The names of store employees in this story have been changed.

She moves toward the studio’s corner, ending her journey between a wall of feather boas and a rack of industrial clamps. The middle-aged woman reaches to undo the hooks on her silver-studded tube top. It falls to the floor, exposing sagging skin. She moves to a nearby chair and grabs a gold-sequined tube top, then turns to me and says, “Come here and help me with this.”

I walk to where she’s standing. She turns around and puts the flimsy gold fabric to her chest. She wraps it around her torso and hands me the Velcro edges. I take them and try to stick the opposing strips together but they’re disabled by a clutter of fuzz. “It won’t close,” I say.

Then, I have an idea. I reach up to get an industrial clamp. Clasping the V-shaped spring-and-metal tool, I cinch the Velcro edges together. With her top now secure, we return to the photo shoot.

It was my first full day of work at Glamour Shots. I took the $8-an-hour job as a photographer because I wanted to discover the recipe for Sexy. I was fascinated by the store’s promise to make any woman (or man–but they were far fewer), regardless of age, look alluring. I wondered how customers are drawn into the world of commercial perfection? What do the technicians do with wrinkles? Where can a photographer hide a double chin?

With these questions in mind, I went to the store and applied for a job. My 16-day stint exposed me to impossible beauty standards, digital surgery, more thoughts on double chins, subversive photography and scenes of barely concealed passion.

The Backdrop
The Glamour Shots story begins in 1988 with two Dallas and Houston stores. They targeted women between the ages of 18 and 49 and boasted an egalitarian ideal: “Throughout recent modern history,” the screen on the company’s Web site says, “women have been ‘made over,’ wardrobed, accessorized, and photographed, though only available to the rich.” Now, it says, more than one million women leave Glamour Shots each year, “looking and feeling better than they possibly ever have.”

The store’s selling point is the fusion of pampering and portrait photography. As the Web site explains, “Glamour Shots delivers more than just traditional portraits, as clients experience the fantasy of being made to look their very best.” Colloquially, Glamour Shots has become known as a place where even ordinary women can be transformed into supermodels. This idea of a Glamour Shot is so ingrained in popular consciousness that even unaffiliated photographers will advertise their ability to take one–as well as the usual graduation or landscape picture.

The Glamour Shots name now hangs over 93 studios across the country. That’s compared to a high of more than 200 stores reached five years ago, according to Entrepreneur Magazine. Glamour Shots spokeswoman Kim McElroy says the drop occurred when the company stopped renewing leases for unprofitable stores. The decline in the number of stores was followed by a marketing shift toward new services and styles. Glamour Shots stores now offer children and family portraits, and women no longer have to don the airbrushed Brooke Shields, studded-jean-jacket look. They can now simulate, as one company brochure proudly states, the more contemporary look of female characters on the TV show Friends.

Loading the film
On my first full day of work I arrive at the store early. Located between a department store and gift shop, the store’s gray faux-marble entryway opens onto a room with walls covered with photographs of smiling women. Upbeat techno music plays from overhead speakers. Employees dressed in black scurry busily around the store.

I greet my manager, Steve. He’s in his 30s, has slicked back brown hair and black leather laceless shoes. He gives me my first insight into my job, the Glamour Shots manual, which contains the essential company credo, guidelines and role-plays.

I am to wear a black shirt, black vest, black pants and black shoes. I am to have fresh breath at all times. When talking to customers over the phone, I am required to pay 13 percent attention to my words, and 87 percent attention to my tone of voice. I am supposed to call my customer, my “guest.”

The manual also informs me of the company’s mission. “Our goal,” it reads, “is to make the client feel like she has been through a high-class model shoot.” Toward that end, we should compliment her. If she expresses concern over her appearance, we’re supposed to bolster her self-opinion. Among the recommended lines: “You have a look that isn’t an everyday look, but a real Glamour look” and “One of the great things about Glamour Shots is that it makes you look like the cover of a magazine.”

The manual then lists a photographer’s tasks in the studio. I am supposed to take 12 pictures, with my customer in three outfits and four poses. Of these, she will select and purchase her favorites. I should use a soft filter when taking pictures of anyone older than 25. I am forbidden to take sexy pictures of young children. I can use a hair dryer to create a windy effect.

I devour every page of my manual, absorb every trick, and start feeling ready to work with customers.

Angle of View
The Glamour Shots experience consists of the image/photo session and the sales pitch. One day a middle-aged customer arrives for the former. She’s in her early 50s, has brown hair, pale skin and gorgeous, shining eyes. She’s wearing a man’s white, button-down shirt, tucked into blue jeans, and ultra-white sneakers.

She approaches the front desk. A staff member hands her some forms and she moves to a black leather sofa in the waiting area to fill them out. To answer a question that asks, “Which overall look do you want today?” she must choose from a list highlighted in bullet points: Bold and Beautiful, Professional, Romantic, Natural, Model, and Silver Screen Classic. A string of adjectives accompany each style to help her decide. Romantic, for example, means “soft, sensual, bashful, and flirtatious.” She chooses one and hands the forms back to a staff member.

