Formal portrait photos are not as common as they once were. / Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

Time was, you could walk into almost any middle-class house in America and there'd be a framed family portrait on the wall.

Sunday clothes. Wide smiles. Airbrushed blemishes. Heads tilted, like a basket of puppies offered a treat.

Chances are, there was a stamp at the bottom of the portrait that read "Olan Mills," which was once the gold standard for mass-market portrait photography.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, Olan Mills, headquartered here, was perhaps Chattanooga's most-recognized brand. As late as 1993, the company had 15,000 workers worldwide. Fifteen thousand!

The 21st century has seen a slow decline of the formal portrait photography business. Instead of dressing little kids up for their annual visit to the portrait studio, more and more people simply default to their mobile-phone snapshots for precious memories. Meanwhile, upper-middle-class folks hire photographers to make outdoor portraits. White Oxford shirts and khakis, anyone?

In 2012, Olan Mills was sold to Lifetouch, which shut down operations entirely here in 2019. The demise was symbolic of a larger industry trend. Sears had closed its ubiquitous portrait studios in 2013.

I was thinking about this shift walking up the staircase in our two-story house. Lining the wall is a gallery of photos of our two sons, from age 1 through adolescence. I counted 40 photos, all framed and meticulously mounted on the wall with 2-inch margins. Almost all were taken by professional portrait photographers.

It's as if the boys' lives flash before my eyes every time I trudge up the steps. There are a couple of photos of adults — my wife and I in Jamaica, her family gathered in Monteagle — but 90% of the pictures are of the boys.

At the top of the stairs is a landing where we keep the computer printer. Several times a week I find myself facing the staircase gallery and scanning the faces while waiting for the printer to reboot, which always takes about 90 seconds.

In this spot are school photos, ranging from elementary through middle school. High school kids might sit still for graduation photos, but not much else.

It's funny to look at old school photos. It's clear which photos were taken when Mom knew beforehand it was "picture day." On picture days that sneaked up on us, the boys are in T-shirts with unruly hair.

If you look closely, it is possible to see the years each boy was confident and the years when they look annoyed to have their photo taken. Hairstyles come and go, clothing fits or it doesn't, but authentic smiles can't be forced.

My favorite photo of our older son is his third-grade shot. He looks relaxed in his blue school T-shirt. It's probably no coincidence that this is a year he was winning home-run derbies and cross-country races and soccer tournaments left and right.

My favorite photo of our younger son is his seventh-grade photo. With a fresh Euro-boy haircut — tight on the sides and longer on top — he flashes an honest smile that shows off a radiant personality. I can't help but consider that the photo was taken before the weight of COVID-19 isolation had disrupted his school year.

Every few days, Facebook digs up an old photo from my camera roll and offers it as a gift. Sometimes the selections make me smile, but somehow they don't seem as powerful as the photos on the wall by the stairs.

These represent the moments in time that are burned into my brain. These are the tender, telling smiles, taken at one-year intervals, that light up my soul.

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