School pictures — those annual photos taken by schools ostensibly for yearbooks — have turned into a relic from the past, a practice that seems to continue more from inertia than for any particular reason.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, school photos and yearbooks served a pretty important purpose: They provided a visual record of a child’s development, and acted as a way to build comradery and mutual identity for students. According to the OED, the term “year-book” was first used in this sense in 1910, to describe Barnard College’s The Mortarboard, but the practice of taking pictures and marketing them together in a book actually predates the American Civil War, and can be attributed to George Kendall Warren, a daguerreotypist who lived from 1824-1884 and started making “class books” from as early as 1858.
In the 20th century, yearbooks stopped being for colleges only, and became part of the elementary and secondary school landscape. Families that couldn’t afford to pay a professional photographer for a sitting could still get a chance for a picture of their child every year. Pictures were (and still are) offered in various sizes, from 8×10 to “wallet size,” so that they could be given to loved ones and carried about. School pictures didn’t just provide a record of a school, they provided a record of a family.
Even when chemical film cameras became ubiquitous by the end of the 20th century, school photos still served that important function. In a large family like mine, sitting everyone down for individual portraits year after year would have been a Herculean task — but school pictures made sure that our classmates and families can look back and remember much more clearly.
But today, do those original purposes of school photos really make any sense? I have a semi-daily record of my children from social media, and don’t have any need to distribute pictures to my family and friends, since that is automated. Parents today anxieties today are that images of their children are too widely distributed. And does anyone really think that the Reunion Committee for the Class of 2015 is going to mine the yearbook for nostalgic images, rather than finding them on the internet?
School photos no longer mean what they used to. Today, they are the anti-selfie, one of the few antidotes to our cultural narcissism. The selfie (and its loathsome accoutrement, the “selfie-stick” has only one true challenger to its dominance — the school picture. You can try to look your best, but in the end, THAT picture is going to be the permanent institutional record of you, zits and all. We need school photos to keep us from becoming our own paparazzi.
I will close with an elementary school picture of myself. LOOK ON MY BANGS AND 70s GARB! LOOK UPON THEM AND DESPAIR!