School photos endure, lopsided grins and all

They're the bane of kids with braces or unruly hair. They are dreaded by adolescents, adored by grandparents, and feared by celebrities.

It's fall and that means it's once again time for school portraits.

School photography has grown to be a $1.5 billion business annually in the US. Student photos are taken early in the school in order to be ready for holiday giving, even though middle school students may have changed identities and hair color several times by Christmas.

But parents - moms most often do the ordering - find photos of their offspring, even those with green hair, too endearing to pass up. Sixty-four percent of all kindergarten- through 11th-grade students purchased school portraits last year, according to Brian Longheier of the Photo Marketing Association (PMA).

Parents feel compelled to sign up for packages that average $12 to $60 because they are proud of their kids, and because they don't want their child to be empty-handed on photo-delivery day.

High school seniors and their families spend the big bucks, often springing for multiple poses and additional sittings throughout the year, not to mention prom night. It's not unusual for seniors to pay as much as $500 for such packages.

The school photo is hardly known for its aesthetic value. While many good studios make an effort to photograph kids more naturally - such as shooting them outdoors, or posing them less stiffly - the results are often bland and homogenized.

Many parents are simply grateful that someone got their child to sit still long enough to take a picture. For others, such photos hold a kind of wacky charm, because everybody comes out looking equally mediocre.

This is not to cast aspersions on those who take school portraits. Those brave photographers have hundreds of kids to deal with in a short time, while school personnel watch the clock. On average, a photographer might spend 1 to 1-1/2 minutes with a preschooler or kindergartner, 30-35 seconds per child in the higher grades. (In some states, the law restricts the touching of children, which precludes a photographer from fixing someone's hair or moving an elbow, for example.)

Under these conditions, it's no wonder parents sometimes complain, "That doesn't look like my kid."

"Obviously, we don't [have time to] hang out with the child," says Andrew Kessler, president of Coffee Pond Productions, a studio in West Newton, Mass., that specializes in school portraits. "We're looking for a positive expression, for the child to be comfortable, but not slouchy."

In a 2000 survey of parents, the PMA found that the two biggest reasons for buying school photos were to send them to relatives and to preserve tradition. The reasons for not buying them were both practical and personal: the price was too high, it was not a good value, the facial expression was poor, or the hair was messy.

But imperfect though they may be, school portraits generally demonstrate surprising staying power.

"It amazes me that the one thing people can always find is their school photo," says Kessler. "They're what people turn to over a long time."

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