Is Facebook Killing the School Portrait?

camerasShowing up for a playdate, there was a time when you couldn’t help but notice the age progression reflected in school portraits lining the walls. That was then.

Now, the photos seem to stop around two years old, the last trip to the mall for that baby perched uncomfortably with a germy toy shot. If you’ve been missing the school shots, you’re not imagining things. According to the New York Times, the school portrait industry has suffered a huge financial blow in recent years. 

“20.8 percent of all American households bought K-11 school portraits in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, spending an estimated $920 million. In 2007, it was more than a quarter of households spending $1.127 billion.”

The photographers themselves blame it on the cell phones and the cheap digital cameras. I blame it on Facebook.

A photographer myself, I cringe when I see the photos plastered on people’s walls with the words “eight people like this” underneath, followed by seventeen comments that vary on the them of “great shot,” “fabulous picture,” “incredible,” “how did you get this shot?” This for an out of focus picture of the baby – or is that the dog? – somewhere in the midst of a huge picture of your living room.

Everyone fancies themselves a great photographer these days. And the internet is giving them just the sort of false sense of success they need to parade around like those screechy American Idol contestant who pledge they’re going to “show that Simon” before proceeding to torture us with another screaming rendition of Whitney for the parting shot.

Of course there’s something to be said for replacing the forced school portrait with candid shots of our kids. That glazed look and awkward grin are the product of artificial lighting and a grumpy man insisting they get that chin higher, no not so high, higher! It’s not the child you know and love.

And there’s no guarantee the photos coming out of a studio are going to be any great shakes either. I finally gave in and paid for my daughter’s school photo this year, and the class picture was completely out of focus, and the school name was spelled wrong on the bottom to boot. And as a photographer told the Times, the cost of a few print outs at Costco is hard to beat.

Maybe it’s time for a middle ground? For candid shots over posed. For a move from set packages to build-your-own that will encourage parents to spend more. And it’s time for parents to step back and respect the photographer for their skill. That fuzzy photo from your cell phone might work for now, but in thirty years, will you really be able to tell if that’s a kid or a pile of dirty laundry?

Image: hamed saber, flickr

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