Before school began this fall, Alison Malone talked to her oldest daughter about distance learning during the pandemic.

"We are going to start kindergarten, but it's going to look really different from what we thought it would," Malone told 5-year-old Olivia.

Malone wanted to address disappointments Olivia might have, but Malone had one of her own: "I was looking forward to a kindergarten picture," she said.

Malone, a family portrait photographer and adjunct professor of photography at the University of Minnesota, decided to re-create the school picture experience in her backyard. She ordered several backdrops — from simple white to an outer-space theme — and set them up.

After taking school-style portraits of her daughters and the children of friends, she set up shop on the loading dock at her La Vita Bella Photography studio in northeast Minneapolis' Casket Arts Building, where she offered 10-minute, $25 sessions for other distance learners.

Picture day — that annual rite of questionable fashion choices, unfortunate haircuts, and retake-worthy poses — is on indefinite hold in some school districts. Some worry it may become a casualty of the pandemic.

Even in an age when parents' phones are filled with images of their children, the humble school picture still carries meaning.

"I am a lover of the traditional, cheesy, cropped kids' school picture — maybe a bad haircut, maybe the messy shirt that they pick out, the cheesy smile that as a parent I have no control over," said Malone. "I have an incredible affinity for kids' crooked teeth, when their teeth fall out and the new ones come in."

That's why Malone and other Twin Cities photographers are hosting pop-up shoots outside or in garages and other Minnesota studios, like Caulfield Studio in Detroit Lakes, are opening photo sessions for home-schoolers to distance learners.

Coaxing a smile at 6 feet

Each year, schools and districts contract with photography studios for student portraits. Right now, many of the schools holding in-person or hybrid classes are hosting picture day — some outside, some in gymnasiums with safety precautions.

Lifetouch, which usually visits 1,500 schools and day cares in Minnesota in September and October, stretched its picture day scheduling into December and beyond to accommodate shifting learning models.

For some districts that are currently only having distance learning, including Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools, no picture day has been set. Lifetouch plans to schedule school photos at some point, perhaps in spring, said Stephanie Schmid, the company's vice president of marketing and merchandising.

In the meantime, the Eden Prairie-based company created a way for parents of distance learners to take their own smartphone photos and swap in one of the traditional school-photo backgrounds using the app from partner company Shutterfly. Districts that typically use school portraits to fill yearbooks and update their internal information systems can also use the app images, if parents send them in.

"We wanted to make sure that families don't miss a beat," said Schmid. "You don't want to miss third grade, or those missing teeth in first grade," she said.

For schools hosting in-person picture days, Lifetouch instructed its photographers to wear masks and help kids with poses and get them to smile from 6 feet away — no more reaching in to fix collars or smooth down messy tresses.

While this means kids may not look portrait-perfect, the more natural look is in keeping with the current trend for school photos.

"We're continuing to see parents just let the kid be who they are in their pictures, whether it's the haircut or the shirt choice or whatever it might be," said Schmid. "It's really fun to continue to see that this fall, too, especially in 2020 where you know we're all in it together and just working our way through."

Picture day in the garage

Most of the schools that Erica Morrow's Minneapolis studio Slow Road Photo visits are holding in-person or hybrid classes and hosting picture days inside or outside.

But Morrow, whose studio also shoots family portraits, was concerned about distance learners. "What can we do to bring normalcy to their start of the school year?" she wondered.

Morrow sent an e-mail to her client list, asking if any parents were willing to host pop-up school photo sessions in their backyards or open garages. Within an hour, as many as 25 people agreed to do so.

Steph McNally was one of them. McNally, who considers school pictures "treasured time capsules," offered her Bloomington garage.

Ten families brought their children for photos, along with McNally's 7-year-old son Liam, who spent the first six weeks of second grade learning at home. Her twin 3-year-olds posed, as well.

For the makeshift picture day, McNally tidied her garage and set out doughnuts and cider.

"It was a great excuse to get some of my son's friends over for a bit — masks and outdoors and all, but still so special," she said.

McNally was delighted with the photos.

"You would never guess they were taken in our garage," she said. "It's like we didn't have to miss a year. We didn't have to say, 'Oh, yeah, that's the year we didn't do pictures because of coronavirus.' "