Every Picture Tells a Story: Souvenir Photos

Vacationers get ready for their closeups at Wildwood’s Antique Images.

Frame Game: Antique Images staffer Emma Barrett attempts to restore order in the dressing area.
Photo by Marc Steiner

Like many Wildwood vacationers, Chris Carrie can’t get enough of Antique Images. It’s a late summer weekend and the 19-year-old from Camden County has returned to the photo studio in the Boardwalk Mall for a second night in a row.

“We just love the people here,” says Carrie, as he and his girlfriend browse the racks of period clothing to pick the wardrobe for their Wild West-themed portrait with help from the staff. “They just seemed very excited to dress us up,” says Carrie.

Getting gussied up vintage style and posing for a sepia-tone photo has been a Wildwood tradition since 1977, when James diMartino opened Antique Images Old Time Photos. Like many Shore attractions, this one has a multigenerational pull. “Couples who took a picture when they were courting come back with the first kid, with the second kid, and then with their grandkids,” says diMartino.

Over the years, diMartino has crowded his small studio with props—sticks of fake dynamite, shelves of liquor bottles, wanted posters and other Americana. The dressing room is stuffed with more than 300 suits and dresses. Endless hats and feathered boas crowd the walls.

Victorian finery is a popular choice. Guys also can dress up as gangsters, mafia dons, Civil War officers and pirates. Women go for the gangster theme too—as gun molls, flappers and floozies.

For each photo shoot, staffers help their subjects decide whether they want to be good or bad, sexy or tough. “We don’t just put the stuff on people and say, ‘You are Jesse James, here’s your picture,’” says Joe Toland, who has worked at the studio for a dozen seasons. “We want them to really feel in character.” The best way to do that, he says, is to create the scene visually and verbally.

At times, the studio’s employees seem more like actors, performing a carefully choreographed dance as they assemble and tear down photo backdrops on the two studio sets—one a formal parlor, the other a cluttered barroom. The atmosphere is more theater stage than photo studio—and passersby are the audience, watching the scenes unfold from a hallway in the mall. “We are all about theater here,” says diMartino’s wife and business partner, Mary Gillett, in her wispy Irish accent. There is no script, but all the actors know their parts—whether it’s dressing maid, stage hand or photographer.

Right now, staffer Jodi Willoughby is playing casting director. “How about we throw some bustiers and fishnets on ya?” she calls out to two women walking past the studio counter. “You’ll be the hottest babies on the boardwalk.” The pitch works, and the women come closer to thumb through sample portraits, some more than 30 years old. “When you see gangsters with mullets, that’s the early ’80s,” says Toland.

Finally, there is a lull in the stream of patrons. Still, the staffers continue their waltz, picking outfits off the floor, stacking hats, reorganizing necklaces and getting ready for the next rush. “Because in the end of it all, it’s an amusement,” says diMartino. “We’re a ride. It’s got to be fun.”

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