Hanging Out At The Mall

“Have you looked at their website?” I say to the Passer as I hand her one of their flyers. “It’s a lot slicker than The Company’s.”

“Yeah, I know.” She says as she looks at the sample images on the flyer. “I spend over four hundred dollars on their pictures the last time I took my granddaughter there.  Their pictures are just as good as ours, if not better.”

I interviewed for a job at one of the Assembly Line Portrait places in a mall department store.  The tiny Studio with it’s white shell background could be modified in a seemingly endless fashion by using light modifiers that projected different patterns on the wall.  All you had to do was use a bar-code reader and viola! the background was changed.

While I was waiting to be interviewed I flipped through the Sample Book in the waiting area.  There were some pretty cool shots, and some pretty dull shots.  They were doing a lot of cool stuff with computers, a lot of simple to do, but impressive looking special effects. They also had a number of photo mats, both real and digital, on display.

The pay was not good enough and listening to the gripes of the Photographer/Passer that I would be replacing, I decided I might as well stay with The Company a little while longer.  I did like that little studio though.  When I told the Manager that I wouldn’t be taking the job she all but begged me to reconsider. If I had any doubts, that pushed me all the way over to the No side.

While I was in the Mall I stopped by a couple of other Assembly Line Portrait places-both of which were hiring, and both of which were paying too little for my taste.  One was a stand alone place with a large sample book of mostly contemporary portraits-tight headshots, floor poses, lots of black and white glossies of perfect smiling people.  The other was another Department Store Assembly Line Portrait place, and I have to admit that I was a bit impressed with the products displayed on the walls.

I’ve worked in Department Stores Studios before, I worked in Wards back in the day, but this is a whole different animal from that.  The Products are digital prints that have been manipulated in varied and sundry ways.  The usual B&W, Sepia Tone, and Color-plus a pretty good use of selective colorization, so that a b&w image has one color saturated.  There were several different kinds of composites using all manner of photos in the slots.  These are pretty damned cool.

There was also extensive use of camera angles, unusual framing, ultra tight cropping, full length poses, 3/4 poses, and a lot more props than I ever want to have to think about.  This Studio expects it’s photographers to work, what kind of a deal is that?  I chatted with the Photographer/Passer for a few minutes and decided that this place was not for me.  She was young and perky and didn’t mind working for next to nothing while taking at least three times as many portraits as I normally take and then turning around and selling them herself.

The food court has a fairly upscale little area around it’s restrooms.  A lot of nice sofas and cool light fixtures-and a lot of 30×40 family portraits hanging on the walls.  These are High End portraits on stretched canvas.  One is of a Bride, one a family in an outdoor setting, one a couple in a formal studio portrait-all of them are perfect, or as near to perfect as a portrait can be.  Amid the portraits is a small holder filled with glossy brochures for the Company that took the portraits.  This place was not hiring and it was not an Assembly Line Portrait Company.

Most of the people I work with have worked at other Assembly Line Portrait Companies, some were good, some were bad, many are now out of business.  But the little spots in the Mall keep right on rolling along.  I’ve worked with a couple of Passers who were Photographers at Department Stores, they were a pain in the ass to work with.  They thought they knew everything, thought they knew more about taking portraits than I did, thought they should have been the Photographer.  Most of them quite after a few frustrating months, but so far as I know, none went back to being Photographers at Department Stores.

I looked up one the Department Store websites not too long ago and I was impressed by the layout of the homepage and the vast amount of information to be found in the varied and sundry pages and sub-pages of the site.  They have cute names for many of the standard poses and they have a nag on every page to make an appointment or find a Studio near you.

The Company has a similar webpage and they have also given cute names to many of the poses-only they never told The Photographers that they had given cute names to the poses.  So what happens?  Someone walks in wanting such-and-such a pose and I look blankly at them and say-uh, what?  I figure it out pretty quickly, seeing as we only have about ten poses it is not difficult to narrow the field of candidates.  I wonder if the Photographers at the Department Store have to memorize all the cutesy names?

I worked for one Company that sold coupons and rented out an empty store front in malls that were going broke.  The PreSeller would stand around trying to sell Portrait Coupons to the handful of people who visited the mall.  Then we would roll in and take the portraits.  The Passer would go back a couple of weeks later to show the portraits.

One thing all the Mall shops had in common was their focus on kids, and I am not as fond of small children as I once was.  So that was one more reason to stay away from that branch of the Assembly Line Portraits family tree.

The Company has changed it’s photography, the products it offers, the prices it charges, and how it schedules it’s portrait sittings.  And for all of that, The Company is still about twenty years behind everyone else in technology, products, and marketing that attracts people who want to have their portraits taken.

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