Monday, September 29, 2014

In Defense of School Portraits

Several years ago, my husband stumbled upon my dirty little secret. Strangely enough, it was on full display at my grandmother's house.

If you go to my grandma's basement and look to the left of the piano, you will see all of my school portraits hung in chronological order. Starting with my red and blue kindergarten dress (marred by the sweater mom intended for me to remove before the photo), it is a testament to the length and severity of my awkward years.

I started out cute enough, but getting glasses in second grade started a downward spiral. In the seventies, children's glasses were a utility, not a fashion accessory. I didn't get contact lenses until eighth grade.

I added braces to the mix in fifth grade. Those also stuck around until eighth grade.

Hairstyles were never my strong suit. Styling meant throwing a barrette in my long hair when I was little. By junior high, I had close-cropped feathered hair suitable for a boy. My high school perms, while atrocious, were at least period-appropriate and a vast improvement over the horror of junior high.

Some people might be embarrassed by these photos. I've certainly endured a fair amount of mockery from my husband since he discovered them. But I'm not embarrassed. They are an excellent reminder of how far I have come. (Look how normal I look now!)

More importantly, school pictures are tradition. Every year, moms across the country dress up their kids, comb their hair, and send them off to school where some weird guy will make them shout "pickles!" while taking an awkward photo that will be sent home in a crinkly cellophane-fronted envelope and distributed to family members so that they can continue to pop up unexpectedly in perpetuity. It's what we do.

That's why I was surprised by a recent discussion in an online photography group. A photographer asked if anyone in the group still purchased their children's school portraits. She pointed out that she takes much better photos of her kids, so there was no point in buying the school ones.

This idea had never occurred to me, because it's contrary to all the things I hold dear about school portraits. Because they are tradition, we must participate. Each family must have a year-by-year catalog of each child in the same pose in front of the same backdrop. Why? Because it's what we do.

Furthermore, if my children only have flattering photos of themselves taken in just the right light and edited with love by their mother, how will they ever understand how weird they looked? I want them to appreciate the investment we've made in palette expanders and braces. When they become adults, I want them to feel attractive and celebrate the swans they've become. A few ugly duckling portraits in front of a faux autumn leaf backdrop will help.

With all this in mind, I happily sent my kids off for school picture day last week. My daughter let me me blow-dry her hair before she slept on it. My son agreed to wear a new striped T-shirt rather than a stained solid one.

My daughter chose a fancy red party dress from Christmas, but I'm sure that my son's glasses were all smudgy. That's who they were last week, and that's what will come home in the cellophane-fronted envelope in a few weeks--a traditional school picture showing who they were on that day in 2014--only with brushed hair and a clean shirt.

I can't wait to distribute them to the grandparents.


  1. Susie: The good old days. The second pic of you is a nerdy pic. You've come along way--ha,ha,ha.

  2. I love looking back at old photos of when I was in school...even though some I am totally like "What on earth was my mother thinking dressing me like THAT?!" lol

  3. I still purchase my son's school photos every year, it is definitely a right of passage for all children!

  4. My mother in law has pictures like this on her wall of my husband from birth to graduation. My daughter finds it fascinating to see how he looked as a child. :)

  5. I love this perspective:-) I definitely see your point, I don't buy school portraits, but I definitely capture all my kids quirks and "fashion" or non fashion statements:-) Great job on this!

  6. I do like the points you brought up. There is something about awkward school photos you just don't always get from your own photos. You've come a long way lol but something about awkward young you is quite endearing. :)

  7. I sincerely love the go-go boots in the first picture. I had a pair myself.