An Artist Goes Undercover at a JC Penney Portrait Studio

Hyperallergic has published an essay about a project titled Free Sitting done by artist Nora Herting, who got a job as a photographer at a JC Penny portrait studio for the project. Here’s the essay’s description of the project:

The portrait serves a testament to the subjects’ prosperity and personal relations, and yet, despite the time and care people take when having their pictures taken at commercial studios, the resulting photographs are rarely considered aesthetic objects. They are documentation. Herting’s work questions what, exactly, we are documenting in this benign, constructed way.

The studio-portrait experience has a structured set of parameters that form a stylistic equation. When participating in this process we become blind to its constructs. Artists disrupt and violate codes and, in doing so, bring them to our attention. Herting breaks the rules of the studio portrait, and the resulting photographs no longer fulfill their role as social symbols. Images programmed to be evidence of happiness or prosperity become painful, ugly or embarrasing, possibly revealing something unseen before.

If you can wrap your mind around this, please leave a comment with your translation or interpretation.

An Artist Goes Undercover at a JC Penney Portrait Studio (via MetaFilter via Nerdcore)

Image credits: Photographs by Nora Herting

  • JustinKern

    Hmmm – how about “Photo studio portraits, more so even than candids, are a constructed reality.  An artist finds this quirky and overestimates the importance of pointing that out to us.”

  • groovyrogue

    Seems to be similar to what Diane Arbus did, showing the difference between how people see themselves and intend to portray themselves vs. the truth the photographs portray but this is in studio.  I like it.

  • jjeff regeiringer

    Hmmm – how about “Terrified meat slabs arranged vertically. Ritualistic documentation of growth-state observed. Documentation-priestess duplicitous; meat-images arranged with artistic intent.”

  • Factoid

    Pretentious artist is pretentious.

  • Arthur Bueno

    so I think he’s saying that there are structures regarding “JCPenny Studio Portraits” that don’t allow the “creative” photographer interpret his or her own ideas on a portrait. JCPenny portraits have a system to abide by photographically and in doing so most portraits are contrived, embarrassing, and very ordinary. These images hide an aesthetic of an individual that questions what is being photographed

  • Mauricio Andres Ramirez Lozada

    in ancient greece busts were made as documentation too, social status and a representation of a lineage were very important, BUT they are now deemed as pieces of art, when they were merely a way of remembering. this proyect points to something as the mechanical reproduction, where the production of images becomes a certain social interaction within very specific codes. I once read something that said “every photography its a performance” (in spanish, sorry for the translation) and this is a nice presentation of that idea. You dont have to be Francesca Woodman but your own presence in the dynamic of commercial portraiture its a fictional presentation of yourself. or someting

  • Michal Rosa

    Never use one word where ten can be used.  Artist has a problem with expressing herself in plain language, artist is pretentious.

  • Mandar

    I worked for a sister studio JC Penny. The corporate office just recently shut down my studio. We got in trouble for doing stuff that wasn’t “on the list” but we got more sales from customers when we caught what they wanted. Granted a lot of them wanted what was on the “list”. The photographer did “required” work with a twist. What I mean by that is that we had so many shots we had to catch, and on certain backgrounds, with certain poses. They did the required shots, but put a  twist! I like it! For example the little girl in the bottom right is a back, full body we use on infants (because you know that babies playing with their toes is not only a milestone but very very cute!) and instead a child was used. Its a big “take that!” in my eyes. And having just stopped working for that corporation I have to say even more that I love it!

  • Michael Godek

    great concept!

  • Anon

    This just seems to be about disrespecting people.

  • Ben Marshall

    one VERY important detail is missing… Were the people in the photos, interested in getting “NORMAL” portraits done… the whole IDEA of going to a portrait studio, is you generally have an image in your mind about how you wanted to be photographed. 

    If these people were assked to come in, under the pretense of getting goofy stuff done, they would be better inclined to go to an UN-conventional portrait shoppe.  JCPenney, AKA “LIFE TOUCH”, is a budget oriented traditional photo studio.

    The average customer is someone that wants to give wallet sized photos to their family, with Coupons in hand, they drag their families into the store, and drop $20 on mild touch-ups and wallet sized photos.

    If you ask me, Artistic Vision is worth more than $20 in wallets… which is why Life Touch also offers more expressive ideas, and is willing to shoot anything… the guidelines are very simple, only their more experienced photographers are allowed to do these shoots, and most of the shoot is already guidelined in a manual.

    If you really want to be creative, get experience, and gain trust of the people that are paying you… plain and simple… you won’t have to ask ANYONE if you can take their picture… Likely you will have to ask people to move out of the frame.

  • Brandon McWilliams

    Anybody consider whether or not this whole thing is a joke?

  • Cajuncatdude

    Its simple. She took photos that did not meet what the customer expected to expose the shallowness of their desires. If I were these people, I’d sue the crap out of her. We all want ourselves and our kids to look good for pictures. I look at old ones of my children and don’t see prosperity, I see three little faces of my now grown kids. To violate that is just mean.

  • Samcornwell

    I totally agree. In fact I actively make a point to photograph portraits of friends and family in un-“sterilised” locations. I call it the crappy wall paper effect. Have a look through old photo albums and you’ll see family portraits at Christmas etc that is coveted by an ugly carpet or papered wall. In a way this is beautiful and personal.

    Now fast forward to today and everyone has white/solid colour walls and bland carpets. It’s like we’re all living in empty, hollow boxes and it ain’t pretty. It’s like a commercial shoot.

  • Rosita Dr

    sounds like she needed a job and is trying to turn it into some sort of art project.

  • Rick Bennett

    For the boneheads to didn’t read the full article:
    “As an artist Nora had her own moral code that prevented her from simply
    using unwitting customers at Lifetouch as her subjects. The solution was
    to schedule willing models who assumed the role of customers.”
    Therefore she did not make these images on unwilling participants.

  • Thomas Drayton

    These photos were taken a long time ago; the rounded corners are not available and she talks about other things that are no longer in use at these studios such as posing tables and using film.

    Also, you cannot get a sheet of photos with rotated images like this from JC Penny portrait studios. She must have printed these on her own elsewhere.

    Does this woman actually own the copyright to these images or is she infringing on the Lifetouch copyright by using them? She clearly states she intends to violate Lifetouch policy and steal copyrighted material:

    “…my signature swears me to secrecy to anything that happens, belongs,
    or involves Lifetouch. I am very reluctant to do this, as my entire
    purpose of being here is to lift as much material as possible and pan it
    off as a critique of the language of portraiture.”