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Great Read: A head-shot studio on wheels: ‘That’s so L.A.’

The bright magenta van parked alongside Pan Pacific Park near the Grove could be mistaken for any one of the scores of gourmet food trucks roaming the streets of Los Angeles.

But passersby did a double take as they read the sign written in white text across its side:

“The Headshot Truck.”

“Wow, that’s so L.A.,” Robert Lewis, 35, said as he walked by with his two bulldogs.

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In a city where a head shot is an actor’s calling card, it used to be easy to get a studio-quality photo. But many of the traditional photo studios have closed, unable to get enough business as more people use cellphones and digital cameras to snap pictures.

Actor-turned-photographer Adam Hendershott, who sports black-rimmed glasses and a scruffy brown beard, said many of his Hollywood friends complained they were having a tough time finding a photographer. So he and his wife, Sylvia, decided to catch L.A.'s trendy truck wave — and carve out a niche for themselves in the head-shot business.

They combed through Craigslist until they found an 18-year-old Chevy Step Van that was once used as a bread truck. They had to remove the 400-pound metal bread racks and sweep up crumbs scattered across the floor.

Now, there are no traces of bread (probably a good thing, seeing how gluten-phobic many actors are). Instead of racks, a bolted-in chair sits next to a table with makeup and hair products neatly organized. A long pole hangs across from the chair, for outfit changes.

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In the “studio” space, a large light hangs from the back of the truck and a desktop computer screen sits to the left so people can review the photos on the spot — sometimes pointing out nitpicky things they’d like to fix, like blemishes or sticking-out hair.

Outside the truck, two plastic hot-pink flamingos (nicknamed Fred and Bobbles) greet customers. The truck’s veering-on-flip slogan, “The Best Way to Get Shot in L.A.,” is splashed across its back. The day’s clients are listed in orange and pink chalk on a blackboard hung next to the door.

Just above the list, scrawled in cursive, a greeting reads “Welcome aboard!”

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The old-school head shot industry seems to be going the way of the flashbulb.

In April 2013, portrait company CSI Corp. closed thousands of locations it ran out of Sears and Wal-Mart stores. Affordable mom-and-pop studios are becoming rare.

High-end studios that charge thousands of dollars for head shots are still around, but that price is too hefty for struggling actors.

On average, 28-year-old actress Ashley Platz said, those photographers charge up to $800.

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“And, you know, that’s like rent for a month,” Platz said.

The digital age has given rise to amateur photographers who charge $100 for work done out of makeshift studios in their homes or garages. Their Craigslist ads — some sketchier than others — include “Headshots you’ll love 100% guaranteed!” to “Need new headshots? Of course you do!”

That has squeezed professional photographers like Alan Weissman. He has made a living for more than two decades running a Los Angeles studio that caters to mostly fresh-faced actors but also celebrities including Morgan Freeman, Billy Crystal and Cameron Diaz.

“When I started … I didn’t have much competition. There were 15 or 20 people doing what I did,” said Weissman, who charges $395 for two basic head-shot looks and 50 8-by-10 photos. “Now it’s just awful. People aren’t looking for quality anymore — they look for whoever will do photos fast and cheap.”

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Weissman said that although the concept behind the Headshot Truck is interesting, the business seems more like a “gimmick.”

“I love the idea — I think it’s totally cool — but I don’t think it’s serving the actor,” he said. “I’m old-school. They aren’t at the next level.”

Weissman said even some of his interns “have websites before they are real photographers” and advertise head-shot services online. The increase in cheaper competition has led to less work.

“You used to have to know your craft,” he said. “People don’t know what they are looking for anymore.”

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But he said that there was one new crop of clients: actors whose head shots were botched by amateurs.

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The Hendershotts came up with the idea for the truck three years ago. Just as restaurant owners found they could cater to new clients by serving food from trucks to reduce overhead costs, the couple saw the Headshot Truck as an opportunity to fill a void in the industry.

“A picture of someone’s face shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg,” Adam Hendershott, a 31-year-old Burbank native, said with the air of someone who’s used that line before. The truck’s basic package is $250.

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Adam and Sylvia Hendershott, 30, are high school sweethearts and now expecting their first child. Though they have a shared love of photography, the laid-back couple didn’t necessarily consider themselves business-savvy. To make the truck work, they knew they needed a solid team.

First came tech guy Zac Hardy, who helped equip the truck with a wireless image review system. Truck manager William Harper, a New Jersey native who also acts, came next. They finalized the team with Stephanie Shea, who handles social media and helps Hendershott shoot, and Vanessa Logan, the makeup artist on board.

Before buying their truck, the crew rented a similar van to test out the equipment and business model. They gave actors discount head shots and asked for feedback.

When they finally found the right fit, they spent several months sprucing up the truck.

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“We had to clean it several times,” Harper said. “A few dozen times.”

The fun kicked in when they designed the exterior. With help from a graphic designer, the team settled on a magenta color for the outside and an orange logo depicting a camera inside a truck.

“We used wine labels for inspiration,” Harper said about the color. “We found two wine bottles — one had a pink color and the other had orange. We sent it to the graphic designer and he came up with this great logo.”

It took dipping into the Headshot Truck crew’s savings, raising about $26,000 through a Kickstarter campaign and spreading the news via word of mouth to get the business rolling.

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“It’s been an experience, for sure,” Adam Hendershott said.

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Like food trucks, the Headshot Truck tweets its location to its 900-plus followers — but shoots are appointment-only.

Alex Trugman, a 25-year-old actor and musician, pulled out his phone to take a photo of the truck while waiting for his turn in the makeup chair.

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As he struggled to come up with a clever tweet, he joked, “There’s a reason I’m not a writer.”

The tall, boyish-looking Studio City resident carried hangers with T-shirts as well as button-downs to fit the look he was going for: a mix of nerdy and boy-next-door.

“I wanted to show you head shots I already had,” Trugman told Sylvia Hendershott as he pointed to older photos on his phone. “Can we brainstorm if there are any looks I’m missing?”

Logan applied a light coat of concealer on Trugman in the makeup chair while Hendershott guided him through clothing recommendations.

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Gray hoodie-green shirt combo for the younger, nerdy look. Light blue button-down for the boy-next-door look.

“OK, you’re ready,” Logan said, handing Trugman a mirror to look at his makeup. “If you see anything you want to change, let me know.”

Adam Hendershott readied the space by lowering a white backdrop and firing up the camera.

“Looking good, dude,” he said.

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Meanwhile, actress Autumn Reeser, known for her role as Taylor on “The O.C.,” sat down in the makeup chair. The actress brought her two sons — 3-year-old Finn and almost 1-year-old Dash.

“My agency has been bugging me for the last five years to get a head shot,” she said. “Head shots can be really stressful for a lot of actors ... and having such a mobile service makes it feel less daunting.”

As the crew prepared for the next client, Avion Branch knocked on the door. The 37-year-old had spotted the truck and was interested in head shots for her 15-year-old daughter, an actress.

“Hello, I saw the truck and I wanted to ask for more information,” Branch said. “It’s pilot season and we need head shots. Are you guys based here?”

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“We’re all over,” Hendershott replied.

At the end of the day, the crew packed up Fred and Bobbles, stored away the welcome sign and pulled out of the parking lot.

saba.hamedy@latimes.com


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