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Say ... 'Picture Day'?

In our digital age, the tradition of school portraits endures

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / December 18, 2010

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When my kids were younger, there was one school event that could be counted on to cause a family fight every year: school Picture Day.

Picture Day, as anyone who has a kid, or is one, knows is the school day when students get their picture taken by a professional photographer.

Picture Day, as I define it, is the school day that always made me into the bad guy. It was the day when my son got his back up and warned me to let him decide what to wear since he was still living down the humiliation of a previous Picture Day when I made him wear a bolo tie. It was the day his sister reminded me she has me to thank for the worst picture of her ever taken, in her whole entire life. (She has a point. It was during gymnastics class Picture Day when I dressed her up in a cutesy pink polka-dot leotard. The photographer made her stoop on one knee and stretch one arm out — ta-daaaaa! — like an Olympic gymnast with her front teeth missing.

At this point their father would weigh in, having caught me struggling with the math on the order form (“Most Popular! 1-8X10, 2-3X5s, 12-2X3s’’ . . .) and the conversation would go like this:

“You’re throwing out money. The pictures are terrible. I could take a better one for free.’’

“You never do.’’

“I’ll do it.’’

“It’s for their grandmothers. We have to.’’

“We don’t have to.’’ And so on.

Of course, we did have to. That expensive grid of head shots is emotional blackmail. What kind of mother tells her kids to take pictures of themselves back to school because their parents don’t want to keep them? (“Most Horrible!’’) What kind of parent would let someone throw their children’s head shots in the trash or maybe even shred them?

However, now that my kids are grown, I have another question. Why does Picture Day still exist?

Nowadays, with digital photography and smartphones, there is nothing easier to come by than pictures of your kids. Yet Picture Day, which records one posed and unnatural moment at more or less the same time every year, remains one of the most enduring institutions in America, one that’s hardly changed at all.

Certainly no one argues that this is great photography. “I always thought [the pictures] were a little bit charming because they were so stupid,’’ said photographer Nicholas Nixon, whose celebrated series of annual family portraits, “The Brown Sisters,’’ is currently exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts. “They show the public self of a kid. They encourage the girls to be pretty and the boys to be strong, and the photographer has a zillion to do in a day and wants to get through it. It is completely not about individuals.’’

But even Nixon, who lives in Brookline, bought the Picture Day pictures when his children were young, albeit the cheapest package “with absolutely no [expletive] extras,’’ he is quick to point out. “If you lay them all out, they do show a chronology that is pretty wonderful.’’

Call it emotional blackmail but this is what the photography company is counting on.

“Who wants to be left with a party for their graduating senior and not be able to splay out the entire maturity of the child from kindergarten to senior year?’’ said Kelvin Miller, spokesman for Minnesota-based Lifetouch. The company, which is 75, has cornered “a significant majority of the schools in Massachusetts,’’ according to Miller, though he declined to give any figures. “There are some other players,’’ he conceded, “many of whom we have purchased.’’

There is a reassuring timelessness to the photography. Little has changed over the years except for jazzier backdrops, a “retouching’’ option that removes blemishes, and the fact that photos are now shot digitally so kids can love or hate them on the spot. Lifetouch now provides a service that factors into a sad reality of American life. The company works with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to make photos available if a child disappears.

“I’m saving it for my mother so if I die and she’s still alive she can remember me,’’ Leilani Rivera, 8, said matter-of-factly. She was having her picture retaken this week in the auditorium of Edward W. Brooke Charter School in Roslindale because she didn’t like the way she smiled the first time.

She had a big smile this time, though. That’s another thing that hasn’t changed much: Photographers still coax kids to smile by saying “cheese’’ or “puppies’’ or “stinky feet,’’ a trick employed by Lifetouch photographer Heather Ellis, who was shooting retakes at Leilani’s school.

Middle school boys still pretend they don’t care about how they look. Girls still obsess about the pictures. Megan Hippeli, 12, a seventh-grader at Sarah W. Gibbons Middle School in Westborough, went to Retake Day because the first photos “came out weird.’’ This time she left nothing to chance.

“First, you have to find a cute outfit,’’ she explained. “Then you have to find cute earrings.’’ She followed up with just the right jeans, the right Uggs boots, and the perfect V-neck sweater that she and her friends refer to as “Red Sweater.’’ It took her 10 minutes to do the first part of her hair-do (pulling her bangs back) and another 10 for the French braid, she said. “It’s going to be in the yearbook, and I don’t want people flipping through it and saying, ‘Who’s that girl?’ ’’

(Another thing that hasn’t changed is that kids still dawdle in the auditorium after they’re done. “The one good part about Picture Day is that you get to miss part of class,’’ a girl was overheard to say.)

Also, “moms haven’t changed,’’ said Cathy Lis, , the Lifetouch territory manager for the Gibbons School. “Moms still want a quality experience.’’

This was presumably the theory behind a note from a mother to the photographer, found sitting on a pile of returned photos. “Reason for return: Odd view of right nostril. It looks as if it’s nonexistent.’’

One mother who sees the value of Picture Day is Sandra Marques, the office manager at the Brooke Charter School. Above her desk hang Picture Day photos of her daughter Tatianna, a fourth-grader at the school, who was getting retakes. (Her mom spent an hour and a half doing her hair.) Marques’s mother, who lived with her until her recent death, had saved all of Marques’s school pictures, which still hang on the wall, though not for long. “My wall is going down and [Tatianna’s] is going up,’’ she said.

Even in a down economy, the pictures still sell well, Miller said. Between 60 percent and 90 percent of parents buy them, “depending on socioeconomics and the population of the schools, whether we’re dealing with a population that comes from another country or culture where school pictures are not a tradition.’’

“Parents are really into it here,’’ said Marques, despite the school’s economic profile: 72 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. “It’s not like they have all that money, but they’ll come up with forty dollars for pictures of their children.’’

How does she account for why the pictures are so popular?

“Why do we go shopping the day after Christmas? Things aren’t really cheaper. Why do we buy fruit baskets in the winter when it’s not even the ripest or best fruit?’’ She shrugged. “I just think it’s tradition.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com

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