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Tuesday, 09 April 2013


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I suppose this could represent an opportunity of sorts for some of the people who worked these jobs to break out on their own. That's a scary position to suddenly find oneself in, though.

I do wonder: just what part of the business model was sufficiently broken to cause such crippling debts to build up?

Also should we be looking out for a glut of DSLRs, lighting gear, accessories, assorted backdrops and props flooding into the used market shortly?

They just fell victim to a stronger competitor: Soccer Moms with DSLRs (TM).

Here is Joaquin Phoenix demonstrating the people skills necessary for a successful career in photographic portraiture:


Any mention of that particular genre immediately brings to mind Leon A. Borensztein's American Portraits.


Sad about all those jobs, but from a brutally aesthetic point of view, I'd have to say good riddance to bad rubbish. Other than a few baby portraits (it's hard to miss with babies), I've never seen a single frame from CPI, Olan Mills and similar outlets that I'd want to have around. Early on my wife bought a four-session package from Sears and she was so disappointed in the results of the first that we never went back for the rest. Probably very good value for the money, really; if we had done all those sessions we'd have a pile of bad pictures that we'd feel like we had to keep because they "cost money." Better to pay for the object lesson and skip the future garage detritus.

This may be kind of tangential rambling, but perhaps this is a calling of sorts to us as photographers.

People may not care for professional portraiture now, but they might in several decades when thousands of electronic images are lost into the ether. Perhaps some of us should be working to remind people of the value of a tangible artifact?

I was in the Art Institute of Chicago this past week and had the distinct pleasure to look at a daguerreotype produced by an unknown photographer, and was absolutely floored by its physical characteristics and details. How do we convince people that photographs have a worth beyond a megabyte, and what do we change in the presentation of our images to help return them to a higher status?

I'm not suggesting we return to the daguerreotype, but perhaps as photographers we should focus less on the newest DSLR and more on having a better purpose for our images than being printed at W*l-M**rt and chucked in a drawer with all the rest of modern life's detritus. I know that I personally have a lot of area to improve in this regard.

What's next for the image? How do we get it back on walls? How do we get it back in front of faces? How do we make our work stand apart from the mass of digital noise that may or may not stand the test of time?

Portraiture has been taking a huge hit in every market for one simple reason. 20 years ago a regular family would get maybe one or two good photos all year of their child usually as a school photo, anything else then they would go to a professional. Now that same person has 10,000 photos and guess what, they carry them wherever they go. It would be nice to think that the closing down of these stores would filter business up to the professional studios but the fact is they have lost customers because they are doing it them selves, and they are pretty happy with the product. As professionals we have to strive to provide a service or product they cant do them selves, however with computer software and unique apps thats getting harder to do all the time.
Also with people constantly seeing these types of images wherever they look, a new style has emerged, one of a slightly dumbed down, mistake ridden portrait. So more and more people desire the cell phone, weird light streak look. I remember, almost 20 years ago, going to a conference where the photographer was showing us how to do individual portraits on a wide angle lens, something pretty rare back then but now its what everyone is used to seeing more then on a "portrait" lens.

I hate to be cynical but I bet top management paid themselves nice exit bonuses.

I wonder where all of the camera equipment will end up? Wholesaled off and to eventually hit the market on Ebay or Amazon? Thats a lot of used equipment to hit the market.

As for the future look of portraits, I see then being the one handed teeny self portraits. I have worked with some of my nieces pictures that are like this. She had enough interesting images that were altered with a free software, that I turned them into a photobook for her. He pics looked a lot better than your example.

While in high school back in the 1960's I worked part time as a printer for a local portrait studio.
One day the owner came in with a serious case of the a**. The bank that held the note on the studio had announced a promotion in partnership with a traveling photo business to offer free family portraits for anyone opening a new account.
My boss marched across the street and into the president of the banks office (you could do stuff like that back then) and asked if they would like to go from holding a note on a studio to actually owning one?
At that point I am pretty sure the conversation may have devolved into a speculative discussion about the bank managers relationship with his mother.
The promotion got cancelled.
Portraits have always been a tough racket.

Now I don't know anything about portrait business in the US, but since this is the Internet I'm going to pretend to be an expoert, so here goes...

