait companies no longer has control over the images that he creates. The Sales Station is where the image is cropped, edited, and presented to the Subject. The Passer decides if the image should be color, black and white, or sepia toned. They decide if the image should be showed to the Subject at all. They decide how to crop the image, what to leave in and what to leave out. They decide to put a black vignette on a High Key portrait or a white vignette on a Low Key portraits. The decide to center images that are meant to be off center. They crop out the body for subjects that don’t like their bodies. They do whatever they think will get them a sell-and if this means throwing all rules of composition out the window, they throw them out the window.
Our goal, as always, is to sell Portraits. And yet, I would prefer than my images not my be mangled by someone with three weeks of training and a poor eye for what makes a good portrait. Even the Old Timers can crop images and add vignettes that make the images look even more Assembly Line Portrait than usual. The long time Passers also have years of training to break free from, and years of hard wired habits that are difficult to change. Whatever works is fine, but not everything works.
In a Brave New World people were breed to preform specific tasks, and nothing else. Most assembly lines work on the same general idea, you follow the manual and everything will be fine. That is not really the case any more. After years of having every photographer take the same portraits, someone at The Home Office discovered that sales were down and people where buying their portraits somewhere else. So The Company is doing what it has always done, it’s trying to copy the work of successful portrait photographers and undercut their prices.
The interesting bit is that The Company thinks that a new background and the directive to take more creative portraits is all that is needed to bring back the Glory Days. In those halcyon days of yore there wasn’t a Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, and Mall Portrait studio in virtually every small town in America the way there is today. When a traveling Assembly Line Portrait studio rolled into town and took portraits in a motel or a church or a shopping center, they were the only portrait game in town and they ranked in the dough. Many Assembly Line Portrait companies think that they just need to tweak their basic business model and they will once again be rolling in money.
Not to say that The Company is not rolling in money already, but that they want to be rolling in more money. New Companies are doing fine, because they don’t have a long history to compare their current numbers with. They hire people that think 18K a year is OK money and as a result, pretty much everything that low paid photographer sells is profit. Working for someone else always means they are taking the lion’s share of the money, but the best places make sure the Photographers and Passers make a good percentage as well.
It’s still possible for anyone to walk in off the street and spend a couple of weeks learning the basics-but it’s becoming less and less likely that they are going to be making the big bucks doing just the basics.