Popular Portraits and The Assembly Line Portrait

“I brought in this book to show you.”  The New Mom says as she flips open an Anne Geddes coffee table book with a photo of a sleeping baby balanced on top of a giant pumpkin.  “Can you take a portrait like this?”

“Well, it’s possible.” I say as I look at the photo, “If you can get me a pumpkin.”

“How about this one? Or this one?” She shows me photos of babies in glass vases and sitting in large garden pots.

“Well, let’s just go for the Standard Set of Portraits we take here and see if you like any of those.”

If I asked you to name one Photographer, you’d likely say Ansel Adams.  If I asked you to name one Portrait Photographer, you’d likely say Annie Leibovitz or Richard Avedon. If I asked you to name a Baby Photographer you would likely say Anne Geddes.  If I asked you who took your last portrait you might name one of a dozen or so Assembly Line Portrait studios that work in malls, churches, and schools around the country-or you might name a local portrait photographer.

Gimmicky shots are part and parcel for the Assembly Line Portrait Studio.  A lot of Anne Geddes shots are ‘Tub Shots.’  A standard prop shot of a washtub with a baby sitting in it and a few items like a washboard and an old style bar of soap around the bottom of the washtub.  Any other shot with a small child sitting in something is a tub shot.  This includes shots of kids sitting in stock pots, flower pots, pumpkins, seashells and pretty much anything else a child will fit into.  Anne Geddes took the idea to the extreme by putting babies in any vessel she could find.  This is fine for Anne Geddes, and it has lead to a lot of copycat images in all kinds of portrait studios ever since.

Popular portrait styles come and go, the Anne Geddes style of tub shots are not as hot as they used to be-but the sleeping baby hanging in a sling or wearing a hat or laying  in someone’s hands seem to be here to stay.  Popular styles include nudity and black & white and lighting and props of one sort or another.   It’s mainly children portraiture that goes through fads, with a good deal of hip and trendy styles in the High School Senior market.  This tends to make them a lot of fun to look at in a couple of years-trendy images become dated almost instantly.  They are fun to shoot though.

Most of the people I take portraits of don’t want something in the style of Chuck Close or Robert Mapplethorpe-they just want a plain vanilla portrait that makes them look their best.  One of the problems with being a photographer is that you know what you are doing, but the subject doesn’t.  The result is that a perfectly executed image confuses the Subject and the Proof Passer.  They don’t understand why there are strong shadows in a Hollywood Glamor shot or that a High Key portrait doesn’t need a black vignette around it.  In the end, all that maters is that they Buy, so if they all want flat lighting without shadows-that’s what we will give them.

I have only had my own portrait taken a few times since I got out of school.  Most of the Assembly Line Portrait companies either give their employees free portraits or offer them at a discount.  I took advantage of one of these offers and went to a Studio in a Big Box Store.  These were portraits of me and my wife-and they took individuals, of course.  This was back in the day when I had long hair and wore a lot of black.  I was sitting and waiting for The Photographer to get ready, I was kind of slumped on the stool, staring at the floor.  The Photographer was sitting up a one light shot and tripped the shutter by accident.  The image flashed on the screen for a moment and it was a great shot.  It made me look like a rock star.  The Photographer, of course, instantly deleted it-the image was a mistake and not up to the Company Standards.  But that was the only shot she took that day that was really great, all the rest of the images were just the Standard Issue Assembly Line products.  They were ok, but the image we really wanted was the one the By The Book Photographer deleted without a second thought.

I can’t always make an image that looks like the cover of Rolling Stone or Sports Illustrated, but I can usually copy the pose and give the lighting my best shot.  Given Photoshop and a couple of hours, I can recreate a magazine cover, complete with the headlines.  But I never have Photoshop or a couple of hours at an Assembly Line Portrait studio.  I do the best I can, and sometimes I get lucky and and recreate a popular image.

The Standard Set of Portraits is still what most people buy from, but I do leave in the occasional mistake and experimental shot.  I’m always looking for something new that I can do quickly and easily with what I have to work with.  I’m always looking for one more Seller to add to the Standard Set.  Always looking for that next popular pose to steal.

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4 Comments

  • I really, really like your photography blog. The first photographer I think of is Freeman Patterson, who wrote The Joy of Photography.

  • Did you mean Photography for the Joy of It? The Joy of Photography was one of those Kodak books that didn’t seem to have an author.

    I’m glad you like the blog.

  • Photography for the joy of it. I bought it not long after I bought my first 35 MM camera in 1982. A Pentax K1000. I still use it. The author had some great exercises in the book to help get out of the box when learning about photography. I don’t see the book listed here, but here are some of his other books from his website http://www.freemanpatterson.com/books.htm

  • i still prefer to use plain old clay garden pots instead of those that are made of plastic.,-’

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