I assume that the proliferation of digital cameras and DSLRs is putting new, tougher price-pressure on the low cost studios. If someone or their uncle Bob already has a DSLR then they could just snap a picture at a suitable gathering and be done with it, saving some bucks in the process. Conversely, if someone wants a nice, well done portrait they wouldn't go to a supermarket, they would go to a "proper" studio.

Or then the portrait studio chain is just bad at business. But my bet is on the change in the market making the low-end market smaller over time.

This might sound harsh (and somehow irrelevant), but for the sake of making things clear - if they were anything like their counterparts on this side of the iron curtain, they weren't doing portraits. They were doing photos of people's faces. Very much not the same thing.

A serious blow to websites featuring embarrassingly bad family portraits.

I would be very very surprised if this made muich difference to any other than the bottom rung "real" photographers. I am sure that most of those that used this service were neither ale or inclined to pay the price of a sitting with a protrait professionsl. I could be, however, a real boon to the Debbie Digitals if they jump on the marketing.


I was going to post something to the effect that the new lowest-common-denominator portrait might also turn out to be something 'fixed' by people's 'photographer friends' using HDR, and then adding a link to something I hoped to find after using the image search term "bad HDR portrait." However, turns out all I needed was "HDR portrait"...

Hi again.

And while speaking of portraits, I'm currently revisiting Jane Bown's book Faces. I discovered her and this book through this site, so bucket loads of thank you for that Mike.

And speaking of image searches (as I was moments ago), trying "Jane Bown" will net you the flip side of my previous HDR dig.

Did you know that the DOMAI ad shows up as a preview icon when I link a story on Facebook?

[Any idea how to fix that? I have no clue. --Mike]

You know, say what you want about "lowest common denominator," but ...

My son had colic as an infant. It was bad. He would scream, eat, and sleep, and that was it. For the first 6 months of his life he never smiled, except ...

One day while my wife was with him in Sears (people still shopped at Sears back then!) and someone from the portrait studio offered a free sitting for my son, who had apparently taken a break from crying and screaming.

Holy crap. The *only* picture of my son smiling-- and not just smiling but giddily and ecstatically smiling!-- for the first six months of his life is from a Sears portrait studio. It was worth whatever we spent on prints at the time. And God bless whatever that photographer did to get him to smile.

(Later experiments with Sears proved to be less successful.)

Never mind. At this very moment, pundits are pondering the existence of a Shopping Mall Portrait Esthetic. Museums are mounting retrospectives. Apps are available. Soon to come are DSLR shooting modes and online debates about superior Lightroom nuances.

I sort of object to Manuel's idea that that the "portrait" is something that's "needed" (vs wanted), and hence, easy to supply by scanning on old photo in and attaching it. That's only one use.

One of the things that attracted me to living in the Washington DC market, was that there were still people, of a traditional bent, that got family portraits done every year, or special occasion portraits done, and as late as the late 1980's, still demanded it in black & white. People with the money, and the family tradition, still want this service in areas of the country where the 1% reside. Now that might mean you have to be really good, and live a very streamlined life, but that still might be open to you as a business.

Unfortunately, the volume portrait business surrounding senior portraits, set up the whole race to the bottom. I worked for a very decent quality level purveyor of this service back in the late 60's, early 70's, and it was brutal back then. The type of work these studios at Sears etc. turn out, was far worse than what he was doing, but he was still bidding against the cheapskates and losing. There are certainly areas of the country (welcome to Wisconsin!), where bad work cheap is more acceptable to good work expensive.

BTW, I keep this e-mail from an art director pal, and like to read it a few times a year:

"I go to the Lutheran home for my Bulgarian dance rehearsals. There's a long hallway I have to pass through, with framed photographs of their presidents, starting, I think, somewhere around 1900. It's a linear display of the changing techniques in photography, the change in the skills and attitudes of the photographers, and the change in the people being photographed.

The first one was exquisite. The complexity of the colors alone was enough to seduce my eyeballs into passing over every square inch. Yes, colors--infinite pearly grays and deep velvety blacks, each made of all the colors in the spectrum, sometimes a little cooler in the shadows and warmer in the light, toying with the rich surface of the paper.

