Monday, February 7, 2011

Your Alternative To The Official School Mugshot (Uh, I Mean Portrait)

When Jack London had his portrait made by the noted San Francisco photographer Arnold Genthe, London began the encounter with effusive praise for the photographic art of his friend and fellow bohemian, Genthe. "you must have a wonderful camera...It must be the best camera in the world...You must show me your camera." Genthe then used his standard studio camera to make what has since become a classic picture of Jack London. When the sitting was finished, Genthe could not contain himself: "I have read your books, Jack, and I think they are important works of art. You must have a wonderful typewriter." - Anonymous

When I was a kid, I had my portrait made every year at school, and you probably did too. The photography studio would set up their sweet background with the pastoral fence and blooming flowers and we'd all line up and one by one we'd get our pictures taken. I always loathed picture day at school. Well, not the part about getting out of class for a few minutes. That part was pretty good.

But going in and having to get my photo taken always ranked right up there with math tests, actually, quite a bit lower. Those pictures that came back never looked like me. And they certainly didn't have anything to do with my personal interests or successes. They weren't really portraits at all. They were documentation of the progression of my physical appearance, posed dutifully in front of increasingly dull and boring backdrops.


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Here's my 1st, 4th, and 7th grade school portraits. (And I'm using the term 'portrait' really loosely here.) Can you look at these pictures and know anything about me, other than I was adorable, with chubby cheeks, and big honkin' glasses? Can you look at them and know that I was passionate about drawing and making art? Can you tell by looking at these photos what my interests were at each age? Heck no. My portrait looked like everybody else's, except most of them weren't lucky enough to have those killer spectacles.

And that's part of my mission as a portrait photographer. To actually make a portrait when I get my camera out of the bag. I want to make pictures that tell the viewer just a little something about the people in the photos. Take this next set of photos for example.

This is Zac's birthday session.

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Every year, around the time of their birthdays, I take the kids out for a photo session. I let them choose their clothes and locations, and theme if they want a theme. If they want advice, I give them advice about choosing outfits and locations, or anything else, but generally, I leave them alone and let them be in charge. You can see Hannah's session here and here. Delanie's are here.

Zac turned 12 this year. He's starting to have some very specific opinions and interests. This year, he really wanted a specific kind of photo.

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And you can tell a lot about Zac by looking at these photos. You already know he is 12, which is about all you would get from looking at the photo that comes home from the middle school portrait day.

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By now you also can begin to tell that he loves soccer. And that he is proud of playing soccer.

He's actually pretty serious about his soccer persona, because he didn't want to goof the photos up by smiling in them. He wanted his photos to look like a Nike ad.

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On the other hand, he still is a 12 year old boy, and it only took a second to get him to goof off and make silly faces for the camera. He's definitely got a proper 12 year old sense of humor, which makes him pretty darn likeable, because no matter how cool he wants to look, he's still a pretty big goofball at heart.

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Serious again.

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At this point, I figured I should probably bribe him for a photo that his mom would want to see. So here, we enter my usual arrangement with the child subject: "Give me the photo that you know your mom wants to have framed and hanging on the wall, and then I'll take a picture of anything you want." Works. Every. Time.

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Awwww... he's so adorable.

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Then we had a few pictures just for him as a reward.

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And we made one more for mom to frame.

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This last photo is everyone's favorite photo from the whole set.

I should also mention that this set of photos did not involve any elaborate sets or time consuming setup. The hardest part of the whole process was finding an open soccer field that we could get onto (in Gwinnett, all the fields are locked up tight after the season is over). This is a photo that is possible to make for any kid.

With a only few moments spent refining his wardrobe choice (let's do all red and black.. bring all your gear), we were set. Once we were at the field, I set up some lights, and we made all the pictures for this look in 30 minutes. We had to, the sun was setting. But the key to our success is that he was motivated to cooperate because he knew what we were doing was going to be cool. He wanted to make these photos as much as I did, probably more.

And so, in order to tie up the loose ends in this post, I want to talk for just a sec about the quote I started this post with. Jack London thought that all the magic happened in the camera. Mr. Genthe gently reminded him that the camera, like a typewriter, is just a tool that an artist uses to create.

That photographer that goes to your kid's school to take those ticky tacky photos of the entire student population is using the same tools I'm using, probably better stuff actually.. or at least more expensive stuff. But that photographer is hobbled by the sheer number of photos that have to be completed in a short period of time. There's no chance to talk with each subject and try to express anything about them in each photo. The photos have to all be the same if they're going to get done that day.

But that doesn't mean you have to settle for that assembly line photo of your kid. Think about how wonderful it would be to have a portrait of your kid that makes a statement about who they are. Think about how excited your kid would be to be a part of the process of making a portrait that is Actually. About. Them.


  1. When I was in school the backgrounds had 'evolved' to LASERS (!!) of course the pictures still turned out exactly as you described, despite the background update.

  2. Wow... all I can think of now is Dr. Evil saying LA-ZURRRS...

  3. Great photos!! My little preschooler all big and handsome!!