IN SHOPPING CENTERS AND MALLS across much of Australia and North America, a peculiar and particular type of photography business makes itself at home. It goes under a number of names and guises, but it is generally described as glamour photography. At the core of this particular business is creating images that make the everyday person feel extra-ordinary or what we call a “star.”
One of these businesses, Starshots, with its sixteen franchised studios across Australia, is nicely nestled in the suburban landscape. It advertises itself in glossy posters in the malls themselves with provocative photos of subjects dressed in what could be described as naughty gear.
On its website, Starshots explains its basic philosophy. Through the “Starshot experience,” the client is to be “pampered” with its “proven formula” of makeup, hairstylists, props, and accessories of a true studio photo shoot as they work to capture the “essence of you.” In other words, they cater for the production of the individual into the star, and the star experience is as important as the end photo product. Naturally, as would happen with a professional magazine cover shoot, the added services of touch-up and digital image alteration are there to capture the “real you.”
Glamour photography as an industry has an interesting lineage that may help explain its current location in the suburban mall. As Carol Dyhouse (2010), author of the book Glamour: Women, History, Feminism, proclaims, “Glamour is a slithery concept.” It relies on its strong connection to the stars of classic Hollywood, where the notion of glamour and its associated fur, slinky dresses, and attitude were an expression of the modern woman negotiating her public place in the contemporary world. But it is also a soiled concept. Glamour photography, as the twentieth century progressed, became associated with what was called boudoir photography, as even the idea of glamour began to be connected to tackiness. The most public version of this kind of photography was the soft-core pornography promulgated by the mid- to late-twentieth-century magazine icons of Playboy and Penthouse (Nelson 2013; Checefsky 2008). The particular photographic studios that now promote glamour photography in the shopping malls are trying to sanitize this bedroom photography and make it much more associated with the production of ourselves as stars so that couples as much as women can feel good about their sensual selves.
But why now? What about the contemporary moment makes this form of photography commercially successful (and it generally is) and both kind of normal and popular?
This particular version of glamour photography has been building for the last fifteen years, just as the photography industry has gone through its greatest upheaval predominantly driven by digital photography. It is evident from at least American industry reports that there has been a general decline in both revenues and the number of commercial photo studios. The decline is not massive, but instead of growth, there is about a 10 percent shrinkage in the market. Simultaneous to this decline is the overwhelming reality that people are producing many more photos and distributing them regularly. Cameras are on every device, from phone to tablet to iPod and iPad, never mind digital cameras themselves. Their progeny—snapshots—are literally everywhere, and we only need to think of the 40 million images a day being uploaded to Instagram to know that this is a massive change.
So the industry has to react to this world that resembles the Brownie camera craze at the beginning of the 1900s, when everyone was an amateur photographer. It has to make the experience of professional photography more. Glamour photography thus attempts to do what reality television actually does: it offers the service of “celebrifying” the individual. The photographs produced are very likely only to remain in one’s own household, but it has the potential to cross over and be thought as connected to the pantheon of star images that we see every day produced by our sophisticated entertainment industries. Glamour photographic studios are generalizing the “star experience” that is presented in tantalizing forms through television making stars from its talent and reality shows out of everyday people. Possessing that construction of value allows one’s own body/self to be incorporated into the contemporary media system, even if it is only to capture the “look” of fame for one’s own pleasure.
Starshots is not the only player in this world. Photography studios like the franchisable Verve cater to the “family” portrait and are expert at making their portraits distinctive and different in their clear appeal to the aesthetic of magazine photography. Their portraiture is a combination of Karsch and Annie Liebovitz; it is magazine cover photography for the middle class. Its slogan captures this intermediary role: “The beautiful images captured from your photography session are handcrafted into creative, original works of art.” The experience of the studio draws you into a world of feeling significant and famed.