City Desk

The Evolution of the Yearbook Photo: From Ed Liddy to John Slattery to Now

As I selected my senior yearbook photo via the world wide interwebs this week, I took a minute to think about the difference between the presentation of those images today versus previous generations.

Today, photography companies are offering many ways to make yourself look better. There are options for retouching and removing scars, tan lines, moles, tattoos, piercings, and stray hairs (just $40 a pose!). Being a poor college student, I'll take my photo with the flaws, thank you very much.

But it got me thinking about the generations of students before me who probably would have paid that money because those yearbook photos were the defining photo of their collegiate career. The artificially posed snapshot in time was the photo that their college friends would remember them by for all eternity.

Those photos sometimes gave us a peek into what a person was actually like at the time the photo was taken.

Take John Slattery. Sure, now he's the silver-haired, womanizing, suave Roger Sterling of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency.

But before he was a Mad Man, Slattery was a young adult.

Yes, 1984 John Slattery was a beast of a different name. This John popped the collar of his denim jacket two decades before that three-week period in 2005 when it was cool again.  John didn't conform to society's rules on shaving and, based strictly off his expression in this photo from the 1984 Catholic University yearbook, he also got high on a regular basis.

Or what about Ed Liddy, the CEO of AIG? There he is, blinded by the sunlight in 1968. No boring pose here, just a quick snapshot by some student photographer who tracked him down outside the library 41 years ago.

In the 1960s, yearbook portraits were often taken in a unique environment, not in front of a backdrop. The subject of the photograph could wear whatever he or she wanted.

Today, there's a dress code—a suit and tie or blouse covered by a cap and gown for a portrait six months to a year before you actually get your diploma.

That's because big companies like Jostens and Herff Jones are taking the previously student-run production of a yearbook out of the hands of the students and are turning it into a big business. They're churning out portraits of seniors like an assembly line using online scheduling tools and order forms.

Small yearbook staffs, already overworked and busy with school on top of the massive responsibility of a yearbook project (and getting little benefit from the large commitment of time and effort), are happy to have the work taken out of their hands. Some companies are better than others and have given students the tools and support they need to complete the yearbooks, but money remains their main motivation.

Some yearbooks, sadly, are folding, including one at a college in Minnesota. Other yearbook staffers, are getting lazy and copying and pasting photos from social network sites.

The vast majority of undergraduates don't buy a yearbook until their senior year, and the same seems true at high schools like this one in Arizona.

It's tough for yearbooks to get students to send in their photos, and tougher to support a staff photographer to photograph events, especially as advertising dollars dwindle. Often yearbooks end up filled with photos of the same groups of friends who were proactive in sending in their photos. The rest get the generic headshot.

But this "Facebook can replace the yearbook" notion is bullshit. Yearbooks aren't meant to be a printed version of self-taken photos of you and your friends, they're meant to chronicle major events that were important to the whole community. It's a rundown of the whole year with a solid visual presentation that will be a keepsake and serve as a historical record for the institution from a student perspective.

Now if only we could find students with the time and motivation to do the work themselves.

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  • http://www.schoolsandreunions.com MIke J.

    I would definitely agree on that. Yearbooks are documentation of significant events and valuable information that can be used as reference for any type of research. It feels good to see your self as a part of yesterday, a part of history. Nothing compares to the smile brought by some great pages that brings you back in time during the best days of your life.

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