Picture Perfect

Last month I read a small little blurb in the Phoenix paper about a Tucson school photographer who was found dead in a hotel room in Nogales; there was no trace of the thousands of pictures he had taken for the Tucson Unified School District that year. I know, I know, but before you even go there, I have something to say: I have an alibi. Really.

My antipathy for school photographers is well known, and goes back to my own school days, and to the truly dreadful photographs they took of me. Because my mother always bought them, I would have to look at those pictures hanging on our living room wall all year long, each one a perfect study in the art of looking stupid. There was the one from 4th grade, where the photographer bellowed out “Say ‘I love Fonzie!’” and then clicked his shutter just as my lip curled back in a disdainful sneer; there was the one from 7th grade, where I tried to look enigmatic but only managed to look like I was trying to put 2 +2 together in my head, and not having much luck at it; and, of course, there was the one from high school, where the photographer must have decided that he could save a few pennies on the lighting by using the shine off of my forehead and nose instead.

But even the pain of thirteen years of bad public school photography couldn’t prepare me for the pain I feel now, as an adult, when it is my children who are the ones being photographed. Because now, not only do I have to look at these washed-out, grainy portraits–I have to pay for them, too. And not just once, but over and over again, several times over the course of one year, at least. (The photographers must have picked up on the fact that most parents can’t even remember if they brushed their own teeth that morning; the chance of them remembering in the Spring that they already paid for a set of pictures in the Fall is negligible, at best.)

True, I could always opt out of the whole picture thing; as the Mom who already sends her kids to school with their lunches dripping through the bottom of newspaper bags, mismatched socks, and stubby, chewed-on pencils recovered from the couch cushions, it would surprise no one if I also didn’t pay for school pictures. And, with Clementine, this is actually an option: like me, she also harbors an intense hatred for people who–for any reason whatsoever–demand that you smile. (Consequently, in all of her school pictures she is showing all the enthusiasm of someone getting their mug shot taken–sober.)

These pictures are easy to deny. But Clyde’s? Clyde gravitates to a camera like a plant to sunlight. Even as an infant he had the uncanny ability to pull himself together in the most trying of circumstances so that he could flash a beaming smile at the lens. In fact, a little while back he had a small part in a local play, and I–thinking about what I would have wanted (had someone somehow tricked me into being in a play)–assured him on the day of the performance that he “didn’t have to worry about a thing–I hadn’t told a soul.”

He was crushed. “You mean no one is coming to see me?”

“Um, yeah,” I replied. “That’s good, right?”

Wrong. And so, Clyde–the boy who can’t remember to wear socks when it snows–of course remembers exactly what those big blue envelopes mean when every other kid in his class gets handed one–and he doesn’t. Which is why not purchasing them isn’t really an option–or at least, it wasn’t an option, until I found out exactly just what could happen to a school photographer, and their photographs.

I’m just saying.

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