The changing face of senior portraits

As the annual round of graduations get underway, one of the common items seen on display at the family celebrations afterwards is a mounted collection of the graduate’s senior portraits.

How those images are taken, and how many make it to the spot of honor above the fireplace mantle, has changed over the decades.

Howard Haase, who retired from Haase Photography in 2003 and just finished his last year as the program director for the Iowa Central Community College photography program, looks back at what was once pretty simple.

“It was just a head and shoulders shot,” he said. “At the time, they were black and white and you might have a few three quarter shots too.”

If a client wanted color, it was added later.

“They used transparent oil and then tinted them,” he said.

The process was expensive and labor intensive. It was usually only done to one print, the one the family would display.

“My wallets were black and white,” Haase said of his own high school graduation photos.

Maureen Powers, owner of Buckroyd Studio, began her photography career in 1973. Her own senior portrait, from 1970, was in color.

“We didn’t switch to color in the studio till the late 1960s,” she said.

While working with color film made it easier for the photographers, it also eliminated a few jobs. The skilled workers who tinted the photographs were no longer needed.

“A lot of ladies lost their jobs,” she said.

Powers said that senior portraits, or graduation photographs as they were also known, remained relatively static and unchanging for decades.

“I’ve looked at pictures from the early 1900s,” she said. “From then until my day it stayed the head and shoulders portrait.”

But in the early 1970s, photographers began taking graduation portraits outside the studio.

“Photographers started taking the kids outside,” Powers said. “It was partly inside and partly holding up a tree outside.”

Haase got in on the early era of color too.

“When I got started, color was coming on strong,” he said. “It gave people the idea that portraits didn’t have to be taken in the studio. The reduction in the size of the equipment made it more feasible.”

As the outdoor portrait trend continued, more and more students began having their portraits taken with things that were important in their lives.

“The guys loved to bring their cars, motorcycles and pets,” Haase said.

Powers saw that happening too. Sports gear, musical instruments, hobby items and pets were common.

“That got really rolling in the ’80s,” she said.

“Ghost” portraits were a trend that came and went with the ’80s. The photographer had to do a double exposure, which resulted in two images on the negative, one of which appeared to float on the black background.

Some studios also had a system that would project an outdoor image behind the senior having their portrait taken. It didn’t work very well.

“It was incredibly fake-looking,” Powers said.

Digital photography, and the ability to work with the images on computers, began to reach into the studios as the ’90s were ending.

For Haase, it was a gradual transition.

“We photographed on color negative film, then scanned the negatives,” he said.

He retired from the studio before going completely digital.

While Powers still owns the film cameras she once used for portraits, they now spend their time in a cabinet rather than on location.

She predicted that location photographs, rather than studio work, will continue to grow, mostly due to changes in who is hanging up their sign and calling themselves photographers.

“The entry-level aspiring professionals don’t have studios,” she said. “They’re working out of their basement or a spare room.”

Powers sees the digital imaging and the post-studio photo manipulation as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can make touching up minor blemishes easy and seamless. On the other, it can get completely out of hand.

“Photographers are relying more and more on software than hardware,” she said. “The Photoshop thing has just gone wild. I’ve seen images where they end up looking like porcelain dolls with glowing eyes. They think this is the new hot thing.”

Other trends, such as glowing white backgrounds, seem to be driven by popular culture.

“It’s just like clothing,” Powers said. “It’s patterned out of Hollywood and fashions.”

Today, it’s also popular to photograph seniors in rather rough-looking urban settings, such as old brick alleys.

“I did that in the ’80s” Powers said. “The mothers did not like it. Now it’s standard.”

One thing that drives what the photographer is ultimately able to sell to the client is what the person writing the check wants. With senior portraits, that’s usually the parents.

Their word, she said, is final.

“With all these trends,” Powers said, “you do them. But the ones that sell are the closeups where you can see them smiling. At the end of the day, the parents still want the close shot with them smiling.”

How people view images has also changed, particularly among those who grew up using computers. Powers’ clients can view their images online, but have to come into the studio to purchase prints.

“We just post them,” she said. “We don’t sell them that way.”

Some studios do sell the images digitally and without a print, but the images are vulnerable to being lost when computers die and smart phones get dropped in the sink.

“I still think it’s valid to get hard copies,” she said.

Wardrobe and hairstyles that seem trendy and cool this year, well, not so much a decade down the road. On that list, mullet hair cuts, big ’90s hair, poofy shoulders, rainbow suspenders and a host of other things, such as colored hair gels.

“Parents didn’t like that one either,” Powers said.

The man bun is probably on that list too.

Powers will continue to take some traditional photos for her seniors.

“I still do a lot of the traditional stuff,” she said. “Years down the road, that’s what people will want rather than the shot with somebody running through the weeds where you can’t see them.”

Haase thinks that the senior portrait will, no matter where trends take it, continue to be important to family histories.

“It commemorates a pretty special time,” he said. “The more personalized it is, the more meaningful it is.”


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