by Mike McNamee Published 01/05/2003
After a recent seminar in London we were invited to visit Castle Studios in Windsor.
SWPP members, Patricia and Gerardo Fernández are in a location to die for, built around 1700 and right opposite the gates of Windsor Castle in the quaint, narrow, Church Street. They have developed a business that is a model which other photographers could profitably follow. This is a prestigious, high turnover operation with a big staff and a huge client base from the numerous tourists who throng the streets around this old suburb.
Assisted by a staff of up to 18 at peak times Castle Studio specialises in Victorian makeovers. From the moment clients join the queue to when they leave with their elegantly presented pictures in expensive shopping bags, they are involved in an "experience" rather than a simple portrait sitting. With as many as 300 sittings per day in the peak season, the whole operation is underpinned by a slick workflow which starts with up to six girls, in period costume, wandering the streets outside exercising their considerable charms. They are,
apparently, the most photographed girls in London and they are happy to pose for the tourists as well as persuade them to step inside and have a professional shot made. Once inside (and after some iced tea), a team of up to six dressers work amongst the 350 costumes that Patricia has gathered together, preparing the guests for their picture. Some of the costumes are old (and really authentic), others are the results of Patricia's formal study of costume design, made with reference to photographs sourced in the UK and USA. All are historically accurate and the upkeep of the wardrobe is an ongoing process, especially out of the main season. Up to 20 people are dressed at the same time (keeping boys and girls separate is a nightmare!) and the largest group can be 18 people. The studio operates from 9am and stays open until 11pm on occasions.
Once prepared and suitably adorned with accessories (swords for the gentlemen, jewellery for their ladies!) the sitters are brought before Patricia and Gerardo and their Gandolfi supported, Wista 5x4 field camera. After the sitters have been meticulously posed, at least two images are shot, one serious (in keeping with the images from the period) and one laughing. The laughing shot is easy, the atmosphere is very relaxed and the unreal situation in which the sitters find themselves brings smiles on very readily. The negatives are processed by the technicians downstairs and then output using conventional enlargers and RA4 processors. (A Fuji Pictrography is employed for up to A3 prints and Fuji Digital cameras are all currently undergoing trials. Patricia has recently installed an Epson 7600 and is so pleased with it that she is already investigating the purchase of a second one). The whole process is unbelievably slick. By the time Captain Horatio Hornblower had reassumed the role of Editor, Mike McNamee, a 16x20 swept frame was in its bag waiting to be picked up - just about 10 minutes!
Patricia was keen to emphasise to us that they sell an experience and not just a period makeover. It certainly seemed like it; by the time Phil was into his second costume (Patricia was just desperate to get him up as Henry VIII) and Queen Juliet had joined him, everybody was in the party mood. This was just as well as we then went on to be royally entertained at dinner by our hosts and their charming family.
The technicalities of the operation are quite interesting even though we were sworn to secrecy. Experience has taught Patricia and Gerardo that the brighter orange in the sepia sells better than an authentic thiocarbamide tone. It is a classic example of the customer being right - they sell them the image tone they prefer, not what a traditional pundit might demand! The conversion to digital offers new challenges but seems inevitable if the studio is to keep up with the everincreasing demands for their portraits.
All things considered it was an informative, entertaining and delightful visit and thanks to the generosity of our hosts we had pictures to show our loved ones back home just what we had been up to - and they thought we were at work!
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