The school photo is getting a modern makeover in New York, just in time to mail the grandparents their yearly glossies.
Out: mottled blue backgrounds, awkward poses and ghastly skin. In: professional head shots, full-body action pictures and gorgeous lighting. Kids look like, well, kids, not zombies — and also a little as if they’re in a J. Crew catalog.
Judy Young, 9, left picture day at P.S. 3 in the West Village in October with a silly-sweet photo of her jumping, among other shots. “Now they have a child wrangler, the kids can choose the backdrop and a bunch of different poses,” said her pleased mother, Naima Frietas. “You feel like they are endeavoring to take a great photo rather than, ‘Eh, I have to take pictures.’”
At P.S. 276 in Battery Park City, after the administration agreed to buck tradition and embrace “progressive photography,” Karen Addison, the PTA photo-day committee chairwoman, chose a shot with the school library in the background for her own second grader. “The pictures are adorable and so different: so much more vibrant,” Ms. Addison said.
And Caroline Laskow, a mother of a fourth-grade girl and second-grade boy at a public school in the East Village, particularly enjoyed the lively, goofy smile that emerged in her daughter’s photo.
“My husband and I and the family to whom we always send obligatory photos all agreed, it looked like her, not a frozen, posed version of her,” she wrote in an email, comparing them favorably to more formal preschool pictures, which she said were “funny to look back on, but sort of in the way you take photos dressed up in old-fashioned clothes at a museum or Renaissance Faire.”
Ms. Frietas’s photos are the handiwork of Stomping Ground Photo, a company founded in 2009 by Dennis and Kelsey Kleiman to reinvent the school portrait at their daughter’s preschool at the time, Brooklyn Free Space.
Mr. Kleiman, who has shot musicians such as the White Stripes, Radiohead and Tori Amos, is the photographer; Ms. Kleiman manages the business. This year, the Kleimans say, they were contracted by 150 schools — public and private — in the New York area, including Friends Seminary, Third Street Music School Settlement and Blue School.
Penny Overbaugh, a parent at Brooklyn New School, is another satisfied customer. “It’s so nice to have a professional-quality, modern photo,” she wrote in an email. “It has a bright, solid color background, and my daughter is jumping up with arms and legs splayed, and a look of joy on her little face. She wore kitty ears every day for 20 months straight in K and 1st grade, so they were in the photos.”
Ms. Addison’s and Ms. Laskow’s prized photos, meanwhile, are by Cool for School Photo, which was founded five years ago by another husband-and-wife team, Larry Bercow and Klaudia Maier, also motivated by dissatisfaction with their daughter’s preschool photos.
Ms. Maier said her husband, the photographer, brings a “natural, not contrived” approach to 15 schools in the New York area, where he likes to use hallways and schoolyards as a backdrop.
Cool for School options include group photos in which everyone (teachers included) makes funny faces to get the children engaged. For middle and high schoolers, The company sets up a photo booth and supervises children taking their own pictures.
“A grandma called me recently to say: ‘What’s going on with that class? They are all misbehaving,’” Ms. Maier said with a laugh.
Bradley Goodman, principal at the East Village Community School, said Cool for School is an improvement. “The kids used to sit down, the photographer would snap one picture, and they would go assembly-line format,” he said. “Several weeks later, the parents would get the prints, and sometimes they were decent and sometimes they were not. They would never have a choice.”
Facing these new competitors, traditional photo companies have been forced to innovate. “The buzzword among parents is school choice,” said Steve Miller, president of Irvin Simon Photographers, which has been taking school pictures in the greater New York area for over 70 years. “It’s really the same with photography.”
Mr. Miller still provides traditional packages for traditional schools, including Greenwich Country Day, Riverdale, the United Nations International School and Horace Mann. But he’s now also selling “freestyle,” which more than 800 kids at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, recently experienced. “We are doing full-body portraits, even kids jumping up in the air, with seamless backgrounds and gorgeous lighting.”
Ms. Kleiman dislikes the word “freestyle.”
“It’s a term that one of our competitors uses to describe their bad version of what we do, so the term literally makes us cringe,” she said, adding that she believes Irvin Simon has ripped off Stomping Ground’s techniques.
Mr. Miller, who runs Irvin Simon with his brother, Eric, countered that: “Full-body portraits have been around for a long time, the seamless color background is a look that has been around for a long time. As a trend, you see it all over the place.”
Mr. Miller said there was an entire session on freestyle approaches at a recent national conference for school photographers. “We have seen a lot of changes and transitions and trends, going all the way as far back as black and white to color,” he said.
Though the new style of photographs is popular with today’s Instagram and iPhone-conversant parents, Ms. Addison got pushback from some parents at P.S. 276. “They felt like school pictures aren’t modeling pictures,” she said. “They didn’t expect to see a picture of a kid standing up or jumping or in a library.”
Amy Drucker, founder of Soulshine Studio, a company that shoots contemporary photographs at about six schools in Westchester, including the Rosenthal JCC in Pleasantville, N.Y., and who teaches an online class on modern school photography, understands the allure of the old-fashioned portrait. “There’s a tradition, almost a kitsch value,” she said. “I have a million pictures of my kids, but I still buy the cheesy school pictures. I want to have one for every year for my collection.”
Then again, one day the jumping picture may be a collectible, too. “Styles come and go,” Mr. Miller said. “For a while, the laser-beam background was the trend, then that fell out of vogue. Amazingly, I have had some customers asking me for lasers now. Every time a ‘Star Wars’ movie comes out, people contact us for that.”
An earlier version of this article described incompletely the name of the business run by Amy Drucker. It is Soulshine Studio.