An Artist Goes Undercover at a JC Penney Portrait Studio

Nora Herting, "Carnation"
Nora Herting, "Carnation" (all photos courtesy Nora Herting)

Studio portraits don’t document an event; the making of the photograph is the event. In order to create a series titled Free Sitting, artist Nora Herting got a job as a trade photographer at a portrait studio in a JC Penney department store in Ohio.

I am 5 years old my sister and I are in matching purple short-alls with little flower buttons. We are about to have our pictures taken. I am excited about what is behind us, a photo backdrop of a field of daffodils and beyond a mountain. The occasion is Easter after all. The photographer, a youngish woman instructs me to lay on my stomach on, what I will much later learn is called the “posing table,” a carpet covered stage. But I am not too young not to understand submission and an outraged and confused feeling rises when she then instructs my younger and chubby sister to straddle my back. How could this adult, imbued with inherent authority make such a ridiculous demand? I turn towards my mother, anticipating her to intercede, but to my shock, she smiles and urges me to turn toward the camera and smile …

Nora Herting, "Wanted"
Nora Herting, "Wanted" (click to enlarge)

The ubiquitous photos generated from portrait studios reveal a great deal about how we choose to portray our relationships and ourselves. This was part of Herting’s investigation when she began the project. The portrait serves a testament to the subjects’ prosperity and personal relations, and yet, despite the time and care people take when having their pictures taken at commercial studios, the resulting photographs are rarely considered aesthetic objects. They are documentation. Herting’s work questions what, exactly, we are documenting in this benign, constructed way.

The studio-portrait experience has a structured set of parameters that form a stylistic equation. When participating in this process we become blind to its constructs. Artists disrupt and violate codes and, in doing so, bring them to our attention. Herting breaks the rules of the studio portrait, and the resulting photographs no longer fulfill their role as social symbols. Images programmed to be evidence of happiness or prosperity become painful, ugly or embarrasing, possibly revealing something unseen before. As Andre Tarkovsky wrote of bringing audiences through an experience in film, “hideousness, then truth.”

In addition, Herting embarked on this undercover project for a more simple reason, perhaps put most succintly in the famous first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”


Carol has finally noticed me trying to look like I belong loafing in Zone One and has me started on paperwork. The Lifetouch Associate information and benefits overview is for my keeping. Skimming a long packet of materials reveals that my signature swears me to secrecy to anything that happens, belongs, or involves Lifetouch. I am very reluctant to do this, as my entire purpose of being here is to lift as much material as possible and pan it off as a critique of the language of portraiture. After stalling by reading the Glossary of Lifetouch terms to learn that a Reno Plant is not a organism that sprouts poker chips, but the national film processing facility. I remember that it is just as illegal to exhibit copyright photos, signed secrecy pact or not. I sign it.

The studio is a reflexively internal space. But Herting always pointed the lens of her camera away from herself, which not only interested her more but was a fitting methodology for working as a kind of anthropologist. By taking on the job of assistant portrait photographer, she could slide into the role as anthropologist and keep her role as artist. She could be a distruption unbeknownst to her coworkers. Herting’s studio became Lifetouch.

Nora Herting, "Fall Log"
Nora Herting, "Fall Log"

Anthropologist Wade Davis wrote of time he spent with a community in a dense rainforest. A passage from his writing suggests that the exploration of the forest is not unlike the artist’s search both inside studio walls and out:

We had been drawn to the forest to seek its gifts, lights that heal, fruits and seeds that provide the foods we eat, pilgrimages that could transport the indivdual to realms beyond reason. But in time we came to realize that in unveiling, our task was not merely to identify new sources of wealth but to understand and celebrate a distinct vision of life itself, a profoundly different way of living.

For an anthropologist, accuracy and athenticity dictate that humans become subjects, but the relationship of direct observation is consensual. As an artist Nora had her own moral code that prevented her from simply using unwitting customers at Lifetouch as her subjects. The solution was to schedule willing models who assumed the role of customers. Together, Nora and her subjects made art as co-conspirators and collaborators, but posed as employee and customers.  She would take the pictures she wanted, ones based on but deviating from Lifetouch’s cannon and prescribed pose guide. She would order and pay for the photographs herself. Working this way for several months, Herting would retreat from her Lifetouch studio to her traditional studio to reflect, assess and process. (She was laid off after the end of the holiday season.)

Microphone made and used by the artist
A microphone made and used by the artist in her project

In the beginning, being hired at Lifetouch was a practical solution in service of creating the portraits. Once Nora inhabited the space, however, the power dynamic and elaborate theater undertaken to create such benign images compelled her to reconsider her role. She created jewelery with pinhole cameras, hidden microphones to document herself and her subjects. The work expanded, and she became a subject as well.

