No shortage of smiles at school picture day

There were the fidgeters, the yawners, the blinkers and the slouchers. There were those who nailed it on the first shot, perfect posture and a sparkle in their eyes.

Then there was Diego Legaspi, his tiny feet wiggling off the wooden stool, his body leaning to the right as if trying to escape.

"Say cookie!" the photographer called out from behind the lens.

"No," the first-grader grimaced.

"Say pizza!"

"No," he whispered. "No pizza."

Finally, a smile -- albeit teeth-locked and forced -- appeared on the boy's face.

So went picture day at Capistrano Avenue Elementary School in West Hills. Even in a digital age that has made photography a low-cost cinch at home, when fall arrives, auditoriums and cafeterias are transformed, old-school-style, into makeshift photo studios.

Children practiced hiding missing teeth and playground scrapes. Teachers tried to keep their wily ones under control. Parents had scoured wardrobes for the finest outfit, and a few even showed up bearing combs and brushes.

"I want to make sure she's good, she's perfect," said Sonia McCarty, who is on hand each year to groom her 7-year-old, Caitlin, before she smiles for the camera.

Thirty-five years into the business, Studio City-based school photographer Don Hagopian still carts around his usual picture-day essentials. He showed up at Capistrano with a set of wooden bleachers, a pair of decorative silk trees and, for the single portraits, a colorful backdrop and a wooden stool.

But unlike before, his digital Nikon instantly delivers images for review. No more film-era guessing if the child blinked or smiled awkwardly.

"The idea is still the same," said Hagopian, owner of Don Hagopian Photography. "To give these kids the same great pictures I had when I was a kid."

Some school portrait companies such as Minnesota-based Lifetouch have added more to their offerings to entice parents, including assorted backdrops, CDs and touch-ups to fix little ones' imperfections, such as spots and blemishes.

Still, it's the desire to mark children's milestones year after year that continues to drive sales. Despite the economy and competition with at-home amateurs using digital cameras, school portrait photographers said they have maintained their edge.

"The tradition of the annual school portrait is so strong, we have been able to keep the business healthy," said Lifetouch spokesman Kelvin Miller.

One ongoing challenge, however, is persuading new immigrants to buy into the ritual. In areas densely populated by newcomers, people tend to buy less, Miller said.

Gary Huntting sees that playing out in Montrose, where the studio he manages, Bronson Photography, works with a lot of Armenians.

"Armenians who are just moving here are thinking, 'What's a yearbook? What's a school portrait?' " he said. "It's an American tradition many of them don't have."

During picture day at Capistrano, some students arrived coiffed and pressed, with silk bows, pin-on ties, suspenders, heels and pearls. Others turned up in mohawks, skull-emblazoned T-shirts, crooked collars and playground-grubby sleeves.

It fell to Hagopian and his team of 15 to make everyone shine as 400 or so children, ages 4 to 12, descended into the school's powder-blue auditorium. In an assembly line, classmates delivered their pre-order envelopes, grabbed identification numbers, lined up for class photos and, finally, stepped in front of Hagopian's camera for their close-ups.

Over the years, the veteran has shot all sorts of subjects, including celebrities' children, who he said don't get special treatment. He's seen children pose like supermodels, turning their heads flirtatiously to one side; accidentally sit facing the backdrop or flash peace and gang signs, requiring retakes.

"No matter how mischievous they are, when I take their picture I try to make them look like angels," Hagopian said.

Two hours into the Capistrano shoot, students waiting in line chatted about the flash and whether it was powerful enough to burn their eyeballs.

Fourth-grader Dulce Hernandez focused on the task at hand: guaranteeing her family a respectable portrait. The older you get, the more pressure there is to deliver a good mug, she said.

"Is my smile good like this?" she asked two girlfriends as she waited in line.

Moments later, Tarana Nowbahari hollered at her kindergartner.

"Smile, Armin!" she shouted. "Smile! You're not smiling."

Later, during the class shot, she asked if her first-grader could be placed in the front row.

Many preschoolers, such as Katie Contreras, were not as tickled by all the attention.

When her turn came and she was propped on the wooden stool, she looked straight ahead and, deadpan, stuck out her tongue.

"Oh," Hagopian said. "That's the only one we had all day."


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