After a short wait, she meets her image consultant, Candice, and her photographer, me. Candice is in her 20s, has long flowing hair, and wears gold and black eyeliner. I am the same age, tattered and lanky. Candice helps our guest into a beauty chair where she curls the customer’s hair and applies makeup. She paints on reddish lipstick. She dabs a foam wedge in a sticky powder and smoothes over the wrinkles on the woman’s face.

I then show our guest to the wardrobe racks, where she will choose an outfit. I ask about the purpose of her pictures. She tells me they are for her husband. I figure she might want some Romantic shots, so I select a light purple dress. She doesn’t like it and instead, picks out a brown polyester-and-spandex robe. It has rhinestones sewn onto the fabric and ruffles running the length of the front.

After she puts the robe on, I take her into the studio. I direct her to a curved, body-length faux-concrete pedestal. I raise the camera high on its pole, which will make her seem skinny and her glance upward, idealistic. I screw a soft filter onto the lens, which will make her portrait seem dreamy and erase any remaining wrinkles. I have her arch her back, turn at a 45-degree angle, and lean her closest shoulder toward me. Each gesture will make her look thin and angular. I have her pull her chin out and twist her head, which will stretch and hide any fat above and around her throat. The head tilt doubles as a generic gesture of understanding. I snap some pictures. She changes outfits. I snap some more pictures. And when the photo session is over about twenty minutes later, I walk with her to the sales area.

Depth of Field
Sales pitches depends on the age of the customer: The older the customer, the more services the salesperson is likely to introduce. Customers can select from a spectrum of techniques that range from basic techno-surgery to an all-out photographic makeover. During my time at Glamour Shots, two customers explicitly asked for the most extensive treatment offered–a package that added between $40 and $100 to the average $200 price tag. One was a real-estate broker who wanted a wrinkle-free portrait for her business card. The other was an aspiring male actor who wanted a headshot that would hide the acne scars on his face. For most customers, the standard treatment was enough. For some, a pitch was needed to counteract an instinctive shudder at the idea of digitally altering photographs.

One afternoon, three 50-something siblings, one of their daughters, and the daughter’s boyfriend come into the store to get a “generation portrait.” The sisters have teased hairdos that rest on their heads like helmets. The daughter, who appears to be in her late teens, has thick, bob-style hair. The boyfriend wears his mustache closely trimmed and sits on the leather couch with his hat pulled over his eyebrows.

We take some pictures of the women sitting staggered in a row, and smiling. After the shoot, I introduce them to their salesperson, Robert, a jittery man in his early 30s with a blond crew cut. Robert shows the women their portraits on a computer monitor. The sisters and the daughter gather around to discuss the prints.

“Oh I look awful,” one of the sisters says.

Robert tells her he can do something about that. He pulls out some loose leaf stacks of pictures and introduces the group to Glamour Touch. The lab, he tells the sister, can brighten her eyes, take off her fat, clear her skin, erase her blemishes, conceal her wrinkles, and straighten her teeth. She looks to her siblings and they look back, puzzled.

Robert doesn’t tell them all the technical specifics. If they purchase the package, graphic artists at an off-site lab will eliminate the bags under their eyes and soften their wrinkles. If one of the sisters requests more substantial aesthetic surgery–having her double chins removed–the artists will remove her silhouetted fat and create a sense of depth by shadowing under her chin with a digital pen. Then they will draw a new jaw onto her face.

The sisters aren’t yet convinced. They seem stumped about the truthfulness of a portrait without natural signs of their aging or size. Robert assures them that such an image is natural and cites his own use of the service.

“When I got pictures made,” he says, “I had the gap between my teeth fixed.” He snarls silently in illustration.

No response. Robert picks up on the sisters’ continued hesitation and finally hits on a winning line. “It’s still you!” he reassures them. “Just a more flattering version of you.”

Shutter Speed
For some customers, Glamour Shots’ picture service is less important than the opportunity a session offers for pampering. The store acts as a kind of spa for the psyche, where a woman can get the abstract satisfaction that comes from being repeatedly told by “experts” that she’s beautiful. Handling delicate issues of self-image would seem to require skills way beyond those of an $8-an-hour job at the mall. But I found many customers could be appeased by basic verbal strokes. The statement, “That outfit really accentuates your thin hips,” worked wonders. Some customers, though, wanted more than simple validation. Younger women often wanted to see their beauty at work. And sometimes, it was surprising to see which attendant man would fall prey.

One afternoon a father and his teenage daughter enter the store. The girl has brown hair and brown eyes. Her father is bald, wearing sunglasses and swinging a Dr. Pepper bottle by his waist. They drove in from rural North Carolina because the daughter wanted a Glamour Shot for her 16th birthday.

