The Lifetouch factor

Avalon Portraits’ billboard has drawn attention—as well as a cease and desist order from Lifetouch.

Avalon Portraits’ billboard has drawn attention—as well as a cease and desist order from Lifetouch.

Photo By Robert Speer

Someone recently dropped off a flier at the CN&R offices. It’s mostly text, but it does have one large photo, of a middle-aged man in a suit who’s scowling and wagging an index finger at the reader. Above the photo a headline reads: “YEARBOOK PICTURE SCANDAL.”

The text asks, “Who is this man, and why is he making you go to Lifetouch for YOUR portraits?…

"'The Man’ isn’t paying for your photos. ‘The Man’ doesn’t have to live with your photos for the rest of his life. Don’t settle for less than the best because ‘The Man’ tells you where to have your photos made.”

Who was “The Man"? And what was this all about? We were intrigued.

The flyer goes on to say that “Avalon Studio has been doing award-winning senior portraits for twelve years” and then asks, “How long has it been since Lifetouch did a nice job with your portrait???”

We contacted Avalon, which is actually called Avalon Portraits. Steve Twist is its owner and, he acknowledged, the source of the flier. He now worries that people might not realize he was exaggerating for effect.

Lifetouch wasn’t pleased with the flier, either. Twist said company lawyers out of corporate headquarters in Minnesota sent him a cease-and-desist order asking that he stop distributing the flier and also take down a billboard on The Esplanade. He said he didn’t intend to pass out any more fliers and the billboard was set to come down anyway, so he ignored the letter.

A call to Lifetouch’s local manager was not returned.

Like most studio photographers in Chico, Twist competes for the senior-photo business. And, because this is the time of year when seniors begin having their pictures taken, Twist tried to let them know—in the most creative way he could—that they have an alternative to Lifetouch, the nationwide corporation that happens to have one of its big processing laboratories in Chico.

The intensity of the competition to do yearbook photos is ironic, given that the photo studios do them for free—and even contribute some money to the schools. But the pictures are a way for photographers to sell students packages of senior photos to give to friends and relatives, explained Twist: “That’s how we make our money.”

Karen Elizabeth, another studio photographer in town, added that the yearbook photo also gives photographers a way to establish a relationship with customers that can lead to other business later on, such as wedding or baby photos.

Both believe that local studio photographers take better pictures than Lifetouch does, as well as provide young people an opportunity to experience a real studio environment.

Another thing that bothers them is that Lifetouch requires a $50 deposit before letting students see their pictures so they can select the one they want to go in the yearbook. “I was always told I couldn’t charge a thing,” Karen Elizabeth said. “Free session, free picking—that was it.”

To the principals at the two high schools, however, Lifetouch offers a much more comprehensive package than the local studios do. Both schools use a computerized information system called SASI that enables them to keep identification photos of every student on file, and they say the big company has responded to the challenges of the digital age better than the smaller ones.

“Lifetouch’s package is very compatible with our system,” explained Jim Hanlon, principal at Chico High. Lifetouch has a sophisticated, standardized system that allows for seamless downloading onto school computers and hand-held devices, as well.

“That way, if a student has a problem at a game or other activity, we can identify him and readily contact his parents,” Hanlon said. Lifetouch also takes sports and dances photos for the schools, he said.

Mike Rupp, principal at Pleasant Valley, explained that his school’s part of the deal with Lifetouch was merely to provide advertising materials to the parents, in case they wished to order more photos. In return, the school receives a wealth of services from Lifetouch at no cost. He said he and the yearbook advisor are both very happy with the arrangement.

Steve Twist and Karen Elizabeth say they’re fine with that. But seniors should remember, they say, that students can get their yearbook pictures done by Lifetouch and then come to them for high-quality senior photos—at competitive prices.