Photo Face

February 2000


 Some people always look great in photographs.  When the cameraman takes aim and says, “smile,” they turn towards the camera and, without losing a beat, do just that — produce a super smile.  Someone who can do this on command virtually always takes a good picture.  I watched one woman do it repeatedly at a large affair, each time producing the exact same smile, apparently without effort.   It’s as if she had a “photo face” always readily at hand.  As soon as the camera was aimed and the word “smile” was fired, she put on her photo face with about as much thought as Pavlov’s dog.

I cannot do this.  I have no photo face.  When the camera is aimed at me and I hear the word “smile,” several thoughts typically run through my mind and spill out onto my face at just the moment the shot is taken.  What is captured on film is usually an expression somewhere between “Oh no, please not again,” and “Oh shit.”  If it’s a posed shot, the kind where the cameraman says “smile” and then decides to make just a few more adjustments to the focus and fidgets just a little more with the backlight button, a perhaps-pleasant smile will have vanished from my face only nanoseconds before the click of the camera.  Or, assuming he will never actually take the shot, I will momentarily look away or look down — at precisely the moment the camera clicks.  My inability to gaze endlessly at the camera with a smile frozen on my face is captured on film for all the world to see.  You might say I am photographically challenged.  In a family shot at my own wedding, I am the only person looking off to the side.  You get the picture.

There have been some successes, however.  In one of the most notable ones, I was holding my two week old daughter, Julia.  When my husband said “smile,” I was thinking of her.  It was one of those rare photo moments when a deeply felt happiness was in my heart — and suffused my face — at the moment the picture was taken.  And there have been other good shots — with my husband, at my sister-in-law’s wedding in southern California; with my kids standing at a dock in the Bahamas; with my whole family, in a posed “family shot” taken by a neighbor (who didn’t endlessly fine tune the camera) right in front of our house.  But the good ones I can count;  the bad ones are too numerous to count.

I suppose one consolation is that my photos are all different.  The person with a photo face always readily at hand looks the same in all photos.  Here’s Jane Doe at the beach, smiling attractively.  There’s Jane at a party, smiling the same attractive smile.  And there’s Jane again, at so-and-so’s wedding — wait, it’s the same smile!  No monotonous sameness for me, however.  When you look at a photo of me, why, you never know what you’re going to see.

This was brought home to me several years ago by one of my husband’s cousins.  My whole family had traveled to Miami to help my husband’s aunt and uncle celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary.  All the cousins, their husbands and wives and children and the two guests of honor were sitting around a large table, eating,  talking and laughing — all, that is, but one.  Armed with her camera, my husband’s cousin Gertie had decided to capture the event in candid shots.  How charming.  One by one she caught us in all our glorious candidness.  Now, some candid shots are delightful.  And some are not.  Guess which kind I usually take.  A month or two later, I received in the mail a picture Gertie had taken of me at that dinner.  Words fail me when I try to convey the depths of hideousness she managed to capture on my face at the very moment she took the shot.  I must have been just in the midst of flamboyantly expressing something-or-other to someone-or-other.  My mouth was wide open and somehow contorted, my face was red, … well, as I said, words (thankfully) fail me.  Had she waited for that moment?  Or had she just gotten lucky?  And, more significantly, why in the world did she send me a copy?  (Well, I suppose that’s a subject that warrants its own essay … another time.)   I am proud to relate, however, that I did show the photo to my family, and we all had an uproarious laugh over it — as I carefully tore it into teeny tiny bits and popped them into the trash can.  Of course, Gertie still has the negative. …

We take our pictures for many reasons, I suppose, but the main one must be that we like to have some kind of record of what we’ve done and who we’ve been.  It’s part of our desire to record our own personal histories, much as we record the history of our people or our nation, so that throughout our lives we can look at them and be reminded of all the many things we did, all the many ways we looked as we made our journeys through life.  Sometimes, as we age, such snapshots of precious moments in our lives are all that remains of those long-gone moments, as the memories themselves fade.

It is interesting to look at posed photographs of people throughout time.  Have you ever noticed that in posed shots taken in the early days of photography people never smiled?  These photographic portraits were invariably serious.  People would stand straight and stare right at the camera.  There was a certain dignity to these early photo portraits.  I used to assume that people didn’t smile because it took a good long time to set up the camera, and nobody could keep a smile plastered on his face that long.  But, then again, after everything was set up and all was ready, just before the camerman was going to push the button (or squeeze the whatsit), couldn’t he then have said “smile”?  Perhaps people didn’t smile for pictures back then because their concept of a photo was different from ours today.  Perhaps the taking of a photograph, the recording of one’s physical being for all time, was considered a serious matter.  Which brings up a question I’ve wondered about for a long time:  Why do we want to be smiling in all the pictures we’re in?

One possible reason might be that most people think they look their best when they’re smiling.  A pretty smile makes a pretty face — or some such sentiment.  And there is a large dose of vanity in picture-taking for most of us.  Perhaps also people think they should be forever captured on film looking happy.  If photographs are a visual record of who we’ve been and what we’ve been doing, maybe people want to make sure that the record shows that they were happy, goddammit, and that they enjoyed doing whatever they did — whether or not that was actually always the case.  And that’s the odd thing about the way we take photos nowadays.  We are creating a visual record, but it’s a falsified record.  It’s a record of how we want to have been, rather than a record of how we actually were.  Granted, on many of the occasions that someone or other decided must be photographically recorded for posterity, we (hopefully) were happy; but, of course, on many occasions we probably were not.

But perhaps “falsified” is too negative a word.  After all, it’s understandable that people would not want visual records of their moments of anguish or despair or anger, or even just simple discomfort.  If, at a party or wedding or other shindig at which we should be filled with good cheer we are instead filled with some other less positive feelings (such as the desire to be curled up in bed with a good book rather than be at that shindig), well, we wouldn’t exactly want that recorded for all time. In fact, it is not a visual record of who we’ve been so much as with whom and where we’ve been that we seem to be aiming for.  It is perhaps a matter of privacy.  And that forever smile, that photo face, is perhaps a kind of mask.  It allows us to show people that we were with such-and-such people doing this-and-that, but it doesn’t allow them to see what we were actually feeling at the time.  That’s private.

There’s a certain deception in doing this, of course.  But the ability to carry out such little acts of deception probably evolved as a beneficial means of self-protection.  The tribes of people who did not have this ability probably died out ages ago.  Why I didn’t die out too is the mystery, because, as I noted above, I lack this ability.  I have no photo face.  What shows on my face is often pretty much what I’m feeling at the time, even though I do try to do what everyone else does.  I try to have a photo face, but I’m pretty awful at it.  The trouble is, I’m almost pathologically honest, and putting on a photo face feels deceptive and makes me uncomfortable.  Maybe this says something good about me — that I cannot be deceitful.  But that good trait doesn’t get recorded in pictures.  What gets recorded instead are the images of the various failed attempts to do what other people seem to do so effortlessly — to give the camera a great smile.  It’s sort of like watching Pavlov’s dog before he became conditioned (although I suspect the dog took less time to learn his trick than me).

Oh well.  My cross to bear.  Maybe the next time I take a photo in which I’m looking off to the side or in the midst of forming some mouth-contorting word or in some other such unflattering position, people will look at it and think, “Wow.  What a neat person she must be.  Someone who doesn’t march to the same drummer as the rest of us Pavlovian types.”  Well, … maybe … but … naah.


Note: Image obtained from Wikimedia Commons.  This image has been released into the public domain. See


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