Southern Cayuga Conversations: School pictures capture the moment for generations
Jenn Welch, the photographer from Interstate Studio, was setting up for school photos in the gym of the Emily Howland Elementary School. She had her green screen in place, a chair for students, her studio lights positioned, digital camera on a tripod, and a table with her computer by her side. She wore her mask, but her eyes were smiling and her voice warm as she greeted each student.
As I watched, the first student sat down for his photo, removed his mask, and looked toward Jenn. She smiled behind her mask, telling the student to turn a little more to his right, helped him sit up straight by suggesting he place a hand on his thigh, and adjusted a collar that had gone astray. She shot a photo, reviewed it on the computer screen and took a second and third shot to make sure she got the picture she wanted.
Jenn told me that she loves her job. “I want to help students be themselves in front of a camera. Watching them smile gives me total job satisfaction. Most of all, I love capturing this unique moment in time.” Like Jenn, I rejoiced every time a student removed their mask and their smile and full face emerged.
My conversation with students who had finished their photo session began by asking how they prepared for school pictures. Students in grades pre-K through second almost uniformly began with a description of their mother with a hairbrush and carefully selected clothing.
“My mom straightened my hair and added ribbons. I am not really into dresses, but my mom had this dress picked out. I added the necklace for fun.”
“My mom took my plain ponytail and did this twist to make it look fancy. She had my favorite shirt ready for me.”
“My mom fixed my hair and used hair gel to make sure it stayed nice all day. This shirt is my favorite color.”
Students in the upper grades reported less mom involvement. A standard sixth grade answer to how they prepared for their picture was “I got up.” Then the humor began. One sixth grade boy told me he wore his good clothes. When asked what that meant, his eyes danced, “You know, a shirt that isn’t torn and has been washed.” His classmates nodded in agreement, although several admitted that mom did have a hand in making sure the favorite shirt, like “the one with dinosaurs” or “my sports team,” was clean and ready. Moms also continued to help with more intricate hairstyles — “who can do braids like this by themselves?!”
The discussion on how to make someone smile varied again by student age. My sixth grade comedian looked at his fellow students, assumed a ferocious drill sergeant scowl, lifted his fist and snarled, “I want you to give me a smile. Right now — or else!” Behind the masks, all eyes danced with laughter. The drill sergeant did not play as well with kindergarten students. One boy suggested they could tickle people for a smile. A very perceptive teacher’s aide asked a shy student what she did in the classroom to make him smile. Immediately he smiled and acknowledged he loved her singing, “like Taylor Swift.”
I asked students if they had ever seen school pictures from other generations. They talked about finding pictures in their attic or in a box in a desk.
“They are black and white photos and students were sitting at school desks.”
“The backgrounds are always gray. Not like today. I think they had different cameras back then, and definitely did not have a green screen with background options.”
“I love the green screen. Did you know you can choose your own background? If I could, I would sit in front of a starry sky — sort of in space.”
“I would be standing in front of a car racing competition.”
I remembered the conversation I had with Jenn’s supervisor, Dina Mangiamele, whose family had been taking school pictures since the 1960s. “When I first started, we had a camera with a roll of film 200 feet long. When the film ran out, I had to change it in the dark, so I learned how change film inside a dark bag — all by touch and fast. I had a long line of children waiting for their turn. My father took pictures of students at a desk in the classroom. Schools didn’t always have gyms and cafeterias.
“In 1996, we worked with Eastman Kodak to critique their new digital cameras. We have seen a revolution in technology and the green screen and ability to offer specialized backgrounds is so much fun for families. The one thing that will never change is that we give you a picture printed on paper — not an image in the cloud. Our pictures will last for generations.”
As I packed up after the student interviews, I knew what pictures would accompany this article. In all grades, I had students who explained they saw pictures of their parents and other family members as they walked the school halls. “My dad’s picture is with his team — he looked really weird then.” The Ryan twin sisters pointed out their father’s picture — class of 2006. Brayden Hewitt motions to the class of 2003 and his mother’s senior picture.
How wonderful that school pictures not only capture today but continue to remind us of all the generations of Southern Cayuga students. There is one student who did not attend Southern Cayuga whose school picture is included. It is a perfect example of the 1950s plain background, black and white, seated at a school desk style photo. See if you can find her. Smile!
Elaine Meyers, of King Ferry, is a member of the boards of the King Ferry Food Pantry, ABC Cayuga and the Southern Cayuga Anne Frank Tree Project, and a member of the Southern Cayuga Garden Club. She coordinates a literacy support program at Southern Cayuga Central School.