Embarrassing old school photos are history: smile for a smart studio shot

Once it was a cheesy grin in a cardboard frame. Now kids do the ‘Mobot’ or pose like Charlie’s Angels – and parents can pay to make the acne disappear. This is from the Guardian…

Until recently, the school photo was simply another predictable and vaguely uncomfortable feature of school life, a bit like the nit nurse or being forced to wear an Easter bonnet. In the 70s in my Stockport primary school, we queued unenthusiastically for our turn to sit in front of a splodgy blue backdrop while a disenchanted would-be David Bailey, dreaming of snapping Farrah Fawcett, growled: “Give us a smile, Superman.”

The resulting portrait would turn up in cellophane a few weeks later, to be sniggeringly compared round the classroom, dispatched to grandparents who displayed it loyally (however dreadful) and propped embarrassingly on the sideboard at home until its little card stand gave way.

Oh, how different are both process and result today for those schools increasingly turning to the new “contemporary” style. While the oldest of my three children had a traditional school photo, for the two others (aged seven and nine) I simply received an email directing me to the website of Prêt-a-Portrait, a Hertfordshire-based pioneer of studio-style school portraits. There I found 14 or so pictures of the kids standing, sitting, lying with chin in hands or even jumping in the air, hair flying and grinning as if auditioning for the next school prospectus.

They looked perfectly happy, had obviously enjoyed themselves and weren’t doing anything dreadful, but I still found it a bit odd. The whole point of a school photograph, I reasoned, is not that it makes the child look like a model but that it is formulaic, capturing kids at successive ages in the same way their parents were before them.

Nick Kerr, who co-founded Prêt-a-Portrait 10 years ago, unsurprisingly disagrees. The traditional approach, he says, produces “a flat picture with a cheesy grin, taken in 15 seconds. Most people put on a face that only ever appears when someone gets a camera out and is not like them at all. To get beyond that you have to work quite hard at getting them to relax and enjoy themselves.”

Kerr’s photographers accordingly set up temporary white-sheeted “studios” with sophisticated lighting in school halls and gyms, playing music and encouraging kids to play around and try different poses (although the company always insists on one traditional head and shoulders shot for the grandparent market). The result, Kerr says, is cheerier children and a “higher quality picture which is full of smiles and natural expressions, and much more representative of how kids really are because they’re mucking about and having a good time”.

So good a time, indeed, that Kerr’s team of photographers occasionally have to gently discourage celebrity-inspired poses. “The 10- to 12-year-old girls will quite often try to copy something they’ve seen on TV or a pop video and it’s a bit pouty and inappropriate for a school photograph.” To avoid ruffling feathers in the staffroom or at home, photographers simply “don’t click the shutter, or occasionally we delete a few pictures”.

Gender differences emerge clearly in front of the lens, he adds. Boys aim to look cool or tough, while girls aspire to glamour (and caked-on make-up will be captured for posterity if schools don’t enforce limits). The two sexes naturally choose different role models inspired by whatever popular and sporting culture throws to the surface at the time: boys have recently been copying the “Mobot” signature pose of athelete Mo Farrah and Usain Bolt’s “to di world” equivalent, while girls posing together for the new “wacky” class photos will, says Kerr, automatically slip into a “Charlie’s Angels pose”.

It’s down to schools to decide how informal their photographs can be, and, inevitably, some are stuffier (or perhaps more sensible) than others. “Some can be very prescriptive, particularly with the group pictures,” says Kerr, “whereas others say: ‘Please make it as riotous as possible.’ It depends on the image they want to project.”

Before putting the pictures online for parents, the company – like many of its rivals in the vast schools market – digitally cleans up the white backdrop of its shots, and will also, on request, take out spots, grazes and other blemishes. But, Kerr insists, this retouching is about achieving a high-quality photograph which parents can’t achieve themselves, and is not about creating perfected images of children. “This is absolutely not like retouching models for fashion magazines or advertising. Most of our retouching is purely technical – it certainly isn’t about helping pupils shed a few pounds or making sure their complexions are perfect.”

Matthew Barton, managing director at Tempest (the long-established bigshot of school photography boasting a 50% market share), agrees that retouching has no sinister overtones, though parents can pay to have a snotty nose digitally cleaned up.

Barton is unapologetic about the new style, including the class group photographs which increasingly replace neat rows with playful tableaux. “Parents like them and they’re simply more interesting. We sell a third of them in frames, so people are buying them to display on the wall.” Schools can still have the mottled blue-and-brown backdrops of my childhood, he adds, though the vast majority of Tempest’s customers choose not to (other smaller firms do of course continue to serve the traditional market). Mottling was a 70s innovation and is not traditional anyway, Barton points out. Indeed, his company’s founder, Horace Tempest, quick to spot a gap in the market back in 1921, pioneered the “natural” shot, photographing his subjects outdoors leaning informally against a school desk, fountain pen in hand.

Despite their link with tradition, I’m still slightly unnerved by the quality of the shots and their particular version of naturalness. Could it be that they seem simply too impressive, as if designed for an audience beyond the family?

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