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Trials and Tribulations of a Portrait Photographer

In 1978 I was working at a portrait studio in a mall in Orange County and living with my soon-to-be ex-wife. She had given me the green light to sleep around, but I was still miserable.

by Scot Sothern
Aug 25 2014, 3:31pm


I’m working at Forever Yours, a portrait studio in a mall in Orange County, California, bad photography and high-pressure sales. I’m no good at sales, but my bad photography dazzles the other bad photographers. The owner, a beach bunny turned entrepreneur, gives me a written sales script and tells me I gotta memorize it. She tells me good photographers are cheap but sales are everything and a smart person like her can sell anything. She tells me she’s a successful single mother but don’t get any ideas because I’m not her type. I need the job, so I’m pretending to be some other guy.

I’m living with my first wife in Silver Lake on a hill, in a funky one-bedroom next door to a car thief and his sister, a blind hooker. When my 1976 Chevy Monza throws a rod I leave it on the street with the key in the ignition. I call the finance company and give them the address. I count up my savings and ask my neighbor if he’s got anything for $63.50. He’s got a 1963 Plymouth Valiant I can have for $50. The tires are bald and the front bumper is gone. The muffler is hanging on with duct tape, and it sounds like a death rattle. It doesn’t have any plates, and I’ve got warrants and a revoked Florida driver’s license, but I don’t mind—it’s just the way things are.

The Forever Yours boss lady recognizes my considerable skills and wants me to photograph her obnoxious kids, a little prince and a little princess, in the Magic Kingdom of Disneyland. I drive the Plymouth down to Anaheim, and black chemtrails blow from the tailpipe like a biplane spraying insecticide. Inside the gates I sacrifice my cool, and the boss lady has me chasing after the brats for pictures. In Tomorrowland, in super cinerama, we watch Disney’s idea of America with a bombastic rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The boss lady and her two blue-eyed spawn stand tall with hands over hearts, and I can’t take it anymore. I light up a smoke and go wait outside. Afterward she tells me I’m disrespectful and better watch my step.

My marriage is nearly over and sexless, and I need to get laid. We’ve been married for six years and I’ve been faithful, but my wife tells me to go ahead and do what I need to do because she’s all done. When a hot 20-year-old with a slinky body in a slinky dress stops to look at the display pictures at Forever Yours, I talk her into the camera room and shoot a roll of lip-licking exposures. Her name is Vicky, and we both get turned on but don’t fully engage. I send in the film and when it comes back a week later I call her and tell her I’ll bring the proofs to her place. I don’t have money for gas, beer, smokes, or food, so I take a loan from the Forever Yours cash register. Vicky loves the pictures, and we fool around for a while, but then a car horn honks and she says that’s her date, her policeman boyfriend, and she’s gotta get ready to go. On my way to the Valiant I see the guy, in a new Camaro, an all-American type who looks like Martin Milner in Adam-12. We look at each other with blank expressions.

The next day my wife tells me it’s too bad I didn’t go with her to a Hollywood comedy club where her friend heckled a comic who heckled her back and then invited them backstage. The comic was a wild man, and they all got drunk and he tried to make it with her friend. Sometime later she tells me the guy’s on television now, Mork & Mindy.

Photo by Scot Sothern

There are holes in the floor of the Plymouth Valiant, and I can see the pavement below. The buttons for the push-button transmission are missing, so I use a screwdriver to punch it into drive. The boss lady tells me I gotta spend Sunday afternoon at a Little Miss/Little Mister beauty pageant where her little brats are competing. Halfway there I need to pull to the side of the freeway and feed a couple of cans of motor oil to the Valiant. When I get there she wants to know why I’m not wearing a tie, and don’t I own something better than tennis shoes? She tells me as long as I represent her and Forever Yours, I need to make more effort to look presentable. I take pictures of the brats, but I twist them out of focus.

On Monday a zaftig cutie named Becky comes into Forever Yours with her six-month-old kid and a coupon. I photograph the kid, then put the camera on Becky and tell her how pretty she is. She’s newly divorced, and we make out while her kid crawls around on the floor.

On Friday my wife and her friend go to a bar in Manhattan Beach. I’m invited, but I’ve got a date with Becky. I borrow another 50 bucks from Forever Yours and take her to the Old Spaghetti factory on Sunset. After dinner I drive us up to the top of Mount Olympus in the Hollywood Hills where we can see all the big city lights. Afterward we go back to her place to fuck. She tells me her ex-husband used to slap her around and choke her with his dick down her throat, so she can’t give me head because it’s too traumatic. I tell her that’s OK; I’ll do her. When it’s time to fuck I stick it in, but she hasn’t done her postpartum kegels and she’s loose as a tub of apple sauce. I fake an orgasm and tell her she’s great.

The next day my wife says there was a poetry reading at the bar she went to and the poet was a drunken madman who threw his empty beer cans at the audience. She tells me I would have loved it. She bought one of his books of poetry, Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.

I have a great need to escape my circumstances. At Forever Yours I’m on my way out the door when the boss lady calls. I tell her I’m glad she called because I quit and can she send me a check. She tells me no check, no way, because I’ve been embezzling and she was going to fire me anyway. I tell her no hard feelings, and then I take 20 rolls of film from the studio along with my pay and a generous bonus from the cash register. Back in Silver Lake I tell my wife I love her and I’m sorry but I gotta go. I drive the Valiant downtown and leave it in the parking lot at the Greyhound station.

Scot's first book, Lowlife, was released in 2011, and his memoir, Curb Service, is out now. You can find more information on his website.

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Scot Sothern
scot sothern photography
photography by scot sothern
portrait photography