You’ve no doubt seen the inexpensive portrait studios in places like Walmart and Sears. When I was young in the 1950s, the big name in inexpensive portraiture was Olan Mills. I have a box full of portraits of myself taken at one of their studios at every age from about 5 to 20.

Here’s one when I was in seventh grade in 1958 in Traverse City, Michigan. teenpamplaid

And here’s our wedding portrait, taken in 1965 at the Olan Mills studio in Lansing, Michigan.

pamgeowedportraitThe selection of “poses” was always pretty much the same. Usually a couple of front views and a side view close up to the face, and a front and side of the body from the torso up. If they were feeling really “creative” they might use a spotlight to get a shadow effect for one, but that was about it. Oh—and up through the 60s they were all black and white (or what is now called “gray scale” in computer graphics lingo), unless you paid extra to have someone “colorize” them by hand with oil paints. So the background was always black or white or a shade of gray.

By the time my daughter was born in 1970, Olan Mills had a low-price competitor called Kendale Studios. Their style and quality was identical to Olan Mills, and I have several similar portraits of Mona at one or the other of them. The lighting on this one from 1980 when she was nine was about as “far out” as the 1970s portrait studios got with “special effects.”


But I’ve noticed online that such studios have been squeezed out of many areas by the in-house studios at the Big Box stores. Kendale Studios doesn’t exist anymore. And there hasn’t been an Olan Mills in any of the towns or cities I’ve lived in for the past decade or more, including now in Savannah, GA.

I suppose if I could find one, though, their techniques would be pretty much like the ones at Walmart where my daughter had pics taken of my grandkids when they were little in the early 1990s. From the look of the “samples” on the wall outside the studios, it appears they all haven’t changed much since the 1970s. Backgrounds are still mostly plain, props of any kind very limited, poses still very standard.

And for sure no one in the pics is doing anything that is…odd.

What do I mean by “odd”? Well, you’ve probably seen lots of old portraits of Victorian-era Americans (mid-to-late 1800s.) They all are dressed pretty much the same in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, and posed pretty much the same. And they all have those glassy-eyed stares that were necessary when shutter speeds were a lot slower and you had to freeze for the photographer for an extended time. Like these…

vic portrait2vic portraitThose prim and prissy and pinched-lip old-time photos may have caused you to believe that the folks back then had no sense of humor.

Let me disabuse you of that notion. This little collection below of early “proto-photo-shopped” portrait studio photos should convince you otherwise. (Well, OK, it was a macabre sense of humor, but it was there.)

“It’s not easy to remember life before Photoshop. When we do, we think of a world where pictures were straightforward, always showing exactly what happened to be in front of the lens when the exposure was taken. But that’s not entirely the case.

…Created by combining images from multiple negatives, Victorian photographers looking to wow audiences and make an extra buck offered a service where they could place your head in your lap, or maybe floating in the air beside you.

Some of the other novelty photography offered at the time included dwarf, giant and spirit photographs (think: photos of people floating in the air with various furniture and other objects). Nowadays it wouldn’t be much of a challenge to make this happen in Photoshop, but back then trick photography really was an art in and of itself.”  [Source]

Yes, one of the very popular ways to get your portrait done in both America and England in the 1890s was…headless. As someone else online called it… “The Zombie app of the 1890s.”  I don’t think you will be seeing this service at Walmart or Sears Portrait Studios any time soon.

Do notice, by the way, that these are not just a bunch of wild and crazy teenagers and young adults getting their kicks. Those posing for these portraits included senior citizens and middle-aged people too, both men and women. And some indulgent parents even got photos of their kiddies made like this.

headless10 headless9headless8 headless7 headless6headless12headlesss11headless2headless5 headless4 headless3 headless1

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