Headshot Archaeology, Part II

9 01 2013

So, as we often talk about here at Hollywood Sapien, the entertainment industry has its own culture.  And like all cultures, it produces artifacts – objects that are made for various utilitarian, entertainment, and ritual purposes.   In this case, we’re talking about headshots.

Headshots exhibit many of the traits that you would associate with artifacts in other cultures; among them is evolution of form.  “Headshots evolve?” you say (if for some reason you’re reading this out loud).  Not in a Darwinian sense, of course, but like many artifacts, the form they take changes through time.  It’s not at all usual for artifacts to progressively develop; it happens with projectile points (arrowheads):


and pianos:


And pretty much everything else – just think of the difference between a Model T and a Toyota Corolla, or a musket and an AK-47.  In the case of headshots, they have undergone both physical and artistic changes.

One of the physical changes, for example, came about with the common use of digital photography.  For decades, headshots were actual photographs: taken with film, retouched in photo labs, and printed on photographic paper.  With the rise of professional digital cameras and editing software however, they changed to become an almost all-digital medium; both in their creation and transmission.  According to the headshot photographers I spoke with, this seems to have happened roughly between 2003-2004.

But there have also been aesthetic changes to headshots – over the years, trends and alterations in what they depict.   A couple of variations are particularly striking.  One of the obvious ones has been a shift from black-and-white to color; this largely coincided with the change to digital headshots in the early 2000s.  But the artistic aspects of headshots have also changed: though classical headshots traditionally showed a portrait view, trends change, and in the mid-1990s three-quarter headshots were common (see below).  Today the standard headshot is back to showing the head, down to the shoulders.  The “looks” requested by actors also change: per one photographer, in the 90s the “farmer’s daughter” look was common in headshots, ten years later it was the “cougar shot.”  Now I hear it’s “edgy [fill in the blank]”


For awhile in the 90s, headshots showed three-quarter views
(also note that they’re in black and white)

Headshots also display what anthropologists call polysemy – that is, they are a single artifact that is interpreted and used in different ways by different people.  I realized this several years ago, while talking to a headshot photographer who said that every actor who came to get their photo taken wanted theirs to somehow stand out, or “be different.”  Cut to a different party, several weeks later, where a casting director told me that the one thing they really hate is when a headshot crosses their desk and it really stands out or looks different.  “I just want them all to look basically the same,” he said, “so I can make a choice.”*  This is polysemy: an actor and a casting director look at a headshot: both see the same face staring out, but the actor thinks “this is unique” and “this will get me jobs”, while the casting director thinks “damn, it’s unique” and “now I have to view 8,000 more of these.”


Cookie monster deals with linguistic polysemy

In fact, one of the intriguing things about headshots is that they are a single object, with three different types of people whose livelihoods depend on them: actors, photographers, and casting professionals.  And each of the three constituencies uses these artifacts to make their livelihood in a different way:  for photographers, creating the artifact is how they make their living; in Los Angeles there exists an entire group who make their living (or most of it) just doing headshots.  For actors, the images are the way they get acting jobs – they (or their associates) submit the pictures to casting agents.  And of course the end-users of all these shots are the casting professionals, who select actors from the piles of images they have to review for every role.  Because their relationship with the artifacts are different, each has their own preferences and priorities for looking at the it.

So, to wrap up this two-parter: headshots, like arrowheads, are artifacts.  They are produced as material culture; they have totemic and utilitarian functions; they change through time, and they have polysemic interpretations.  There are a vast array of other artifacts created by the entertainment industry, some of which may be the subject of future entries.  Not all of them exhibit the same characteristics of headshots, but all products of the same cultural forces.

  • Anecdotal evidence from photographers and actors also indicates that there is a geographic variation in headshot conventions: i.e. headshots in New York look different from ones in L.A. (I haven’t conducted any research on NY headshots, so I can’t verify that, though a number of people have mentioned it).
  • Technically speaking, what we’re talking about is polyvalence more than polysemy.  Polyvalence is a related term to polysemy; but because polysemy is a more recognizable term (even to academics), I went with that.  If anybody really wants to know the difference, drop a line and I’ll give you the full, jargon-filled explanation.
  • The casting director didn’t literally want them to look the same, of course; he wasn’t interested in clones.  But he wanted the conventions to be the same – i.e, no super-weird angles, or full-body shots instead of headshots, or people in costumes, etc.  (all of which I have seen in headshots).