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Monday, October 18, 2010

The New Senior Portrait


I was just doing a little reminiscing today when a name came to mind. I taught in a small rural high school in Scioto County, and I wanted to refresh my memory about one of my students, so I found a copy of the old Valley High School Annual. The teachers used to receive these every year as a gift from the students. I quickly found the girl I was looking for in the senior portrait section, and I thought, "Yeah, that's pretty much the way I remember she looked." I was tempted to shove the annual back onto the shelf and walk away when the thought of newer senior photography I have seen on Facebook struck me.

With all of the graphics editing programs and tools at hand -- brushes, color controls, retouching devices, special effects, layers, filters, and other refining gadgets -- do the yearbook portraits represent even the slightest physical appearance of the subject they captured in the senior year?

I remember once hearing that Crazy Horse boasted he would never allow the white man's camera to "steal his shadow." No fully authenticated image of him exists, although several photographs have been published purporting to be him. I just wonder if Photoshop is allowing computer programs to "steal the shadow" of seniors if it grossly distorts their image in some of the most memorable photos in their lives. By whose standards are we allowing our image to be judged? Do more tools allow us more deception in the manner of portraying our image?


Since the advent of photography the photographic image has been regarded as an aide‐mémoire. The very act of taking a photograph signals the moment as worthy of remembering and, while objects break, landscapes change, and people die, the photograph endures, allowing it to be used to remember ‘what has been.' (arts.jrank.org, 2010)

Michael Lesy, a writer and professor of literary journalism at Hampshire College has looked at hundreds of thousands, if not millions of family snapshots over the years. In his book Time Frames: The Meaning of Family Pictures, he described these photos as "psychic tableaux, in which the flow of profane time has been stopped and in which a sacred interval of self-conscious revelation has been imposed by the cutting edge of the frame, the glare of the sun, or the flash of a strobe." (Lee Kravitz, "Windows Into Our Psyche," Psychology Today, September 29 2010)

Lesy also called them "frozen dreams whose manifest content may be understood at a glance but whose latent content is enmeshed in unconscious associations, cultural norms, art historical cliches, and transcendental motifs." Artistic photos are truly captured moments of time as striking images.

20th century theorists Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag argued, because the photograph only records the surface appearance of what has been, and not the complex meanings associated with sensory experience, it cannot rightly be called a "memory image." In their minds, photographs help forget since a photo can do nothing more than confirm an object existed and lose their specificity with the passage of time. (R. Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, 1981)

Jo Spence acknowledged "the tendency of family photographs to omit the more disturbing experiences of life, such as illness and divorce, to present instead a selective history that enforces forgetting; yet she also actively interrogated the photographs as memory images, allowing them to suggest memories of both what was represented and what was omitted. The photographs then took on new meaning for her as her understanding of their content and her childhood deepened. This technique of engaging with personal photographs is used by art‐ and phototherapists. (J. Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, 1998)
Granted, senior portraits are not family photos of special events and surprising moments of life; however, the trend seems to be to extol the standards of perfection instead of capturing any minor blemish of natural allure in the person caught in the lens. The subject, not the activity or the dress, should be paramount. By electronically altering the photography today, a photographer morphs the individual subject. Features highlighted and blemishes covered, young men and young women in senior photos seem almost like plastic-molded Ken and Barbie Dolls.

Where are the zits and the cowlicks and the imperfect teeth and all the other imperfections of young Americans? Fads may be present, but personality is gone and is represented as the sexy teen goddess or the adventurous big stud on campus photo. The photo has become the vehicle of manipulation, no matter what the state of the raw material. Everything in the image can and likely will be fixed in the process of production.

The story of the senior portrait is the story of beauty itself. Does a preference for beautiful faces emerge early in child development that impresses the standards of attractiveness across different genders and cultures. Certainly, symmetry is also important because it suggests the absence of genetic or acquired defects. Since people seek a standard of acceptance, they strive for beauty. But, for some people, ugliness is a central aspect of their persona. Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. 

Lincoln's law partner William Herndon once wrote of Lincoln: "He was not a pretty man by any means, nor was he an ugly one; he was a homely man, careless of his looks, plain-looking and plain-acting. He had no pomp, display, or dignity, so-called. He appeared simple in his carriage and bearing. He was a sad-looking man; his melancholy dripped from him as he walked. His apparent gloom impressed his friends, and created sympathy for him - one means of his great success."

And, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Who would say that this young lady is not beautiful?


Rather ironically, parents now take more photos of their children than ever before, but since it is so easy to delete all but the best from a digital photo card or from a computer, many photos don't survive. Children have grown up with cameras and camcorders. It would not be unusual for 13 year-olds to take 100 photos a weekend, then edit the ones they don't like, and finally post their favorite 30 on Facebook by school time Monday morning. That is some unprecedented control over the way they tell their life stories.

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