So You Wanna Be A Glamour-Puss?

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So You Wanna Be A Glamour-Puss?

In the upscale Apgujeong neighborhood just south of the Han River, the glitzy Galleria department store jousts for attention with rows of designer-brand stores in a siren song of conspicuous consumption. Indeed, the name of one thoroughfare in the area, Rodeo Street, is obviously intended to recall that center of unbridled capitalism, Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles.

Tucked away in the warren of small streets in the area is a corner where dreams of fame and glamour are on sale for a more modest price, and Korean youths in particular have flocked there. For sums ranging from 10,000 won ($7) to 30,000 won and up, a professional photographer will photograph you as the ruggedly handsome swashbuckler or the alluring venus you always knew you were, with a little help from a makeup artist if you desire. The finished photographs are available in less than an hour.

Some patrons of these photography studios are indeed aspiring fashion or glamour models, but most visitors are just intrigued, a photographer at one shop said, with the idea of seeing themselves portrayed as one. Other customers have more sentimental or practical requirements: a keepsake for an absent boyfriend or a flattering photo for a resume.

Kim Hyeon-sook works at Icon, a studio that opened in Apgujeong five months ago. She has been a professional photographer for about 10 years, she said, and worked as a freelancer for other studios and at her own shop before joining Icon to turn fantasies of glamour into glossy color prints.

"Most of our customers are in their teens or early 20s," she said. "Some of them want to add to their modeling portfolios, but others are here just for fun." Ms. Kim said about 80 percent of the customers at the studio are women, and that most of the men who come there are brought there - willingly or unwillingly - by their girlfriends. The photos plastered on nearly every square centimeter of the studio's walls support that assessment; they portray mostly young women or young couples in poses that mimic those seen in celebrity magazines. There were also a few children's portraits, and one engaging series of a man playing with his child.

We asked about one set of a young couple, the slim man bare-chested, scowling, arms crossed across his chest and a striking young woman on his arm - near dead-ringers for Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

"He's actually a dentist," Ms. Kim said, "and I was surprised at how photogenic he is." Smiling, she added that her professional skills are sometimes taxed by male subjects who freeze up in front of the lights and Ms. Kim's softly whirring Nikon camera.

"Most men are bewildered in front of a camera and lights. The most difficult customer for me was a man who refused to strike any poses; he just stood there awkwardly and said he couldn't think of any. But I almost never have that problem with women," she said. "They are usually more than ready for a photo shoot."

"We have some customers who come in every other week," Ms. Kim commented.

Her most unusual request? She said she spent one session taking close-up photographs of a subject's facial and head features - eyes, ears, nose, lips, hair. The customer, herself an artist, said she intended to use the individual photographs as part of a collage.

Ms. Kim sniffed at the idea of retouching photographs or of softening the focus to flatter her subjects. She said she and Icon have developed a style that shuns such techniques often used in glamour photography, especially to help those subjects who might be a bit "glamour-challenged." In fact, one of the two studios at Icon is devoted to high-key photography: dazzling white backgrounds and low-ratio lighting that can be as merciless as it is dramatic, while the other has a variety of darker-tone backgrounds available at the touch of a motorized roller. In a typical 15-20 minute shoot, she uses both studios.

On the floor near the entrance was a large framed nude: a woman facing away from the camera toward a large window amid billows of chiffon curtains. Not here, Ms. Kim said. "Maybe a few men casually remove their shirts, but the majority of customers detest the idea," she added.

During one Friday night visit, Icon was bustling with activity; the makeup man busily plied his trade in a corner as a stream of customers waited their turns in the studio or pored over stacks of prints from their sessions. But the studio was quieter at 2 p.m. on a recent Thursday when Cheong Hye-won came in. Her previous stop had obviously been at a beauty shop, judging from her carefully coiffed hair and elegant makeup.

Ms. Cheong said she was at Icon for the second time; several friends had recommended the studio to her and she had liked the results of her first session in front of the camera there - so much, in fact, that she wore the same pink top and white skirt she had worn at her first session. "I discovered from the first set of photos that I'm photogenic in this outfit," she said.

She told Ms. Kim she wanted photos portraying her as a "totally different person" than at her last shoot. The new photos were for her boyfriend, who was away on military service, and she needed some new pictures to add to her Web site. Ms. Kim soon bustled her off to the studio and murmured a series of posing suggestions while the electronic flashes popped.

About 50 meters away, the opposite of Icon's "realistic" photographic philosophy was much in evidence. The Apgujeong branch of StarShot, a local studio chain, promotes heavily its soft-focus, languorous style of portraiture. Customers can choose from a wide range of colors, background styles and photographic effects. On the same Thursday afternoon, StarShot was busier than Icon; five young women were waiting their turns. "Last time I tried the antique background with pink lighting, but this time, I want a plain background with green lighting," one young woman explained to the manager. Another customer, Yang Young Eun, smiled when asked what she thought of the sheaf of photos of herself she was examining. She said she would send some of them to friends and keep some as "memories of her youth." Ms. Yang is an on-air reporter for KBS Television news, suggesting that even those who make a living in front of a camera are not immune to the lure of being, for a few moments in front of a camera, a glamorous and exotic model. As the StarShot Web site proudly proclaims: "You can be a star!"

Kim Hyeon-sook of Icon knows that very well. "The secret of our success is simple," she said. "We make our customers' dreams come true - fast and at a reasonable price."

by John Hoog

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