I don’t like having my picture taken. It’s somewhere on a preference scale between a lucid colonoscopy and giving birth to a blue whale with only half a Claritin-D as an anesthetic.
For the record, my dislike of having my picture taken is not because I think villagers will chase me with torches and dogs to the windmill that they will set on fire to destroy me; I’ve just seen very few pictures of myself that seem natural. They always appear stiff, posed, and nothing that resembles my personality comes through. Honestly, how can a picture represent you without your personality? It’s like meeting someone with no soul.
Perhaps it’s because at an early age we are snatched from our lives in motion to stand in place, pull our lips back to reveal as much teeth and gums as humanly possible, and then shout out a word for curdled milk–CHEESE!
About the time we become teenagers, we are conditioned to comb/brush our hair, apply lip balm/lipstick/makeup, and attempt to look cool at the sight of a camera. Instead, we often give the impression that we’re abusing a controlled substance. If you don’t believe me, look at any teenager’s Facebook page.
As adults, we unconsciously suck in our stomachs any time any one mentions the word camera. After being subjected to numerous sexy billboards, magazine ads, and T.V. commercials, it seems impossible for men to have our picture taken without six-pack abs, a few days growth of beard, and a vulgar tattoo of a tribal design or Japanese symbol on an upper arm, shoulder, or chest.
Last year it became apparent to me that I needed a professional-looking photograph when I was asked to supply one for a poetry reading I participated in. Since I’m usually behind the camera, the only picture I could find of myself was one I took of my shadow on a wall at the North Carolina Aboretum.
“Is that the best you could do?” a friend asked.
“It’s the only picture I have of myself,” I said. “Does it exude a mysterious, artistic personality?”
“No, it looks like an upload to Guys with iPhones from a burn victim.”
I immediately began a search to find a photographer. Fortunately, I discovered that one of our customers at the bookstore, Vyvyan L. Hughes, trained with a fashion photographer in San Francisco. I checked out her website and fell in love with her use of natural light in her work. Yes, I thought, this is real. This is what I want.
When I met with Vyvyan, she asked me what I was trying to show with my photographs, I told her that I didn’t want some soulless portrait of myself–I wanted to reveal the real me. She asked me who the real me was, and I was at a loss. I realized that there was more to the process than looking at the camera and smiling. I write a humor blog, but I didn’t want a picture of myself with an arrow stuck through my head or wearing Groucho Marx glasses.
I e-mailed several friends and asked them to send me the first three words that came to mind when they thought of me. Surely, I could identify a pattern that might be helpful to communicate to Vyvyan who I am. The results were surprising. Many people put a lot of thought into their responses and sent heartfelt messages like: You’re such a good listener; you’re so wise; you’re so kind. I thought to myself, Well, that’s very moving, but how do I get across in a photograph that I’m a good listener, wise, and kind? Should she get a snapshot of me feeding homeless people or reading to orphans? I started to get a few ideas.
Then I asked Jeff for his opinion. “You should take your picture in a leather jacket in front of a distressed wall, because you’re edgy. You’re not your mama’s Erma Bombeck, you know.” And with that comment, all of my ideas seem to deflate like a rogue balloon, flying helter skelter around the room until they petered out at my feet.
Vyvyan arrived the next morning with her camera. I told her I really didn’t have any ideas. I just knew that the majority of my friends described me as funny, creative, and playful. “Do you know how we can work those qualities into the photographs?” I asked.
So Vyvyan took me out into the backyard and began talking to me as she took pictures. We tried lots of different ideas: standing, sitting, serious, smiling, with groping a wooden Indian. (Don’t ask!) And then I had an idea.
It dawned on me that since I write about ‘80s music, why not incorporate it into a picture? We went upstairs to the master bedroom, which had great lighting from the skylight. I spread out the record sleeves of some of most iconic 12″ singles from the ‘80s. I lay down on top of the record sleeves and Vyvyan went to work. “OOh, that’s yummy,” she cooed.
“Vyvyan, you can’t say stuff like or I’m going to crack up.”
“Let the music lift you up, dahling!”
After we finished, we pulled the images up on my iMac and took a peek. I was blown away. We took almost 300 pictures and I was amazed at the quality. We had plenty of the standard professional headshots–smiling and serious–but the pictures with the record sleeves really projected the words the majority of my friends had used: funny, creative, and playful. For once, I had a picture that projected my personality. Mission accomplished!
When I had time to sit down and spend some time going through the images more closely, I encountered a new obstacle. When I looked at the pictures of myself, I couldn’t see myself. In one photograph, I looked just like my mother. In another picture, I saw only my dad. The faster I scrolled through the images, the more I realized that I couldn’t find myself, anymore. It slowly dawned on me that as I’ve aged, I’ve begun to see my parents on my face more and more. That might not sound like a problem to most people. However, after finishing a strenuous workout or long run, when I look in the mirror, I want to see a pillar of manly sexiness staring back at me–not the 65-year-old woman who gave birth to me.
“Do you think maybe I have some sort of strange phobia and I’m going to need some bizarre treatment that requires electroshock therapy?” I asked my friend Joan.
“You’re probably just not used to seeing pictures of yourself,” Joan said. “Why don’t you put the pictures where you can see them and you’ll eventually get used to them.”
Joan’s advice struck a chord with me, so I uploaded one of Vyvyan’s images to my iPhone and made it my wallpaper. It’s just a picture of me smiling at the camera, nothing special. At first, I avoided myself when I picked up my phone. In time, though, I began to grow more comfortable with looking back at myself and I began to see me again. This morning when I picked up my iPhone, I looked myself in the eye and said, “Welcome back, old pal.” I could see myself again. Granted, it’s a 44-year-old self, but that face is no longer a stranger–I recognize it as a friend.
Now, I just have to figure out which one of those 300 pictures to use. Stay tuned …