Sunday, August 9, 2009

1000 Words

Today I share with you my favorite example of 'branding' in the history of mom & pop retailing. Around the corner from our house, on a bustling but uninspired commercial corridor, and among photos of babies in Christening gowns, kids in 1st communion outfits, and stiffly posed couples on their wedding day, sits this beauty.

This little girl probably isn't so little anymore. She could be in college now for all we know. Or tending to kids of her own. This display seems to have graced the owner's window for as long as the business has been around, which--judging by the discoloration of some of the photo paper--seems like an awfully long time. There are worse things than being a business with such longevity that its display window starts to fade.

But I get such a kick out of the thought of this photographer, thumbing through his portfolio for just the right pieces to promote his business, coming across this scowling little girl, and thinking "Eureka, that's the one!"

It's even more curious to think of passersby looking in the window and deciding this is the guy who should take the photos at said Christenings, 1st communions, and wedding celebrations. Truth be told, I've almost been tempted to go over there myself: book a session with me, John, and the dog for posterity. And I don't mean that with any kind of kitsch arrogance. I'm genuinely curious about this guy. What did he do to provoke this particular look from this particular little girl, and can it be replicated? Better yet, who's the guy who takes this portrait and considers it photographic gold? Because I have to say, the more I look, the more I can't help agreeing with him.

This isn't so many worlds apart from the portrait studios I remember from my youth: There was Van Ramsey, portraitist par excellence in my hometown (or so we thought), creating his own cottage industry out of school pictures for all the graduating seniors in town. When the occasional kid got a photo taken elsewhere, you could always tell in the yearbook: it just wasn't a telltale Van Ramsey.

Or the sessions at the local Sears or Olan Mills, where they'd pose us with our elbows on mini split-rail fences with phony flowers in the background. Or they'd shoot one image face forward and the other to the side, so a ghostly profile could be superimposed in the upper right-hand corner of each 8 X 10. This little girl gave exactly the look we should have been giving them. Nothing they were doing was cause for a smile. It was ridiculously artificial and frankly a pain in the ass. Yet thank goodness, in some ways, for those legacies. We know not only what we looked like, but what we looked like in the context of those decades.

I sort of wonder what the age of digital photography, Facebook, and the like, is doing to the genre of the portrait. Like so many things, it seems to be going the way of the dodo. No one goes to sit for a portrait anymore unless there's some professional purpose (bank presidents, annual awards, driver's licenses). And the ways we present our images in social networking tend to be partial shots, looking away from the camera, doing something goofy or propping up intentional distortions for a laugh. It's as if we have some collective cultural embarrassment over taking this kind of thing seriously. We're more likely to have professional portraits taken for our pets (who have no capacity for cynicism) than for ourselves. And yet what is Facebook or MySpace but self-representation writ large?

Regardless, sometimes when I need a good laugh or a good reminder of humanity, I walk past the window of the portrait studio just to stare back at that little girl. I hope the rest of her day brought her a moment or two of happiness. Clearly, she'd earned it.


Rosemary said...

Van Ramsey. Ugh. I'd almost forgotten.

I love that little girl's expression, too...and the pose of those arms. No wonder she's scowling. I don't think I could twist my arms that way if I tried all day!

tracy said...

I was distracted from the little girl's expression at first because I was fixated on trying to figure out what's going on with her hair. And THAT may be the source of the scowl?

Diana Sudyka said...

I saw this, and immediately thought "I know her!", and then remembered we walked by this one night a while ago. The more I look at her and ponder the reasons why the photographer would choose this for the shop window, the more amazing her expression becomes. Yeah, maybe her hair is twisted a little too tight!