Every Pen-Hi graduate since 1972 is making it onto Stuart Bish’s highlight reel.
The veteran local photographer is in the process of posting online the official portrait of every single graduate from the high school for the past 48 years.
“I don’t know if there’s any other school that has this kind of continuous archive for their graduates,” said Bish.
Student photos don’t go back farther than 1972, because that was the first year official portraits were taken. Before then, only group photos were done.
All of those old pictures were taken by Bob and Eleanor McDonald, whose negatives Bish acquired in 1982, when he purchased their business, McDonald Photography, from an intermediate owner.
Since then, there was just one year that Bish wasn’t the school’s official photographer. That was in 1998, when the school board tried to save money by awarding the contract to a Vancouver company.
“When news broke, parents were up in arms,” recalled Bish.
The school board later relented, but chose a different Penticton photographer that year: David Szabo.
“So they managed to keep it all local and that’s been a very good thing,” Bish said.
Had the school board stuck with an out-of-town photography company in 1998, there’s a good chance Bish’s new online archive of Pen-Hi grad pictures wouldn’t exist, as the negatives would have been difficult to track down, and other photography businesses might have won subsequent contracts.
“Pen-Hi may be one of the few schools in Western Canada (that) has such a legacy of photos still available to its graduates," Bish said.
Since starting the project, Bish has managed to post photos for the years 1972 through 1979. It’s a laborious process that will require him to digitize thousands of negatives to get through 2001, the last year he used film. Doing the years 2002 on will be easier, because the portraits are already digital.
Still, what’s already there gives Loverboy fans the opportunity to see what frontman Mike Rynoski (better known by the stage name Reno) looked like in 1973.
Bish is reluctant to reveal whom he considers to be the most famous person he’s ever photographed because it’s purely a matter of personal opinion.
"There were a lot of rock bands that came out of Pen-Hi, it was part of a sub-culture. There was Mike Reno and the Great Canadian River Race, spawned by Duncan Meiklejohn. Before that time, a group called Mark IV, which later became Crosstown Bus, was well known across Canada,” he said.
In 2002, Bish switched from film to digital photography. The major shift in technology came with hiccups in the beginning, but the savings of time and money allowed him to take additional photos of each student.
“I went from doing two photos of each grad to doing 20 to 25,” Bish said.
As a mentor, he has been able to pass his wisdom down to the next generation – including his predecessors’ family.
In 2014, the granddaughter of Bob and Eleanor McDonald – the original owners of Bish’s business – came to Penticton to work alongside him.
“She was in Abbotsford and wanted to get into photography. I needed an assistant, so she came out here and lived for half a year. She studied photography at Langara College, and is now a fashion and event photographer.”
Bish, who studied photography at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton before purchasing the business, admits skilled photography has become cheaper and easier to do over the decades.
“Computers are now able to compensate for a user’s lack of knowledge,” he said.
But even though new technologies have minimized some of photography’s technical challenges, continued Bish, proper lighting remains difficult for amateur photographers to achieve.
And, of course, there’s intuition that comes with any craft. For a photographer, that means being able to relate to people so they’ll relax and “reveal something of their personality and their character in the photo.”
Bish, who graduated with 23 other kids in his hometown of Forestburg, Alta. – “It's near the edge of the earth, you can see if from there," he jokes – also shoots grad photos for Princess Margaret Secondary School and has done individual portraits of the Miss Penticton candidates continuously since 1982.
Having now been in the business for nearly four decades, a year no longer goes by when Bish isn’t photographing the children of students he photographed a generation earlier.
If the day ever comes when he photographs the third generation of a family, says Bish, he may consider that the appropriate time to retire.
Find the albums on his website www.stuartbish.photoshelter.com.