Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Say cheese

It’s that time of year again … the time when I start thinking “I really should get an ‘official’ family photograph taken so we can send it with our Christmas cards.”

Every year our refrigerator is covered with our friends’ family pictures, each one more beautiful than the last. Here is one family frolicking in a pile of leaves, tossing a few in the air, laughing at some private joke. In another the kids look like they stepped out of a J. Crew catalogue immediately after getting their braces off.

And every year I have the best intentions of getting my brood all together in some lovely outdoor setting and taking a picture that captures our essence as a family. But instead we end up with a candid shot of the kids thrown in front of the fireplace with a string of twinkly lights wrapped around them for a festive touch. Or the four of us, shivering in the snow at Lemolo Lake on our trek to find a Christmas tree, which, in theory, sound lovely. But our smiles are always off, more grimace than smile, because we can’t find a tree that doesn’t look like Charlie Brown’s, our feet are soaked to the bone, someone forgot the Hershey’s bars for the s’mores, and we are somewhat tired of the sight of each other.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sure, these are still technically considered family photos, but not the family portraits of my childhood. What I’m saying is they are NOT Olan Mills Portrait Studio.

If you did not have the pleasure of experiencing an Olan Mills Portrait Studio as a child of the ‘70s or ‘80s, you missed out on a cultural event. Kids, think Awkward Family Photos and you can envision what I’m talking about.

And my mom LOVED her some Olan Mills, much to the chagrin of her four daughters.

Despite the fact that my sisters and I were all in various stages of the awkwardness that is adolescence, my mom insisted that we get dressed up and get our family portrait taken.
This was the era of feathered hair, cowl neck sweaters and gaucho pants. Yeah, we were styling. And thank goodness someone forced us to get photographic evidence of these days (she said, sarcastically).

Stepping into an Olan Mills Portrait Studio felt like stepping into Kojak’s apartment … shag carpet, groovy music, and indistinguishable smoke smells. The lighting was dim, which I suppose was to create a mood, but instead created a sense of anxiety and doom.

Inevitably the “photographers” were middle aged men down on their luck, making minimum wage forcing people to pose in positions that, 30 years later, require regular trips to the chiropractor.

“Here, you - you in the Marcia Brady ponytails - come and sit next to your sister but with your back to the camera. Now put your arm around her shoulder and look over your shoulder.”

My oldest sister would mumble out of the side of her smile, “Yeah, ‘cause this is always how we sit at home.”

Poor guy. He had no idea the sarcasm that was eking out from behind those smiles, but to be completely honest, none of us were happy to be there, the photographer included.

I was always intrigued by the nature backdrops in the studio. The photographer would lower a screen with a picture of a forest in the background and we’d stand in front of it, fully clad in clothes you’d never wear in the forest. Never mind that there was a park with trees RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE STUDIO. But he’s the “photographer,” and this was clearly the more artistic and natural approach.

So as I take another crack at a family photo this year, at least my kids can rest assured that we won’t be heading to an Olan Mills Portrait Studio. However I see quite a few leaves collecting in our back yard and I feel a frolic coming on.

Now, if I can just find those gaucho pants…

Eileen Burmeister is a Winchester-based freelance writer. She can be reached at or you can follow her on Twitter at EBurmeister.

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