Every fall, in public, private and parochial schools across the country, students get rounded up to sit for snapshots on class-picture day. Though the faces before the camera change each year, those behind it tend to stay the same. In Vermont, Heidi Weston and Kristi LaFayette are perennial school-picture pros -- Weston has been at MacLean-Stevens Studios nine years; LaFayette, 14.
Their studio, in the basement of a historic brick building at 166 Battery Street, has been around a lot longer. Larry MacLean founded the business in the early 1960s; he sold it this summer to Lifetouch, a national chain.
When she's not pointing her lens at schoolchildren, Weston takes maritime photos -- she'll be showing her work at Cobblestone Deli in October. LaFayette specializes in photographing women who give birth at home. She also shoots outdoor music festivals; her portraits of the early years of Vermont's Reggae Fest are currently on display at Phoenix at Sugarbush Village in Warren.
SEVEN DAYS: This must be a busy time of year for you.
HEIDI WESTON: Yesterday was the first day of school, so it's pretty chaotic.
KRISTI LAFAYETTE: We're setting up at different schools every day. We have multiple crews going out.
HW: It's not just school pictures anymore. Everybody thinks you sit on the stool and you take kids' pictures, but it's a lot more than that . . . We provide services to the schools. ID cards are a big deal these days. We do little record photos for the schools. Mealtime programs sometimes use ID cards, too. And we do yearbook support. We do sports teams. We cover games for the yearbook.
SD: What else do you do besides snap photos?
KL: It's a lot of interacting with the kids. Understanding that when they come in to have their picture taken, it's very intimidating to see all this equipment. You see this line of kids, and you can see the kid five kids down. You can see he's kind of freaked out. And you realize that this is your one chance to get a good photograph of him -- what can you do to make this student feel comfortable when he comes up? It's just you and the kid, and all this equipment.
We have several hundred kids to photograph -- how do you make them feel comfortable enough to give you a real smile? That's the challenge of it.
HW: In this business, you've got to be part clown. Anybody can be a photographer, but to be a school photographer is kind of a specialized game. To get those expressions, especially from a preschooler or a first-grader, you've got to get down to their level.
SD: What do you do?
HW: With preschoolers, we do silly little noises or say a silly word.
KL: Asking them ridiculous questions.
HW: Sometimes you just talk to a person, and you hit on something, and you can see in their expression it's something that makes their eyes light up, and you keep talking about it. Then you get a real honest expression from them.
SD: How do you coax a genuine smile out of a teenager, who's really worried about how she looks?
KL: Being ready and catching them off guard. A lot of people will hold their pose, and then you just say something ridiculous that they're not necessarily expecting you to say.
SD: Like what?
HW: I just talk to them. With the older kids you just strike up a conversation. You start talking about something. "So, you got a driver's license? Been driving around? Payin' for gas?" With seniors: "You lookin' into college? Where are you thinking of going? What do you want to do?"
KL: "Maybe I can come work for you." Things like that.
SD: Do you ever have kids that you just can't reach?
KL: Yep. We make [the younger students] our assistants. We have them stand behind the camera with us, watch everybody else go through. We build up their confidence a little bit. Have them push the button, have them look through the viewfinder, make them feel important. Next thing you know, you can't get them off the stool.
SD: As a school photographer, you're essentially taking the same picture over and over again. How do you keep it from getting stale?
KL: Keeping it personal. Making each picture count. Kindergarten kids come in and they've been talking about their picture. They're dressed up. They are the most excited kids. You know that this picture is hopefully going to be with them forever. It's exciting.
HW: It's their very first school picture sometimes. You know it's going on the mantel.
SD: Do you use props? Different backgrounds?
HW: We used to offer a choice between the head-and-shoulder pose or the casual pose, where you put your arms in the picture. We can't really do that anymore. You can't have arms and props showing in ID cards. We do have a handful of schools that invite us to come back in the spring, and we offer a variety of backgrounds. Kids bring in things from home. Beanie Babies, baseball bats. Whatever they want to do. But sometimes Mom and Dad really like those traditional pictures.
KL: I like to think of us as record keepers. The kids aren't going to remember the day. They're not going to remember the photographer . . .
HW: But they'll look at their outfit. Don't you do that sometimes? You go home, and you look at your old pictures from school and you say, "Oh, my God, I can't believe my mother let me out of the house wearing those pants! Look at my hair!" They're just kind of fun, in retrospect, to go back through.
SD: Have you taken any particularly memorable pictures?
KL: Oh, we can't really talk about those (laughs). We could probably write a book. We could do "Saturday Night Live" skits with the different scenarios that happen. A lot of times, the kids get really excited. They'll go and fix themselves up. Sometimes little boys go in the bathroom and they wet their hair back. And then we get notes back from mom saying, "I did not send my child to school with his hair slicked back." Or their shirts are buttoned crooked. Or they don't want to take their coat off. They want the coat in the picture. And obviously someone at home sent them to picture day with a really nice shirt on.
SD: These ones on display in your office, what makes them special? Like this large framed photo behind the counter, the one of the teenage girl in the blue dress with shoulder-length brown hair?
KL: It's a real smile. It's not forced. It's obvious she was comfortable.
The thing is, everybody has a camera. Everybody takes pictures of each other. Everybody has school pictures -- whether they buy a package or not, they end up in the yearbook, or in school files. And everybody likes to have a good photo of themselves. Especially the high school kids. They're very concerned about their photos. Oftentimes they tell you they hate having their picture taken. Chances are, they really want to have a good picture taken of them.