Shut Up and Smile

“So. Are you from around here?” I say as I adjusted the background.

“No.  I used to live up North.” The Man says and takes a deep breath. “We’ve lived here for about twenty years though.  We live just down the road.  That house with the big pecan tree in the front yard.  I planted that tree myself when we first moved in.  We really like pecans and I still end up giving away pounds of pecans each year. . .”

“That’s nice.” I say and wave my arms in an attempt to get the man’s attention.  He seems a bit unhappy that I have interrupted the endless prattle that is the story of his life. “Look over here and Smile.”

I was trained to ask the occasional question, but I don’t do that any more.  As a general rule nothing good can ever come from talking to customers.   If they start talking, they never want to stop.  Which is fine as long as we are killing time while they are waiting to view the portraits, but if I am taking their portraits I don’t need to hear any of this.  The customer can’t hear my directions if they are telling me the story of their lives either-and that is why they are here.

Some Photographers I have worked with love to talk to customers while they take their portraits.  Not me.  This leads to discussions about things I don’t care about like politics and reality shows and religion.  Blah.  It also leads to people talking-which means images of people with their yaps open.

The other problem is that once people start talking it often leads to  more work for The Photographer.   They decide that they want a different background than the one you are using.  They want a different pose.  They want to go home and change clothes and them come back for additional poses.  Wrapping up with a nice snappy-“That’s it, we’ll show these to you in a few minutes.” tends to end most other desires for conversation.

The whole point of Assembly Line Portraits is to sell pictures-which means that we are going take as many photos as we can in hopes that the people will buy portraits.  It also means that we will already be taking all the poses that The Customer is likely to want.

One photographer I work with likes to interrogate every one who comes into his studio.   His plan is to find out if they have good jobs or are professionals and thus more likely to have disposable income to spend on portraits.  He’s seldom correct in his assessments-none of us know who is going to buy and who is going to be an Nonbuyer.  If we could predict the future, we’d be stock brokers not photographers.  But some of us still like to try.

The Assembly Line Portrait Companies want to pretend that we are all customer service relationship specialists.  We are not.  Most of the time we are grumpy, tired, and really, really don’t want to see anyone walk through the door at the end of the day.  In this we are like everyone else who has to deal with the public and like every low paid front line person-some Boss somewhere has a set of protocols for us to follow.

“Hi, my name is ____ and I will be taking your Portraits today.  Please make sure that your hair and jewelery is correct and that your smiles are ready.  Please come with me into the Camera Room.  Have a look in this mirror and make any last minute adjustments.

“Please turn a little to the left.  That’s good.  Now smile.”

Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

I tend to skip all of this.  My routine is more along the lines of:

“Smiths? Come on down, guys.” I make a follow me motion with my hand and head for the camera room.  I adjust the stools as they take their time finding the room.

“Alright, Sir have a seat there. Madame, have a sit right in front.”

“Turn this way.” I say as I point my arms like a Ground Crew worker to get them to turn to the Left.  “Keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Good.  Smile. Now turn the other way.” I do the Ground Crew routine in the other direction.

I tell people what to do for the five minutes they are in my Studio and end by telling them to wait outside to view their portraits.  I don’t need to talk with the people as I do this.  I don’t bite when they ask leading questions.  I don’t return questions about them after they ask a question about me.  I have pat answers for the handful of frequent questions I get.  Nothing that would lend itself to a conversation.

“Looks like you’ve done this before.”

“Oh, once or twice.”

I am not their uncle or their best friend, this is what I do for a living.  The Family is just another group of objects to be arranged in relationship with lights and backgrounds.

I remember doing High School Portraits and I had one of the countless pretty girls turn this way and that way and smile.  She did as she was told, which is what makes my job easy.  She stood up to go and looked up at me with that why do I put up with this expression that girls do so well.

“I feel so used.”  She said.

“Get used to it.” I replied.

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