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Bye-bye, bunny costumes. Hello, dimpled elbows

A sleepy newborn, shot in a naturalistic style, reflects a new, low-key approach to baby pictures; a recent trend toward fantastic props, is falling out of favour.

Jennifer Pearson Photography

Newborns curled up in faux bird's nests are the cutest thing since bronzed baby booties, right?

Not in the eyes of a growing number of baby photographers.

Fed up with the fantastical Anne Geddes style of photography, in which babies are dressed as bumblebees and arranged to pop out of flower pots, many high-end photographers are urging clients to go for a more natural, spontaneous look.

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But it can be tough to convince parents to lose the props. Inevitably, says Vancouver photographer Kathryn Langsford, "people bring in angel wings or something."

Ms. Langsford says she refuses to photograph babies in oversized teacups, gardening buckets or flower baskets. "I think it's really dated," she explains, "and it's just not an authentic portrayal."

Instead, taking cues from celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz, she focuses on the telling details - dimpled elbows, scabbed knees - that say something about a child's personality and life stage. By letting kids be themselves in the photo studio, she adds, "parents end up with a portrait of a person they remember seeing every day."

Baby photos have come a long way since the starched christening gowns of the fifties and the composite portraits of the seventies, which juxtaposed a normal head shot on a black background with a shadowy face that floated in the upper corner, like a phantom twin.

Even so, recent photo trends can be equally strange, says Jodi Friedman of West Bloomfield, Mich., who teaches Photoshop to portrait photographers. She cites babies photographed with wedding bands on their toes and newborns wrapped in sheets dangling from the ceiling.

"The baby in a teacup - I don't get it," she adds. "You're drinking the baby?"'

Elaborately staged photos of newborns came into vogue in the nineties, thanks to Ms. Geddes's mass-produced calendars and posters. The New Zealand-based photographer's vision of babies as a symbol for all things fledgling has retained its grip on the popular imagination.

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Well-heeled parents shell out $500 to $5,000 for lookalike images of their bundles of joy.

Donna Carlson, a mother of two in Hartford, Conn., says she was delighted last year when a photographer turned her nine-day-old son into an "Anne Geddes baby."

Although she didn't want too many props, Ms. Carlson says, her favourite shot was of his leg stretching out from a fluffy white cocoon. "He's the one who shifted like that, so it was kind of a natural thing," she says, adding, "it was fun to have my own baby photographed in that way."

But there is a dark side to the Anne Geddes effect. Some clients are so intent on having their babies given the Geddes treatment there can be repercussions for photographers who prefer a more natural approach.

"I got weird hate mail at one point because I wasn't doing that sort of work," says Shannon Echlin, a baby and child photographer in Toronto.

According to Ms. Echlin, images of babies done up like acorns and sunflowers have saturated the market to the extent that a lot of people "don't have any idea of what decent art looks like."

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Tim Baker, an expectant father in New Jersey, says he was so dismayed by photos of a relative's baby - dressed as an Easter egg - that he launched a website this spring called Submissions are trickling in, including an image of a baby digitally transformed into a leprechaun hoarding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Innovations in digital editing have spawned peculiar fads, notes Ms. Friedman, adding that excessive Photoshopping is a trend that should end.

For example, selective colour on black-and-white photos is popular, she says, but that doesn't make it pretty. Ditto for skin smoothed out until the baby looks like a porcelain doll, and over-edited babies' eyes. "They look like aliens," she says.

Many baby poses look unnatural, notes Jennifer Pearson, a Toronto-based photographer. She mentions the classic shot of a baby with its arms crossed under the head. "A newborn baby would never do that."

She adds, "the feedback I'm getting from most of my clients is they're wanting something that looks a little more candid."

But that doesn't mean that ill-conceived mementos such as leprechaun babies are a thing of the past.

After all, at Sears portrait studios, parents can still get bizarre composite images of their kids - only now an "artist's sketch" renders the floating head.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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