A good hour and a half of toggling between answering phones and flattering women on their kidney bean colored newborns and I am parched. Mostly because she is tired of having to explain things, Carol offers to show me the employee lunchroom. This is located on the secret fourth floor of JcPenney. It is mysteriously identified on the elevator panel as floor PH.  Here is where the real downtrodden retail people go for their two paid 15 minute breaks and their 20 minute lunch (unpaid). By the looks of the lunch room, JcPenney has a legion of sales people, or is renting out this room to church groups. Past the ten banquet tables is a TV, with what else on – soaps. Carol shows me the amenities: several vending machines with overpriced soda and one of those scary cafeteria vending machines with saran wrapped tuna fish sandwiches in little plastic coffins.  This place makes Zone One actually feel like a living room. I buy a bottle water and promptly exit for the faux wood grain comfort of the dining table back in the portrait studio.


The Free Sitting series initiates a discussion on what we value and where value lies, both individually and culturally. It asks us to measure the value of a family smiling out from their portrait as well as the value of the process of making these images. Martin Heidegger delves into the artistic process and value, writing:

In the middle ages the word for balance, die Wage, still means about as much as hazard or risk. That is why the appartatus which moves by tipping one way or another is called die Wage. It plays and balances out. The word Wage … comes from wagen, wegen, to make a way, that is, to go, to be in motion … to shake, or rock … What rocks is said to be able to do so to bring balance.

Posing recommendations from Lifetouch
Posing recommendations from Lifetouch (click to enlarge)

To earn a wage is to balance the self with the actor we cast in the performance of work. By punching into Lifetouch each day, Herting was bringing movement to the game, tipping the scales and exposing her own self and practice to risk. In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s recent book about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, she writes “ … he told me how he and the other alterboys would secretly rummage through the priests’ private closet and drink the vestment wine. The wine didn’t interest him; it was the funny feeling in his stomach that excited him, the thrill of doing something forbidden.”

Also shifting balance Herting confronted was her identity as an artist versus her performance of being a service worker. She describes this feeling: “After my shift at JcPenny, I would anxiously unstrap the various audio recorders and pinhole cameras inside my car in the parking lot. When the audio recorder jammed, or the video signal encountered interference and recorded only snow, I would feel my identy pivot on these failed results. In those moments I felt a crisis of identity. Was I really an artist, working in social intervention while critiquing the aesthetics and economic models of portraiture, or was I a minimum wage worker at an ailing suburban mall?”

The act of calling oneself an artist in today’s socio-economic environment is to make a decision to live in risk, to adopt risk as your home, to balance on constant movement and change. To labor as an artist in the traditional studio model of art production wagers the risk of economic poverty, but to take on employment outside the studio wagers the risk of creative poverty and, if starved too long, loss of gift. Either scenario concerns poverty. This question of where the poverty lies is inherent in Herting’s series.

While I am supplying Lifetouch with documents to use in future litigation against me, Lindsay today’s photographer has taken several prune-y babies in ridiculous clothing into the camera room. The prune-y baby currently lying on a strange yellow orthopedic looking device on the Posting Table is not cooperating and a traffic jam in the waiting room is forming. Carol has gone in to assist in the corpse like posing of the infant. The phone is also beginning to ring continuously. Since I have now completed the training packet for Zone One: Orientation and Reception Zone am guessing that I am now properly equipped to answer the phone and record appointments in those books they have at both hair salons and fine dinning franchises. However Studio Manager and twenty five year Lifetouch veteran, Carol strikes me as a bit of a control freak. What should I do? By jumping in and doing a job that I have not been trained to do am I showing that I am a quick thinking and capable or a reckless nuisance with no regard for the Zone Training system. I am feeling increasingly restless at the Zone One dinning table and answer the phone as stated in WOW Compass Training.


Herting’s work may be characterized as portraiture, but she isn’t interested in capturing the uniqueness of an individual. The subjects of her photographs are not the people depicted but the construction of the portraits themselves. The works subscribe to a very specific set of formal parameters but also violate them, undermining the social function of these types of images.

Nora Herting, "Spring Meadow"
Nora Herting, "Spring Meadow"

The trade photographer and the sitter engage in theater staged for the camera. Subjects assume the role of archetypes: the close-knit family, the adorable daughter in pink, the loving mother and child. If the portrait is successful, the identity of the sitter recedes, leaving only the archetype, a type of social currency. When the theater unravels, when the sitter fails to play the part convincingly or the photographer captures the wrong moment, individuals re-emerge. Humor and empathy reside in the space between the failure and the archetype.

Lunch at food court
stir fry noodles
Camera room
Clown nose

Written in conjunction with the artist

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