Portrait of a Senior

The Assignment:
A couple months ago, my friend Dee-Dee asked if I would take her niece Kelsey’s senior photos. It would be my first official gig as a photographer, and I was excited, but concerned. I don’t really know much about high school, or seniors, or portraits. My own senior portrait still hangs in the hallway at my parents’ house, a bitter reminder of the summer of 1988, when I decided to cross-dress before gender confusion was edgy and hip. I am forever immortalized wearing a thrift store necktie and old man’s cardigan. I’m pretty sure there are horses on my shirt, and I don’t even like horses. That’s all I’m going to say about that.
The Homework:
Knowing that I couldn’t rely on my own experience, I started to do some research. I went online and pored over sample shots from portrait studios across the country. I consulted with friends, who were all surprisingly eager to share their opinions on the quintessential senior portrait pose.
“Prayer hands!”
“Holding a rose!”
“Chin on fist!”
“Cat burglar eyes!”
“Riding a horse!”
“Cradling a saxophone!”
One thing was certain, I needed to be careful. I didn’t want my first assignment to turn out like Annie Liebowitz’s controversial Miley Cyrus shoot. I made sure Dee’s sister Cheri was there the entire time to supervise. No one was going to accuse me of exploiting a minor. Not again.
The Bloodletting:
Cheri had done her homework and scouted out several different potential locations. The first site took us down a few winding Wisconsin roads and into a clearing. She told us that the narrow path through the woods led to an old stone church.
“Are we going to get eaten up by mosquitoes?” Dee-Dee asked.
“No, once we get to the church there will be a nice breeze so they won’t bother us.”
I’m going to remember that naïve exchange in case I ever find myself in the Amazon and someone asks me, “Are we going to get eaten up by those piranhas?” because my response will be, “No, once all the flesh is ripped from your bones they won’t bother us.”
About five seconds after we stepped into the woods, a wall of fat mosquitoes rose from the tall grasses and swarmed at us with a viciousness and spite I had never before witnessed in insects. The four of us immediately sprinted back to the clearing, but it was no use – the scent of blood was in the air.
“Cheri! Light a cigarette – now!”
She lit a cigarette and blew the smoke at us. It wasn’t working.
“You need to go to town – get us some bug spray now! The poisonous kind – the kind with DEET!”
“Leave your cigarettes!”
Cheri tossed us her cigarettes and sped off to town, leaving the three of us stranded. We couldn’t go back into Dee-Dee’s car because the second we opened the doors, fifty mosquitoes hijacked the vehicle. Instead, we hopped around, wildly swatting at ourselves and each other.
I had been bitten so many times that I started to get light headed, and got a sudden craving for orange juice and Nutter Butters.
“We need more smoke – Kelsey! Get over here and smoke this cigarette!”
“What? I’m not smoking! Smoking kills.”
“That’s the point!”
After what seemed like hours, Cheri finally returned with what turned out to be the last can of Off! in the entire town. She sprayed us all from head to toe with the sweet toxins, and we were free, at least for the moment.
The Shoot:
We quickly ran through the path to the church to set up our shots. I knew it was only a matter of time before these mosquitoes mutated to develop a resistance to the bug spray.
“Ahh! I have mosquito bites on my neck!”
“Don’t scratch them!”
“They’re going to look bad in the pictures!”
“I’ll Photoshop them out.”
Cheri and Dee acted as my assistants, helping to set up the shots and lug the step ladder and spray us all down with Off! at regular intervals.
We had only a couple hours to work in five different locations and four wardrobe changes before Kelsey had to get back to her job at the A&W, so time was of the essence. I barked out poses like a drill sergeant.
“Stand by the mausoleum!”
“There’s a tombstone in the background.”
“I’ll Photoshop it out.”
“Smell that daisy!”
“It smells like poo.”
“Okay, just pretend to smell it.”
“Dangle your feet in this murky swamp!”
“There’s a dead carp.”
“I’ll Photoshop it out.”
“Stand precariously on those two wet rocks over by the rushing toxic dam!”
“It’s slippery!”
“Brace yourself on that moss-covered tree.”
The Aftermath:
We were all exhausted by the time we reached the final location, and needed to reward ourselves with ice cream. As I looked over the photos the next day, I was sad that I never got the prayer hands pose, and that we couldn’t find a horse or a saxophone, but all in all, I think it was a success. And not once was I accused of trying to manipulate a minor. Except when I forced her to smoke. And made her kick a dead fish. And told her to sit on a grave.
At least I didn’t make her wear a tie and a cardigan. There’s only so much you can do with Photoshop.

18 Responses to “Portrait of a Senior”

  1. Pants Says:

    I would have smoked that whole pack of cigarettes for you.

  2. Tracy Lynn Says:

    I like that last one, where you nearly made her fall off the slippery stones. Heh. Good times.

