On The Factory (Covent Garden) and Artistic Photography in China

One of the better shots I gotLocated in the heart of the West End, the Factory is a boutique photography studio that offers shoots for modelling, other professional purposes or just keepsakes for a fun day out. Earlier this year, I was bought a session as a treat by some friends, and of all the special instructions they passed on, only the one about not offering me too much to drink was passed through on the day.  The first shoot did not go well at all, what we were told would happen didn’t, the pictures were nothing like we were expecting, and I was very distraught. After my friends had words with the studio, and the situation was discussed, The Studio saw where they went wrong, and corrected it. They also gave me a second shoot, in order to show exactly how they could do it. This is a review based on that second shoot, and with the consideration that they’re continuing with the very high standard they showed us.

The studio, situated on the top floor of the terraces on Great Newport Street, is not as big as one would expect, even announcing itself as boutique. It consists of a lounge area with make-up mirrrors against one wall, and one hair styling chair, two actual studios, one of which usually serves as a changing room for clients, and a small office/viewing room. The changing room, which, with its fleur-de-lis wall-paper and brocaded chaise-longue, felt rather like a boudoir (right down to the very low level of lights). With blinds drawn, the warm glow of the make-up lights on the lounge’s vermillion walls welcomes you to relax. Drinks are offered and fetched by the bubbly studio co-ordinator, who helpfully explains that the ticky box form about the kind of look you are going for is just a guideline and the effects you want can be discussed further with the make up and hair stylists.

The stylists make suggestions and discuss your outfits whilst they mix and combine effects to achieve the one you want. They are chatty, friendly and obliging during the make-over, before you retire to the sofa to wait for your turn with the photographer. This could be hours, but time goes quickly when you’re listening to music (if the staff aren’t arguing about what playlist to put on), admiring others’ transformations whilst chatting to your companions and neighbours. The co-ordinator bustles around serving drinks, offering refills, talking to customers in turn. You could tell why it’s called the Factory, as one set finishes their shoot, another one goes in to change, and a third set start their consultations. But this adds rather than subtracts from the exciting and buzzing studio atmosphere.

One of the owners was our photographer for the second shoot, and despite clearly having a tight schedule, when asked how long we had for the shoot, answers, “it’ll be finished when I’m done.” Good, professional attitude. The shots for each outfit are done as quickly as possible, and despite saying “I’ll leave you to direct it”, no sooner had we started to move around, than he would come out with short and snappy directions. They are mostly sound suggestions, as are the choices for close-ups and black and white pictures.  Praised by his colleagues as “a wizard with lighting”, he moves the equipment around as leisurely as a well-practiced juggler, with amazing results in contrast and mood. He told me he has assisted internationally renown Chinese fashion photographer, Kai Z Feng,who has worked the likes of Vogue, Dazed & Confused and brands such as Burberry, Shanghai Tang, Hugo Boss, not to mention a cluster of Hollywood stars.

Finally you are led to the viewing room, where your photos, which have already gone through basic editing, are shown to you on a large G5 desktop mac. One free photo was included in the basic package, but if you can’t decide, or want to get the most out of the shoot, the rest are charged at a pretty high price scales. It’s a little painful to choose between so many good ones, but even more painful to pay for a full set, even if they are just being put onto disk for you.

This was my first photo shoot not involving cosplay, and it reminds me of the sitting with friends and relatives in China, as they delighted in showing me volume after (interminable) volume of “artistic” photographs they have had taken with professional photographers. Where as my trip to The Factory was a one off thing, and not necessarily something I’d have considered off of my own back, my friends in China would go for a similar shoot, maybe two or three times a year.  Why has “artistic” photography become so popular in China?

As with so much in modern china, its roots began with the generation born in the 1950s, which grew up and got married in periods of hardship surrounding the Great Leap Forward, Great Famine and Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s. Most did not have much of a wedding, if at all. Back then, marriage ceremonies were as simple as symbolically placing the couples’ satchels together in front of cheering family and friends. When my parents got married the only ceremony was inviting friends around to consume a table full of sweets (sounds sickening, times must have been really hard).  If there had been any photo to speak of, it would need a caption to explain that this was a wedding, and not just another day in the life.

No wonder in later times of stability, with more disposable income, these couples would want to go to a professional photographer and have a set of proper photographs taken to commemorate such a major event in their lives. At the beginning the most popular style was what was called 欧式经典 (“Ou Shi Jing Dian”) or “classic European”. The term was very loosely applied, but pretty much any photographer who could lay their hands on a suit and a white dress could make a decent living.

The tradition of having a set of “artistic” wedding photos was picked up by younger people, passed down from the 50s generation to their children. In cities, this meant the first only-child generation. And of course no expense can be spared if one’s “little treasure” is getting married, or indeed, if she just wants another set of nice photos of herself looking pretty. After decades of being dressed in worker’s uniforms striking rigid poses for black & white photos, even older people would have reveled in looking glamorous in a colour photograph wearing whatever they want. Chinese is a culture in which mementos and keepsakes are very important. Thus, the “artistic” photography industry grew in size and sophistication.

My young friend who works at a Beijing university once asked if I wanted to see her “wedding photos”. I was initially surprised that my young friend was married, but, laughing at my surprise, she explains that these are “fake wedding photos” that she’d had taken on a date. There are certainly many styles of couple photos you can take, the recently popular 清新 (“Qing Xin”), “Fresh” styles include punky school uniform shots and alternative outfit shots in the outdoors. There is also a huge market for young girls, especially single ones, wanting to look pretty for a day. Another friend of mine had several albums of different styles taken when she was trying to “catch” a husband. Just remember, you can’t guarantee what you get, just based on what they look like in the catalogue.

First Published November 2012

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