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).

Headshot Archaeology, Part I

5 12 2012

The thesis of Hollywood Sapien is that Hollywood has a culture, and all cultures produce artifacts – man-made objects that, when analyzed, tell us something about the culture in which they were produced.  In anthropology, we call these studies “material culture” and in fact, for many archaeologists, it’s the only way to learn about the culture of vanished civilizations.*

The entertainment industry produces lots of artifacts: every film, TV show, and YouTube video is itself a cultural artifact, but there are many other artifacts in use in Hollywood that can tell us about its culture. Here we’ll consider one of the most ubiquitous ones: the headshot.  While some entertainment industry artifacts (like Avid systems and matte paintings) are relatively few and far between, you find headshots all over the place in Southern California – not just in casting directors’ offices, but on the walls of seemingly every dry cleaner and auto repair shop in L.A.


That’s right, I’m comparing actor headshots to these ancient artifacts.

Headshots have both a totemic function (to people not working in the entertainment industry) and a commercial one (to people who are).  The totemic function comes across on that dry cleaner’s wall – along with the car stereo stores, hairdressers, coffee shops, and everyplace else that has rows of headshots hanging, touting their celebrity clients.  Like other tribal totems, these headshots are meant to summon some of the power (the fame, image, and cachet) of those celebrities to the shop where they hang.   And by frequenting the shops where they appear, people get to bask – just a little – in the reflected glow of stars.


Headshots as totems at a shoe repair shop. If you live in L.A., you probably see walls like this all over the place.

Artifacts are created for many reasons: some for ritual or religious use, some for entertainment, or as tools.  One of the most important things to note about headshots as artifacts is that they are objects produced for commercial use.  While commercial photography itself is very common, that’s not usually the case for portraits, which even when commercial in origin are mostly intended to have a personal use (like the picture of your friend’s baby taken at the Sears photo studio hanging on your fridge).  Headshots, on the other hand, are commercial images, but not personal ones; I’ve never seen one hanging in an actors’ home, in the way that personal snapshots and other photos do.

When I worked on a Roman archaeological site many years ago, one of the things we couldn’t believe is just how many damn pots those Romans made.  Similarly, another remarkable thing about headshot artifacts in the sheer number of them in circulation – every actor has two or three at any given time, and gets new shots made roughly every three or four years.  Even with the conservative estimate of a little over 21,000 working actors in Hollywood at any given time (see https://hollywoodsapien.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/how-many-actors-are-in-l-a/entry), that means well over 100,000 headshots in existence. 

The number involved directly in the casting process are also amazing: one casting director told me that for a minor guest star role on a network TV show, there will be between 1,500-3,000 actors vying for each spot; a typical sitcom episode might have one or two guest stars a week, an hourlong drama three to seven.  So for any given hour of television, a casting professional might have to look at 15,000 headshots – EVERY WEEK.  Of course, people doing the casting often don’t even see the full headshot; most of the time, they see just a tiny thumbnail, which they scroll past on a computer screen, like these:


Thumbnail page from a casting site. You can see 12 images here, so for a single week’s episode of a network TV show, a casting director might have to look at over 1200 pages just like this one.  Yikes.

Which makes you feel bad sometimes for all the skill of the photographers who took the shots, and the actors who anxiously pore over details of the images: the way their hair looks, the tilt of the head, the crinkle of the smile, etc.  Small details don’t even come through the vast majority of the time their headshots will be seen by casting directors.*

You can learn a lot about a society from it’s material culture, and we’ve only scratched the surface of what headshots as artifacts can tell us about Hollywood.  There are plenty of topic for the next Sapien entry: how headshots reflect social and technological trends, the way they exhibit a something called polysemy (when people view the same object in different ways), and how, like many cultural artifacts, a history that can be traced in how they are made and what they look like. Until then…

— Scott Frank

  • Fear not, actors and photographers; obviously the time and energy you put into taking, editing, and selecting headshots isn’t really wasted: casting directors do see the details when they click on thumbnails or receive a copy of an actors physical headshot.
  • The impetus for this entry is an academic article I wrote on headshots that just got published in a scholarly journal – for which I interviewed a number of actors, headshot photographers, and casting professionals.  If you’re interested in that version, in all it’s dense academic-ese glory, the full citation is “Ready for Your Closeup? Polyvalent Identity and the Hollywood Headshot” in Visual Anthropology Review, volume 28 number 2, pages 180-189 (coming soon to a university library near you).
  • To my anthropologist and archeological colleagues – yes, I understand the distinction between how archaeological and material studies work; but for the lay audience, the relationship seems key.