Not Trying to Be the Fashion Police But…

I offer a free portrait session in my studio every Monday for senior citizens age 70 and over as a way of creating a formal portrait in a sea of phone snaps and because I think it’s important to document them in a formal legacy portrait, photograph them looking their best.

I’ve been offering it for years, it’s promoted in the local area events guide, and I get calls occasionally–not very often, occasionally–to have a portrait made for what I call The Wise Photo Project. It’s totally free, and there’s still little response.

(Covid may be having some impact on turnout, but it was always slow long before this current pandemic. And right now, the studio is 100% safe with distancing and masking.)

Sometimes when they call, they ask if they would be a good candidate. I tell them, yes, I want to photograph them in a special way, using a vintage film camera and hand-printing a photograph for them, to live on for many generations of family members to enjoy.

I explain that I will be photographing them in front of an Old Masters style hand-painted background on a Victorian furniture piece in my studio and ask them to wear something that makes them feel special, to dress up and look their best.

I had a scheduled shoot today, but the 76-year-old gentleman called late last week to cancel because he explained that he doesn’t dress up, he’s not interested in a formal portrait, he’s comfortable in a tie-dyed shirt and he hasn’t worn a coat and tie in over ten years so he wouldn’t want a photograph made where he’s dressed formally.

Which made me go, “Huh!”

Am I completely out of touch with our culture? Maybe it’s me. I see the value in making formal portraits of people looking good, looking their best. Who doesn’t like to dress up? I like to look sharp and often wear a sportcoat and tie. Is that just not who we are anymore?

I make their portraits on film, too, 35mm, medium format, sometimes even 4×5 large format and process the film, then hand-print it in my darkroom. Maybe I am a throwback.

How does this gentleman go to a wedding, I wondered? How does he go out to a New Year’s Eve bash? How do we dress up nowadays? Or don’t we? Have we lost all interest in fine clothing? Formality? Or is this just a Colorado thing, if I were in a bigger city–New York, D.C., Chicago–I would find that fashion is still alive and well?

I look at older photos from the early 1900s and everyone was dressed up. Every man wore a hat. Even in the 1950s, men wore suits because it showed them as being something. “Look, Ma, I made it.” They say salesmen at a new car dealership wouldn’t talk to you if you weren’t dressed and deemed to be worthy of their time.

I have a woman coming in today for a portrait and she is getting dressed up. I don’t often get pushback from the “look sharp” request, but the sad reality is I just usually don’t get any calls to come in at all.

Even without a price, the value of a formal portrait is questionable. A sign of the times, perhaps. We work from home. We don’t have to get dressed. We’re comfortable in sweats.

She dressed up for her portrait–this made for a fine black and white film portrait (which isn’t shown here, I print the film photographs only).

I’ll still keep offering the portraits, as the few I do get to make are better than not making any at all. I feel I am working for the great-grandchildren of these folks who will be thankful for having a fine photograph of their Pop-pop or Gran-nana.

And if you call to cancel because you’re not interested in dressing up for a photograph, that you only want to wear your tie-dyed shirt, ok, I can respect that. That’s who you are. It just seems to fit better sitting at the ballgame than a formal portrait studio.

And is there anyone making that portrait? Or doesn’t it matter?

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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