Oliver Tracy showed up for his first-grade portrait with a crisp white shirt tucked into navy slacks, a striped tie slightly too long for his tiny frame, and not a lock of his sun-streaked blond hair out of place.
But just above Oliver’s right cheek was a scab; he had tumbled while playing tag. His father, Jahn Tracy, had e-mailed the school, the Bay Ridge Preparatory School in Brooklyn, to see if Oliver could take the photo on another day, after the cut healed.
Tracy need not have worried. When the big envelope of photos arrived, Oliver’s blemish was nowhere in sight.
The practice of altering photos, long a standard in the world of glossy magazines and fashion shoots, has trickled down to the wholesome domain of the school portrait. Parents who once had only to choose how many wallet-size and 5-by-7 copies they wanted are now being offered options like erasing scars, moles, acne and braces, whitening teeth or turning a bad hair day into a good one.
School photography companies around the country have begun to offer the service on a widespread basis over the past half-dozen years, in response to parents’ requests and to developments in technology that made fixing the haircut a 5-year-old gave herself, or popping a tooth into a jack-o’-lantern smile, easy and inexpensive. And every year, the companies say, the number of requests grows.
Joseph Sell, the New York area manager for Lifetouch, which says it takes about 30 million student photos a year, estimates that 10 percent of the company’s photos of elementary school pupils are now altered or, in the industry parlance, retouched. Another company, Highpoint Pictures, estimated the proportion at 2 to 5 percent.
The numbers go up after the seventh grade, Sell said. By senior year, sometimes half of a class requests retouching, he said.
"The media and magazines have exposed our marketplace to people that are well groomed and well cared for," Sell said.
Lifetouch offers several levels of retouching, which can include a $6 "basic" treatment for small changes like removing the glare from eyeglasses; a $10-to-$20 "premier," in which the teeth will be whitened or a cowlick tamed; and intricate, and more expensive, custom changes, like adding a tie or making short sleeves long.
What else can be tweaked? "There’s really not much limit," Sell said.
Mindy Cimmino of Wrentham, Mass., who owns an event-planning company, said she was initially aghast when she noticed a small check box on her children’s photo order forms asking whether she wanted retouching. Then, two years ago, her daughter Delaina scratched her face the day before her third-grade portrait. Delaina was despondent about going to school that day. So Cimmino checked the box.
"My rationale was, this is not something that is part of her face," she said. "I didn’t feel like I was changing my child."
(The father of Oliver, the Brooklyn first grader, gave a similar explanation for why he chose retouching. "It’s not like I’m making him thinner," Tracy said.)
But when a parent of a classmate of Delaina’s asked for the congenital strawberry mark on the child’s face to be wiped away, Cimmino was stunned.
"That’s your kid," she said in an interview. "You really need to think about the message it gives your kids about accepting themselves."
Glossing over the bumps and bruises of childhood, or even more lasting disfigurement, might not be a bad thing, said Dr. Bradley S. Peterson, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
"There are kids who have some substantial socially stigmatizing features that they want to tone down," Peterson said. Doing so in a photograph can build confidence, he said.
But parents who choose to edit also run the risk of "potentially validating the concerns that it is not OK to be that way," Peterson said.
"In some ways," he said, "even though they’re trying to help the child’s confidence, it could inadvertently undermine it."
Some companies have quietly offered retouching for many years. At the time of its founding in 1946, Irvin Simon Photographers, which took Oliver’s photograph, employed artisans who could paint out pimples on negatives with special inks, or even out skin tone with a faint film of paint sprayed onto prints themselves. The services were available by special request. "It was a painstaking process," and expensive, said Steve Miller, a co-president.
Six years ago, like many of its competitors, Irvin Simon Photographers upgraded to digital technology. Now, for about $7, it can clean up pimples, rub out grass stains or neaten coifs, among other touch-ups in its toolbox.
Sometimes the work is even more substantial. Marty Hyman, who has been photographing schoolchildren in the New York area for more than 30 years, said that if "if a kid doesn’t look good in the class picture, we will, when necessary, take his head – if it looks better in another picture – and swap it in."
At the Collegiate School in Manhattan, Jake Ahern, a science teacher who schedules class photos, said that three years ago the school began offering elementary school students who missed picture day the option of being digitally inserted into the class photo.
Some photo company executives admit to reservations about some of the services they have provided. Last year, Highpoint shortened a girl’s hair at a parent’s behest. The company’s owner, Jason Brand, said he felt that such requests went much further than minor editing. "I think you want to look back on the way you were, and not the way you wanted to be," Brand said. "It’s not an honest thing to reflect back on."
Miller said that Irvin Simon would do whatever parents wanted, but he added, "We like to think that all the kids are cute already."
Peterson said parents should keep in mind that "what supports healthy growth of the child and capacity to love themselves is parental idealization, that this child is perfect, and the apple of one’s eye."
So if a parent has a school photo tinkered with, Peterson said, "it can inadvertently send a message that ‘I perceive you as less than perfect and not ideal."’
When it was his turn for a portrait in the gym at Bay Ridge Prep, Michael Terzuoli, a second grader, straightened his clip-on tie and brushed blond bangs out of his eyes, revealing a nickel-size birthmark on his forehead. He smiled for the picture, then ran off to play.
His mother, Tatiana, said she would let Michael decide if he wanted the mark edited out.
Asked what he would do if he saw his picture without his distinctive birthmark, Michael said, "I’d rip it up."