“Did you need special training to become a photographer?” The Little Girl says as I set up the shot of her family.
“Nah, I just found an ad that said No Experience Necessary and I thought, Hey, I got no experience.” I smile as I give my usual answer.
“I’d like to be a photographer when I grow up.”
“It’s not too late to change your mind.” I say with a smile.
Her father didn’t think this was very funny, maybe he was a photographer and wanted her to follow in his footsteps, maybe he thought I was being mean and crushing the little girls dreams. But honestly, she was young enough that she would very likely change her mind.
I got my first camera as a Christmas present. It was a toy camera for taking silly portraits. The box was filled with things like cut outs of over sized ears, mustaches, and eyebrows. There was also a very large bow tie and it seemed there were a couple of silly backgrounds as well. The pictures it took were a kind of Polaroid and as I recall, there was some little gimmick that made it look like you were using developing trays. I took a self portrait where I had large pointed ears and a bow tie. I have long since lost that image, but it is still clear in my memory.
My first real camera was a 126mm point and shoot with a large on camera flash. I spent a lot of time taking Fine Art images in black & white that were just awful. Over the next few years I would move up to an Olympus OM-1, which was a very nice 35mm camera. This was an SLR and had all kinds of knobs and twist rings and you needed to learn a bit about f-stops and apertures to take good photos. I learned a lot of stuff that is now pretty much obsolete. But that was a great camera and I took it all over the country and it even made a couple of trips to London with me.
I was a Rent-a-Cop for about ten years. You can’t get a more boring, dead end job than being a Rent-a-Cop, but I was dead lazy and I liked the time to read, write, and think about life, the universe, and everything. The money, well, I didn’t like that so much. So I was always reading the Want Ads and I did find one for a Portrait Photographer that said No Experience Necessary. I was interviewed in a McDonalds inside a Big Box Store and I was hired on the spot and told to pick up my Studio the next day. I spent the next two weeks watching two Assembly Line Portrait Photographers take portraits and show me how they did it. I also had to commit to memory a good part of the first of many three inch thick Manuals on Photography.
I almost quit that second week when I was being trained by a slightly neurotic little man who wanted me to know all the minutia in the Photography Manual. In a couple of months I was the number one photographer in my district. A couple of months after that I was made a Trainer. A month or so later I was offered my own District in Tennessee. A couple of months after that, The Company was no longer in business.
A year here, a couple of years there, a few trips around the State and then The Country and I ended up where I am now. I have worked my way through all of the major Assembly Line Portrait Companies in my part of the country and a few from other parts as well. I have yet to land that Assembly Line Portrait job that will send me to Hawaii or Alaska, though I have applied to a coupe of places that sounded promising. I have not found work overseas either, but hope springs eternal.
Over the last fifteen years or so I have gone from using a long roll film camera to using digital cameras. The Assembly Line Portrait business has moved from waiting two or three weeks to see your pictures to viewing the portraits moments after they were taken-thus making retakes easier and more useful. I now see every portrait that I take, where I never saw any images when I first started.
Those first few months were spent taking portraits of babies on the sales floor of a Big Box Store-usually under a lot of time pressure and a line of Moms with crying kids down the aisle for hours. I had to take five shots of each child, they wanted me to take five salable shots, but that was nearly impossible. Often the Mom would want shots of three kids, ages three, two, and six months and it was not uncommon to hear horror stories of babies falling off the posing table and crashing to the cement floor with its one inch foam rubber cushion. I never had a child fall off one of my posing tables and hit the floor, but I did have kids fall off and caught in midair by Mom. I don’t use a posing table any more.
I was a kind of introvert when I became an Assembly Line Portrait Photographer, I had spent a lot of time alone and my usual method of dealing with people was to run them off or call the cops on them. Now I was a front line service person and I discovered that the Managers of Big Box Stores are all assholes who keep alive the spirit of Adolph Hitler. Grocery store managers are also assholes. In fact, even the Department Managers at most stores are assholes. One of the great things about Assembly Line Portraits is that you don’t have any boss to speak of, and hence we all tend to have authority issues.
Working on the floor of a Big Box store in front of a wandering crowd of shoppers made short work of any stage fright issues I had. Working alone meant I had to deal with all those Managers, Coordinators, and Motel Clerks I was always running into. After a pretty short while, I learn to ignore all criticism and objections and just do my job. Some days are better than others, but after a while I leave them all for better money. Only now, I don’t think there are any better places left to go to.