Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Class Portrait

This came home with my son recently. It is his first grade class portrait:

It's nice. It shows what all the kids look like. I'll certainly save it. The only problem with it is that, well, it isn't really a class portrait. Instead it is a collection of individual portraits arranged into a grid. Seen together all of the shots give a rough sense of what the class looks like, but that still doesn't make it a portrait. In my mind, a class portrait looks like this

or this

These photographs show everyone together at once. They show not just faces but whole bodies, and interrelations between those bodies. They show a background which will probably be loaded with meaning when this photo is seen 50 years after the exposure. Above all they show one moment, just one, and by doing so they memorialize a gathering in a way that only a photograph can.

I suspect the trend is away from this type of portrait and toward the composite. Who knows, in 20 years the group portrait may be completely extinct. And why not? Group composites are easily produced, can be personalized by the enlargement of individual photos, individuals are easily reshot, and best of all the photographer doesn't have to hassle with getting everyone in the shot to look nice at the same moment. Honestly, getting a good group shot --memorializing a moment-- is a pain in the ass. Or, put another way, it is a difficult art. Someone like Eugene Goldbeck, who I've written about here, staked his livelihood on his ability to get good group shots. What would he think of composite portraits?

If the trend is real, it's fun to speculate about what it might symbolize. That society is increasingly atomized? That kids are seen as moveable, malleable cogs? That the focus of consumer society puts the individual above the group? That photographic elements such as background and interrelationships are seen as irrelevent? That kids are so hyperscheduled that it's difficult to get more than a few of them in the same time and place at once? Who knows? Maybe none of these are true. I just know that something is being lost here and we should be conscious of it.

Any other parents out there have experience with composite portraits?

Wow, reading back through this post I realize I'm turning into an old fogey. "Why in my day, let me tell you..."


Anonymous said...

oddly enough, my daughter in kindergarten came home with a "normal" class portrait, also done by Lifetouch (the leaders in school photography!). Although it was shot digitally and printed on low-end paper, it was a group shot nonetheless. Although I'm not sure that they didn't grab a few heads from one shot and put them on this one! You should start a petition and complain to his school! Your sadness is definitely justified--photography's downward slope just got steeper!

plechl said...

it kind of reminds me of what i'd expect a class portrait of aliens to look like. all odsidian-eyed and cone-headed and stacked in a perfect grid. I interpret this trend to likely be the result of several factors. For one, there's a tremendous emphasis today on individuality, almost a hyper-sensitivity. The individual is entitled to whatever the group is entitled to, in this case, its a photograph. Maybe the group shot denies their individualism. Another thing the group shot denies is the right to "KA-CHING!" that's right, make money on the sales of individual photos to individual moms. I hadn't thought about it until the blogger pointed it out, but these are kind of disturbing. they resemble very closely mugshots, a style of imagery created solely for the purpose of tracking and recognition. Look people, the Brady Bunch introduced us to the concept. (You remember those creepy cubes when they're all looking up and down at each other and shit. it's wierd!) Lifetouch just patented the approach and sold it to millions. I mean, what do you expect? As the previous reader noted, they are "the leaders in school photography." Clearly much has been lost.