»  The Straggler, No. 14

December 8, 2003

  Image Conscious


Having asked Mr. Langton if his father and mother had sat for their pictures, which he thought it right for each generation of a family to do, and being told they had opposed it, he said, "Sir, among the anfractuosities of the human mind, I know not if it may not be one, that there is a superstitious reluctance to sit for a picture."

       — Boswell, Life of Johnson

The photographer's studio was in a suburban mall twenty miles away. We had to get there early, before the mall was officially open, because pets are banned during regular business hours. My wife's great discovery, you see, was a studio that will include your pet in a family portrait. Boris, our terrier mutt, is now twelve years old, older than either of the kids. They have grown up with him; he is a senior member of the family; it has not seemed right to have a studio photograph of our family taken if Boris cannot be included. This, at any rate, has been my standing argument against the idea of a family portrait, an idea my wife has been rather keen on, myself — see below — very much less so. Then she heard about this place. They take pets, too! You just have to get there before the mall opens! Suddenly my argument was without force or merit. So there we all were, peering through a drop-down metal grille at Bay Shore Mall early on Sunday morning, waiting to be let in by whichever security guard was in cahoots with the studio.

In the matter of portraiture I am at one with the Langtons. There is nothing superstitious about my own reluctance, though. It is simply that the camera is unkind to me. In person I am, as anyone will tell you, a handsome and charming fellow with a winning smile. I have penetrating dark eyes passed down (according to my mother) from a Spanish ancestor in the remote past — a fine lady who sailed over to England in a ship full of servants. My physique is of the lean, long-limbed English-aristocratic style — think Sir Edmund Hillary. If not quite movie-star material, I consider myself perfectly presentable.

In photographs, however, all this is cruelly lost. Who is he, this leering doofus with Alfred E. Neuman ears, round shoulders, and receding chin, squinting out at the world over eye-bags the size of mule panniers? Can't he afford a decent haircut? Doesn't he know how to sit? Is that supposed to be a smile, or what?

(Part of the problem here is that I cannot smile to order. It is said of ex-President Clinton that he can weep out of one eye. While I can admire this skill, I cannot emulate it. A request to give physical expression to any emotion I am not actually experiencing flips me into deer-in-headlights mode. What seems astonishing to me is that professional photographers, even wrinkled veterans who must have decades of experience in their craft, cannot grasp the fact that anyone should be so deficient in emotional mimicry. "Come on, smile. You can do better than that, I know you can." No, I can't, you impertinent fool, just take the wretched photograph and let me get out of here.)

As badly as I fare in front of still cameras, I am simply terrible on TV. When you do a TV show nowadays the studio gives you a videotape of your appearance. I made the mistake of watching one of these once. At first I wondered if they had got my clip mixed up with some other fellow's — some mumbling, shifty-eyed creep with gray teeth, a swindler finally cornered by the network's best investigative team after a career of bilking widows out of their savings via fraudulent home-improvement schemes. Then I recognized the tie, which I had spent some minutes picking out as being the one least likely to distract viewers from the enchantment of my address. I consulted a neighbor who I knew had watched the show. How had I done? There was an ominous pause. "Well, John," he said at last, "you are allowed to look into the camera, you know …" I have now made eight or nine TV appearances, but I cannot help noticing that I have never been invited back for a second appearance on any show.

In these respects I believe I am a throwback. If you watch movie news clips from 40 or 50 years ago, the non-professionals on screen are presentationally incompetent. They fidget, look everywhere but at the lens, trip over their tongues. Nowadays, by contrast, your man in the street, interrupted in his daily round by a film crew seeking his opinion on some political issue, or an eyewitness account of some nearby calamity, is more poised and articulate than Walter Cronkite. Some things we learn individually; some things we learn as a species, like pigeons knowing to get out of the way of automobiles. I am the pigeon who gets flattened.

This particular episode ended less badly than most. The photographer was brisk and did not demand more than I can give. Boris behaved himself decorously, as becomes the maturity of his years. The kids stopped assaulting each other for just long enough to register on photographic emulsion, and my wife was her composed self, picture and person identical in sweet integrity. I am going to do my best to like the results. At the kids' urging I have scanned them into cyberspace, so our collective image is now part of the great ballooning mass of binary digits by which our whole world is being captured, logged, recorded, in a form that might in theory last till the end of time. What possible use or interest my picture might have for posterity, I cannot imagine, but there it is in all its cruel misrepresentation, should any 41st-century inquirer seek it. I am a squinting doofus with a bad haircut, for all eternity.