After check-in, Candice helps our guest select her makeup and wardrobe–light pink eye shadow, a black slinky dress, no jewelry. The girl walks into the studio and perches on a stool. I push the door closed, leaving only a thin wedge of light.

While I adjust the camera and take off the soft filter, my client grows playful. She finds ways to fill the studio with sensuality: She giggles. She is eager to show me the scar on her leg. She fake screams and pretends to fall off the stool. She tilts her head and lifts her chin when I approach to straighten her hair.

Uncomfortable at receiving such attention, I reopen the studio door. Her father is sitting on a black leather sofa, looking irritated and unaware. I return to the session.

The girl is now laughing at herself. She has just wrinkled her nose like a bunny and made a noise like a pig. “I can’t do it,” she says, giggling at her inability to focus on the shoot. I instruct her through a few more poses and the session is over.

The three of us then review the pictures. “It doesn’t look like me!” the girl says, seeing herself posed in the slinky dress. But her father is impressed. He pushes his glasses down his nose and tries to sound objective as he suggests they purchase the flirtatious shot. I stare at the pictures and take note–lips preparing for a kiss and lips pouting look the same.

Broken Aperture
Before I got the job at Glamour Shots, I disliked going to the mall because it seemed so monochrome–the bored teenagers and the stroller-pushing mothers all looked similar. But Glamour Shots was a small refuge where intimacy between strangers developed fast and felt genuine. People reveal themselves to a portrait photographer; it’s a role imbued with trust. At Glamour Shots, I was paid to listen to people’s desires, even fantasies, and do my best to create them. When a 50-ish woman in a wheelchair came to me in a black vinyl bustier wanting signs of her handicap omitted, I created her hoped-for look. But though I was willing to oblige, I wasn’t always comfortable with these personal requests.

One afternoon, I’m sitting with a quiet brunette at the sales station, reviewing pictures. They are for her husband and she can’t decide which pose he would like. So she telephones him. He arrives at the store minutes later, talking on his cell phone. He has a chubby face, and wears a dress shirt tucked into creased khaki pants.

He pulls up a chair between his wife and me, still talking on the phone. He points to my hand, which is resting on a computer mouse. We scroll through the pictures. He eventually finds a picture he likes on a nearby shelf–of another woman. In his chosen picture, a middle-aged brunette stands with her legs slightly spread, wearing black Capri pants and a man’s white shirt. She’s holding the otherwise open garment closed at her breasts. With her head titled down, she’s looking up at the camera coquettishly.

My manager, Steve, and I, re-enter the studio with the wife to recreate the pictured women’s look and pose. As the bulbs flash, the husband stands beside us. His face grows red and flushed as he watches the session progress. He’s holding the picture of the other woman in his hand while instructing his wife, “Give the look she gives.”

Shifting the Focus
Even though many women seemed to leave Glamour Shots feeling beautiful, I wondered under which advertisement or pictured model’s gaze they would begin to feel bad about themselves. At the end of my tenure, I took painful note of the fact that I was propagating an ideal of beauty that dealt in heavy makeup, altered images, professional hairstyling and unfamiliar clothes.

In unseen protest, I experimented with ways to take portraits that undermined the commercial ideal. I veered from a posing guide. I snapped pictures of unprepared clients lost in thought. I’d have mischievous girls look outside the frame. I’d tell boisterous women to lean a little more forward.

I wanted my customers to act like themselves so I could capture some distinct quality of them on film. But customers often didn’t feel comfortable in a studio and I couldn’t get a clear impression of them in 15 minutes. I was fortunate, then, that some studio portraits seemed to undermine themselves.

One day, a couple from upstate New York comes into the studio to get some pictures made of their 16-year-old daughter. She has curly brown hair, pale skin, and brown eyes. She’s meek and photogenic; sexy and shy. I struggle to find ways to include all of her qualities in the photograph.

At the start of the session, her parents stand in the studio’s doorway like chaperones. To reassure them, I suggest we use a backdrop seemingly extracted from grandma’s house–pink drapes hanging down around a bay window padded with a blue-and-white checkered cushion. The young woman goes to sit on the cushion. But when she positions her hands on her crouched knees, her skirt line falls down, exposing the bottom of her thigh.

I see the mistake through the camera. Should I tell her about it or should I just take the picture? I’m torn: The shortened skirt puts tension in the photograph that matches the young woman’s personality; it captures the sexuality showing itself in a repressive scene. What’s more, her parents don’t seem to notice. I wonder, if I do include the skirt in the shot, what degree of prominence should it play? Should I center it, or put it off to the side? Should I bring my camera high (and emphasize her littleness) or bring it down (and show her at eye-level)?

When I finally take the picture, the hem remains in its fallen position and the source of tension is framed slightly off center. My camera captures the young woman straight on at eye-level.

When the parents review the session’s dozen or so pictures, one stands out–the bay window shot. They absolutely love the image of their daughter crouching there. They request multiple copies made in mantel and wallet sizes. EndBlock