What would the schoolyear be without the day of awkward smiling against circa-75 backdrops? Without those robe-neckline portraits? Without the record of humiliation to keep us humble? We're about to find out - fasten your seatbelts:
According to a heartbreaking and alarming piece in today's "Styles" section, the itinerant school photographer is a dying breed. Quoth the Gray Lady,
About 5 to 10 years ago, class photos and individual student portraits were reflexive purchases for parents. Those 4-by-6 and 8-by-10 prints were the visual equivalents of the notches made on door frames to show how much Junior had grown since last year. Now, more parents are snapping their own digital pictures and declining the products of the pros. It's a situation akin to the disappearance of the formal engagement and wedding portraits, courtesy of Bachrach, that were once a staple of newspaper society pages.
And, I'd argue, the world will be the poorer for it. Because the you your parents snap - relaxed, happy, candid - is a very different one from that immortalized in gaudy 8 x 10." And the latter, however painful to behold, is a much more accurate measure of how we are in the real world, with our peers, with all the pain and awkwardness that implies. Stylized, sure, but that record - from oblivious to increasingly self-conscious - simply can't be replicated. (What's more, I'd be surprised if the 12-15 set really submits to regular portraiture voluntarily. To get a complete record, it probably needs to be mandatory.) The article, too, focuses on the photographers who handle New York's private schools, and I wonder if other populations are quite so recreationally snap-happy. Not everyone, after all, has a digital camera.
And what of class pictures? I wouldn't have known how to function without the annual indignity of anchoring the "short kids'" spots on the ends of the rows. Dredging them up, after all, is one of the primary virtues of Facebook.
Figures like the photographer the piece profiles are reassuring annual fixtures, providing the sort of routine that makes school what it is. (My school, I think, worked with a different one; in high school, we were immortalized by an elderly man who wandered the campus with a Nikon; when some parents complained that the progressive school never marked Veterans' day, the administration made the photographer - as the only available veteran - do an entire assembly on his rather meager WWII service experience, most of which took place stateside.) And say what one will, there is a sense of occasion to a formal portrait, however awful. Like a cap and gown, on some level it's validating. A throwback? Maybe. But kids dig tradition. Also, half a day off from class.
The Man Who Clicks With 7-Year-Olds [NY Times]
Earlier: Goofy Glasses, Pretty Pigtails & Snaggletooth Smiles: September Is For School Portraits