In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
We got The Boy's and The Girl's school pictures this week.
Admitting my own bias upfront, it's still fair to say that these are two good-looking kids. TB is the class heartthrob, tall with a winning smile, and TG is a brunette cherub with a mischievous gleam in her eye.
But you wouldn't know it from the pictures.
In these pictures, our beautiful, wonderful, sweet children look, well, kinda goony.
It's not their fault. They often photograph well, and they smiled obligingly. Yet these shots are worthy of a driver's license in their awkwardness.
Why does that always happen with school pictures?
I have to admit, many of my school pictures as a kid were horrible. The fifth grade pic was uniquely awful, with a sneer that made me, improbably enough, the class bad boy the day it came out. (It didn't last.) None of them looked the faintest bit natural or flattering, and several of them were just mean.
Photography, as an art form and as a technology, has come a long way since then. Yet school pictures are still goony. You'd think they would have improved by now.
I can isolate a couple of factors. The backgrounds are always awful – either 'sky' or 'rumped monochrome.' And the poses are ridiculous. “Lean over. Crane your neck. No, like that. Lean farther. Now, try to have fun!” Sheesh.
Who becomes a school photographer? That seems like some sort of 'community service' punishment for a photographer who did something awful. Train them in Ansel Adams, then loose them on fourth graders. It's just not right.
My Dad used to consider himself a serious photographer, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. He'd spend minutes composing a shot while my brother and I quietly seethed. (The pics usually reflected the seething.) To this day, the one piece of advice I'd give any photographer is “shut up and shoot.” In the age of digital photography, when you don’t have to worry about wasting film and a single card can hold hundreds of shots, I say shoot first and ask questions later. The one thing you should never do, especially with children, is ask them to hold a pose. When a camera could only hold a couple dozen shots and each one was a real cost, there was some excuse for perfectionism. Now, not.
Nowadays, at the end of the school year, teachers present slideshows of candid shots they’ve taken in the class over the course of the year, always accompanied by the Green Day song that goes “there’s something unpredictable...” (Why it’s always that song, I don’t know.) The candids are always far better than the official portraits. They show kids looking like themselves, wearing clothes they’d actually wear, doing things they actually do. They look like life. Honestly, I’d rather have copies of those than of the Official School Pictures. But the official pics live on.
Is there a trick to making school pictures suck less? And just who, exactly, winds up taking them?