Magical Mystery (Makeover Studio) Tour – review

Yvette Bessels
by Robert Lansdale

TorontoAt Our June 2018 meeting, Yvette Bessels spoke on her experiences with photo studios using makeovers as a means to create attractive portraits. As befits our program secretary, her talk was a model of how to present to an audience of knowledgable people. She was engaging in her presentation and spoke to each person in the audience. She used a short video to explain the makeover in general. As part of the Q&A after her presentation, Yvette spoke of her own plans as a photographer. Her talk was all the more impressive as it took place suddenly when our scheduled speaker had to bow out due to a work meeting called in NYC on short notice.

After getting two degrees in Holland (BA in religious studies at Nijmegen, MA in medieval literature at Utrecht), Yvette felt her English was good,  and so she was willing to move to England when her husband was offered a job there. In the UK, she worked as a photographer in two studios: MakeOver2000 and New<ID, both in Newcastle upon Tyne. After the first studio closed its doors. she and some the staff moved to New<ID The studios were operated by different owners. 

At MakeOver2000, the studio provided everything including clothing props while at New<ID the subjects were expected to arrived dressed for the shoot. In both studios, the vast majority of subjects (and staff) were women – and for good reason.

When Yvette applied for the job, she was surprised to get it as her degrees were not related to professional photography. The studio handed her a camera and a box of slide film. The camera settings were all pre fixed and taped over. The photographers were agents, not hired staff, so they had no paid vacations, no added medical benefits, or other perks reserved for employees. If your photos sold, you earned the right to more shifts. Each shoot was told to use only a single roll of slide film and photographers were expected to take various poses all within a limited length of time.

Yvette quickly learned the studios were basically factory assembly lines (and somewhat scammy too). A contest was used to bring in new subjects. Third prize was always one free portrait. Once a roll of slides was shot, the subject was to choose her free shot. Sales staff would encourage subjects to buy the whole roll of slides plus a paper print of each. The price scale was somewhat elastic beginning at £1,000 sliding down to about £300 with heavy negotiation. The minimum paid to the photographer for a single customer purchased shoot was over 5x better than the photographer earned for a full shift of about ten unsold shoots.

The routine was as follows: Subjects arrived and were scheduled and preferences (including colours) taken. Each one went to makeup and hair. Then to studios of various sizes from barely a closet to a large room. The photographer had her roll of film and a box of accessories. It was essential that standard lighting was used and every shot taken through a soft focus filter (smooths out the wrinkles and makes a  purchase more likely). The older the subject, the more filters, heavier filters. The photographer was limited to her choice of accessories and backgrounds. To speed up the process, most subjects stripped to the waist and used cloth wraps (or loose fitting sweaters). Faster to remove and replace than clothing, in the photos the various lengths of coloured fabric would mimic part of a dress, hence the women-only rule for the most part.

Asking each subject her preferred colour, taught Yvette that her understanding of English was not a good match to Scottish or Geordie accents. She never learned before that the word teal actually meant the name of a colour. Yvette confessed that she intensely hated single colour backdrops other than black or occasionally white. The clientele in Newcastle were not well off and even a few pounds spent on a portrait was a luxury. The studio closed after she had been there for about two years and Yvette and some of the staff moved to a new studio called New<ID. It operated in a similar fashion but without clothing props since the subjects were expected to arrive in suitable attire.

Once again, the area chosen for the studio attracted mostly working class folk who could ill afford the asking price for the slides and prints. After Yvette finished her formal talk, she conducted an enthusiastic and candid Q&A with the audience who were fascinated with her experiences and background, especially as she was only known for her wet plate photography efforts.  

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