The lighting was of course meticulous and loving, and the subject was dressed and coiffed perfectly, sitting straight and proud, sparkling eyes gazing into the future, the lips suggesting a smile that promised glories ahead. He seemed to glow. Did the subject provide the light, or did the photographer?

With every passing president, the richness of tones in the printing declined, and the advent of color treated us with brutal reality instead of the delicate hand of dreams. The lighting became flatter, the subjects more poorly dressed, and most importantly, the "light" in their eyes gradually all but disappeared.

The last portrait was of an ugly, expressionless man in ugly clothes, shot hastily using flash, printed on an ink-jet and thrown into a cheap frame."

------------Frances Ullenberg

If there was ever something that would make you try your best to take a portrait, it would be reading this a few times a year.

As a non-photographer I don't see how this news is related to portraiture's future actually. Whoever handles Target, J.C.Pennys for example will step in and yes they are already digital if that matters.

In other words when a sizable company pulls the plug without warning its customers there's usually something else going on unrelated to the core business that caused its demise.

Re “The demand for printed portraits is dwindling…”: That's probably true, but ironically, the WSJ story about them (Portrait of A Studio Missing The Boat) suggests that people did want prints but the company couldn't provide them:

The company's demise, staff and industry figures said Monday, can be attributed to … years of under-investment leading to missed opportunities and a company out of touch with its times.

In particular, many said, CPI didn't update its technology for the digital era. It couldn't run modern imaging software and was reliant on centralized printing facilities that could take up to six weeks to deliver photos.


If you are using Firefox, there is an add-on called "Add This". With that you should get an opportunity at the bottom of your post to select the thumbnail from among some of the images on that page.

I find it works very well.

@Derek...Facebook lets you select a different thumbnails or none at all. I had the same experience, and didn't want "joyful nudes" going out to my photo club (though I'm sure some wouldn't complain).

re: DOMAI ad

Add a picture with link (icon) above and below the ad and see what happens, or try renaming the DOMAI ad file name.


Dear Folks,

It'd be interesting to find out if the demand for printed portraits really is diminishing. Sure, sounds reasonable on the face of it, but then so does the common assumption that the demand for commercial photo printing in general is diminishing. I certainly believed that.

'Cept, that isn't true.The demand for printing has been steadily increasing since the turn of the century. I wrote a column about that:



Unfortunately, to find out what the portrait printing sector is doing, I'd have to lay out real money for the detailed industry report, and I'm too cheap to do that (the summary reports, while a bit hard to dig up, are free).

Maybe one of the readers who is in the printing business and gets those reports could comment on this.

pax / Ctein

"in several decades when thousands of electronic images are lost into the ether"

Pretty much all the color photo portraits shot on film and printed on color paper in the 60's and 70s are gone already, or need serious digital restoration.
Cibachromes are holding up well , Polaroids are pretty good if stored correctly, but all you can say for Kodak prints is they aren't as bad as Afgacolor.

My first photography job 30 years ago was for CPI managing a Sears studio. Cheap, cheap, cheap. No, that's not my chicken impression. I'm surprised the company lasted as long as it did.

I know this is a late post on this, but just wanted to say that when I was managing an advertising in-house studio for a department store, I had the opportunity to interview more than a few people who worked in the "leased department portrait studio", who wanted to move up. All very nice people, but I learned that in many situations, the lights, were "nailed down", the camera was virtually "nailed down", and it was on auto-focus with the f/stop pre-determined.

The ads for personnel even mentioned "no photo experience necessary". They were looking for personable people, good with strangers, that they could teach to sell packages. Unfortunately, most of those staffs didn't have the basic understanding of photography per se, and didn't even qualify for the minimum experience needed to be a photo assistant in our organization.

It was kind of a sad situation, and I talked to almost anyone that worked in those lease departments, because they were in our physical complex, hoping to get a tech school photo grad that had some experience to utilize. But I never found one. Our output was so high, we couldn't afford to waste time training people with zero photo technology experience, even if they were committed.

It's a pain to see that many people out of work, period, many committed to, and performing well, in the situation they were in.

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