Vacations are a good time for family photos, but one type of business in South Jersey trades on this togetherness with a twist.
Old-time photo stores on the boardwalks of Wildwood and Ocean City make money by helping people play dress up as cowboys, gangsters, a gangster’s moll or, lately, vampires. They cater to customers who let go of their inhibitions while on vacation.
With unique sets, props and authentic costumes, visitors can briefly experience the life of a fictionalized 1880s gambler with aces up his sleeve in a dusty saloon, a 1920s flapper ready for a night on the town or an Al Capone protégé who packs his own Tommy gun.
Photo sessions start at about $20 but vary depending on the numbers of reprints and people in the shot.
“We create stories of American icons, mostly real or cinematic,” said James Dimartino, owner of Antique Images in Wildwood’s Boardwalk Mall.
Dimartino, who lives in Philadelphia, opened his shop in 1977 after an unsuccessful bid to start a live theater company. He said he had enjoyed taking pictures of cast members in their costumes between rehearsals and decided it might make a good business for Wildwood.
In the early years, he augmented the store’s wardrobe through estate sales.
“We started getting clothes from dead people,” he said.
Today, they use specialty costume suppliers. But Dimartino and his wife and business partner, Mary Gillett, are always on the lookout for one-of-a-kind items such as the stovepipe hat she festooned with a pair of aviator goggles or its museum-quality Victorian dresses.
The store specializes in five themes: Victorian, Wild West, 1920s gangster, pirates and an industrial aesthetic called Steampunk — think post-apocalypse or the movies of director Terry Gilliam.
“Steampunk is very big. It mixes periods, like an alternate world with Victorian sensibilities and the concept of the gentleman scientist like Nicolas Tesla,” Gillett said. “It has a late 1800s aesthetic.”
About 80 percent of the store’s revenues come from prints. The rest are divided into frames and costume accessories such as silk gloves that customers can buy.
Photographers Donaven Bunting, of Bridgeton, and Joseph Toland, of Wildwood Crest, share in the shooting and photo editing. The key to a successful photo shoot is making the subjects feel comfortable and less self-conscious.
“Feeling fabulous translates into looking fabulous,” Bunting said.
The key to a successful old-time photo business is creating a fun experience, said Mike Glasser, president of the trade group Antique & Amusement Photographers International.
Glasser has stores in the Black Hills of South Dakota and in Circus Circus Las Vegas in the city where he lives.
“It’s the experience. We hear that a lot from our guests. They remember their experience, no matter what age they came into the studio,” he said. “Every one of those photographers has a passion for what they do.”
Glasser said the entertainment-photo business has weathered the recession reasonably well since most stores are located in resort towns that benefit from a healthy tourism trade.
The association sponsors an annual convention and photo contest for the best work as judged by its 100 members, including Shooters Old Time Photos in Wildwood.
“Pirates are a big one for us,” Cheryl Rutkowski said.
She and her husband, Gary, own three studios with 25 seasonal employees on the Wildwood Boardwalk. One store features an extra-large prop, a 1920s black Buick sedan complete with faux bullet holes so customers can stage realistic Bonnie and Clyde-style bank-robbery getaways in the sepia-toned photos.
“It’s a nice memory of their family vacation. The photos last for years,” she said.
Western themes are popular, but stores can offer different looks depending on the customers’ tastes.
“When people come in and have something in particular that they want, we want them to like the product we’re selling. We’ve done Irish Leprechauns and vampires. We just did a 1960s shoot for the first time,” Rutkowski said.
“The biggest challenge is just the hours and the labor. It is very labor-intensive,” she said. “You need lots of staff to dress the customers and well-trained photographers.”
Rutkowski said the job requires patience and skill, especially when working with children or infants. They don’t always make it to the little boys’ or girls’ room on time, Rutkowski said. “You wouldn’t think this was a hazardous job, but it is.”
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