The Evolution of the Headshot

Photo Source: Spencer Alexander

According to my first three wives, I have an issue with change. And who knows? They could be right. I do tend to get attached. When progress changes something I like, I’m the first to cry and mourn the past.

When I was a kid, music was released on large discs called records. Was the sound better? Beats me, but I do know the covers were a thing of beauty. We’re talking Rembrandt-level art, designed to catch your eye in a crowded store. Then when CDs took over, those beautiful images were squeezed down so they could fit on a much smaller jewel case. Today, album art is nothing more than a stamp on a website.

The same can be said for headshots. Back in the day, those pictures used to be a thing of beauty, too. They were shot on 35mm film and everyone used black-and-white, except for those freaky redheads who just love to be different. (They were all mocked for wasting their hard-earned cash on color pictures.)

I believe photographers were better back then because taking black-and-white headshots requires a real understanding of lighting. You can’t just snap a quick picture and then try to fix it with Photoshop. No, you had to know how to paint with light. You had to craft shadows that would highlight an actor’s best features. You had to be an artist.

Today, a large percentage of the people who charge you an arm and a leg for the pleasure of taking your headshot are frauds. They’ve never studied photography and they couldn’t light an oven with a match. That’s why I always advise actors to take their time when searching for the right photographer.

Sadly, black-and-white headshots are deader than disco. About 10 years ago, they were squeezed out by color and we’ve never looked back. Those new color pictures captured more detail and provided a truer representation of an actor’s appearance. This change was especially attractive for people of color who could now highlight their true skin tone. Unfortunately, those flashy color pictures were expensive to print and actors had to spend a lot more money just to stay current.

The arrival of online submissions and digital photography changed that.

Today, being an actor is cheaper than it was a decade ago because you don’t have to pay a lab to print 100 copies of your headshots every few months. And let’s face it: Most of those pictures just ended up in someone’s trash.

When I started, the submissions would roll in every morning on the back of a tired mailman. It boggles the mind to remember how hundreds and hundreds of headshots would get mailed to every agency in town on a daily basis. Now, they mostly arrive by email and I can just hit delete without having to open and examine every single package.

And back then I had to hire a messenger service to deliver my submissions to casting directors twice a day, so clients had to replenish my supply of headshots on a regular basis. Now they just send me a few JPEGs when we start working together and that’s it; we’re good to go.

Cars used to have carburetors, computers were the size of a fridge, and depression was treated with alcohol. That was my past. Your present is different. But here’s the thing: Your present will soon become the past. And when that day arrives, you’ll be just like me, mourning those old headshots as you submit your facial hologram to my son and his android assistant.

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