Do you remember the first grade? School picture preserve memories

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lisa Joseph Jester struggles to remember many specifics about first grade.

Her teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in 1984 was either Mrs. Voss or Mrs. Ernst, she’s not sure.

She liked climbing in the tunnels on the school playground, and she liked to read.

Beyond that, well, it was a long time ago.

Her mother, however, must have a better memory.

“My teacher’s name was Mrs. Crump,” Paula New Joseph said. “I liked first grade. Mrs. Crump was just so motherly. I had a sister in the second grade and that made it easier.”

Paula’s family didn’t live far from Montebello School, now McLaurin Elementary, so sometimes they walked.

“What I remember are slides and swings, and it seems like I remember a merry-go round,” she said.

She learned to read that year, 1958, and fell in love with books and music. She played outside a lot with her three siblings. And she remembers her closest friend Sandra Matlock.

Twenty-six years separate first-grade memories for Paula and her middle child, Lisa.

But now that Lisa’s two oldest sons have also completed first-grade, all three generations have at least one common way to look back and remember — school photos.

Marking time

Professional photographer Van O’Gwin has been shooting school photos for 15 years.

He also shoots studio portraits, weddings and other events, but realized years ago that the Miss-Lou market needed a local school photographer. So he jumped in.

Now, his work is down to an art.

He can shoot photos of nearly every child in a given school — usually around 400 — in a day. Each child sits in front of the camera for less than a minute, but O’Gwin makes those seconds count.

“It sounds like you can’t get something good,” he said. “But I make sure I’m shooting something I’ve already designed in a studio. I’ve figured out the lighting and the background.”

O’Gwin comes with at least two helpers, who are essential to creating his rhythm.

One assistant gets children lined up properly in the hallway, the other gets them posed in the chair.

O’Gwin doesn’t leave his perch from behind the camera.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not working.

“I’m watching them like a hawk the whole time,” he said. “When the assistant steps out of the way, I already know what the child is going to do, whether he’ll slump or not, whether he’ll smile.

While his assistant is posing a child O’Gwin has the batter on deck standing by his side.

“I talk to the little one that is next to me, joke around, get that child comfortable with me.”

By the time the child sits in the seat, O’Gwin knows the child’s personality and the child feels comfortable with the strange man visiting his school.

“The shots are not cookie-cutter shots,” O’Gwin said.

And proof of that is in family albums, photo frames and wallets all over town.

Family memories

Despite a house fire, multiple moves and current renovations, it didn’t take Paula Joseph long to come up with not only the school photos of herself and her daughter, but those of her siblings, her father and six grandchildren.

Dozens of other family photos fill albums and boxes too, but the school photos have stood the test of time.

And Mawmaw is the family member most likely to display years upon years of school photos, Lisa’s 10-year-old son Joshua Hargon said.

“Because she likes us,” he said.

Joshua, everyone agreed, takes his looks from his father’s side of the family, and it’s his photos that stand out in a line as the most different.

Paula sees some of her own genes, though, in the shape of Joshua’s brown eyes.

Everyone else — from Paula’s siblings down to the youngest grandchild — has blue eyes and a fair skin tone.

Priceless

Family comparisons make school photos so important to us all, O’Gwin said.

Whether wallet-sized or 8-by-10, these photos mark time.

“School children are constantly changing,” O’Gwin said. “They are not real expensive for parents, and if the (photographer) is doing a good job, as their child is changing, they have a record.”

Once families have that record, they’ll go to all lengths to save it, he said.

“Not a week goes by that I don’t have three to four people here in my studio for restoration work on old photos. Lots of times it is school pictures.

“It could be of someone who was killed in a car wreck, and this is the only photo they have. That picture, which didn’t cost $3 or $4 at most, there is no limit to what they are willing to do to get that picture restored.

“They are priceless as that point.”

Re-take please?

But priceless doesn’t always come easy for the man behind the camera, O’Gwin said.

“Some of the children are kind of scared,” he said. “I give them a little hug and talk to them to let them know they aren’t at the doctor’s office and no one is going to pull their teeth.”

Yet, some children still cry, especially since schools nowadays ask photographers to shoot photos of children as young as 1 or 2.

And then there are the clowns.

“I had one girl, who is probably 28 or 29 now, she used to make this monkey face at me in third, fourth all the way to sixth grade,” he said. “That got to be an ongoing theme, and one year, I took that picture, shot a nice picture, and sent the monkey face out (to the parents.)”

Of course, when the parents called, O’Gwin provided the nice shot as well.

Visiting between seven and eight local schools each year — many twice a year for spring and fall photos — O’Gwin gets to know the area’s children, if only in snapshots of time.

“I’ve seen some sad things too,” he said. “Some children are in wheelchairs, and then the special education students, I’ll spend 15 or 20 minutes with them to get a good picture.”

But if one thing rings true to O’Gwin, it’s that the love — and the need — for plain old school photos will remain for years to come.

“When the photograph came along, a lot of folks said artists would be out of business. That didn’t happen. And I don’t think cell phone cameras will put professional photographers out of business.”