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Picture this...

In a digital age, you'd think school photos would be a snap.

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My youngest son's first-grade teacher stifled a giggle as she handed me an envelope of school pictures, discreetly turned image-side down. "You have to see this."

I flipped over the envelope. The photo in the glassine window showed my little guy frowning deeply, chin sunk against his chest and pupils rolled up as if he were inspecting the underside of his eyelids. The effect was a menacing glare you might find on one of those black-and-white-movie monsters, right before it bites off a chunk of skyscraper.

A girl squeezed between me and the teacher to sneak a look. "Ewww. He looks creepy."

I hid the envelope against my jacket and tried to ignore the smiling images being stuffed into backpacks all around me. "So when are retakes?"

Monster faces aside, I've always liked school pictures. There's something appealing about those tiny rectangles of photo paper marking the progression of time, teeth, and haircuts against a simple backdrop. As children gradually transform into their adult selves, some things remain constant – a persistent cowlick, an enduring flicker of personality, that same beautiful smile.

Unfortunately, the smiling part is a problem for my kids. Our personal photos, many of which appear to record a sullen and joyless childhood, could easily inspire captions like "Doing time in kindergarten" or "Hating Yellowstone." But they're just a reflection of how my sons feel about being photographed. For them, nothing extinguishes a smile faster than a camera. And when there's a strange adult behind the viewfinder, my boys are only slightly more likely to produce a pleasant expression than the elementary school classroom pets, most of which are reptiles (and introverts as well, now that I think of it).

I've helped out a couple of times on school picture day, and I know it's hectic. In just a minute or so, photographers must pose each child, make a connection, elicit a smile, and take a photo worthy of Grandma's fridge. With digital cameras, they can preview the images to ensure a good result. But the new technology is a mixed blessing for smile-resistant subjects like my kids. With film cameras, photographers could hope for the best and move on. Now they have to keep trying.


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