  3. vahid Says:

    Normally I would pester you to let me see these senior photos you speak of, but then I remember that I have a number of great photos of you wearing a thrift-shop tie in my personal collection.
    (Also of you getting tattooed, which was *cough* completely awesome.)

  4. jenny Says:

    pants: and that’s why you’re my favorite. i would never make you wear a cardigan.
    tracy lynn: i’m not sure if you can tell from that angle, but the water was covered with toxic foam. she would’ve been a skeleton in under three minutes if she had fallen in.
    vahid: oh… now i need to revisit those tattoo photos. those are seriously my faves. yowza!

  5. shari Says:

    Kelsey looks unscathed by her near-death mosquito-smoking experience, and I notice that SHE wasn’t wearing purple and gray plaid, or a 1/4 inch wide ribbon for a tie, with upturned collar… not that anyone I know did that… Oh the 80s were unkind to us seniors.

  6. Finn Says:

    Bless your heart. For not doing prayer hands, that is. Or fist under chin.
    At least you have this: The pictures came out very well! You overcame adversity and triumphed. Imagine what you’ll be able to do when nothing is sucking all the blood out of your body.

  7. delmer Says:

    Had this been when I was younger Cheri could have been sent to town to get the city fogging truck that she could have driven in a circle around you. Then you could have gotten some Michael-Jacksonish shots of Kelsey dancing out of DDT-enhanced mist.
    Sax or no sax that would have been a good picture.

  8. You can call me, 'Sir' Says:

    I hesitate to say this because I don’t want to offend, but…well…the black thing over her eyes kind of makes her look like a cylon from the original 70s version of Battlestar Galactica. I’m sure surgery can clear this up, though. I mean, I assume. God, fate can be so cruel sometimes.

  9. You can call me, 'Sir' Says:

    I hesitate to say this because I don’t want to offend, but…well…the black thing over her eyes kind of makes her look like a cylon from the original 70s version of Battlestar Galactica. I’m sure surgery can clear this up, though. I mean, I assume. God, fate can be so cruel sometimes.

  10. Sarah Says:

    Those turned out really good! I didn’t take senior pictures. Sometimes I wish I had and other times I’m glad I didn’t because my fashion sense was pretty weird back in high school.

  11. Don Says:

    Those are nice. When I was a senior in ’76, informal shots were just becoming the thing, so I saved tux money and let my mom take my picture in the back yard. She stood too close and didn’t focus the camera very well and I had long hair and my patented self-conscious seventeen year old boy smile and looked like a blurry Jesus, if Jesus ever wore a grandmotherly flower-pattern long-sleeve shirt before he grew that beard.

  12. Dave2 Says:

    Apparently you were unable to Photoshop out the black box that was hovering around with the mosquitos… nasty business, those floating black boxes!

  13. jenny Says:

    shari: you know what? a couple of glasses of scotch and i might be open to swapping senior photos. i’ll see your purple plaid and raise you a mullet!
    finn: thanks! and you’re right – if i’d had a full tank of blood pumping through my veins, i might have won a pulitzer.
    delmer: OMG – that would have been the best photo ever! we would have died from DDT poisoning immediately thereafter, but it would have been worth it.
    sir: oh, i wish you hadn’t said anything. she’s so very sensitive about her lack of eyeballs. you know how teenagers are.
    sarah: i kind of wish that fashion faux-pas of mine had been lost in time. so you might be better off with no senior portraits.
    don: blurry jesus is going to be the name of my new band. will you sing lead vocals?
    dave2: they came out of nowhere! we kept trying to swat them away, but to no avail.

  14. churlita Says:

    They turned out great. There are no signs of trauma or mosquito bites anywhere.

  15. Cheryl Says:

    Awesome post and pics. My favorite is the poo-daisy. That way Kelsey will have the best of all worlds: a cute photo AND a story to tell about how awful her senior-portrait experience was.

  16. student teacher Says:

    So you were one of those tie and cardigan girls?
    Loved this post.

  17. nina Says:

    Welcome to our state! Now you know what we’re up against DAILY! But, they say the flooding will pay off — it’ll send the little buggers dwonstream. To Illinois. Let me suggest malaria netting and ear plugs and Burts Bees to wipe off the blood when you swat someone or yourself. And keep your cats home.
    (V.nice pics.)

  18. jenny Says:

    churlita: thanks! and these are the unretouched ones (aside from the black ‘censored’ bars). fortunately, the bugs avoided our faces.
    cheryl: the poo daisy totally cracked us all up. it’s the corniest pose ever. then i made her wear it in her hair.:)
    student teacher: indeed, i was one of those girls. and thanks!
    nina: you do realize that i am originally from WI, don’t you? but even after 30 years there, i still couldn’t build up a tolerance to mosquitoes. my blood is like brandy to them.

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