I hate having my picture taken.
I know I’m not alone in this, and it’s probably for the same reason many people don’t like it. It can be summed up in this (usually dismayed) reaction: Is that what I really look like?
Until very recently, portraits were almost always created by an other. Somebody else took a good look at you and presented an image of what they saw, be it on a canvas or on film. By necessity, a portrait always was an interaction between who was seeing, and who was seen.
I’m sure back in the day, many, many people were mortified to find their double chins or lank hair documented for all to see after sitting for grueling hours in front of an artist. To avoid career suicide, most painters learned to flatter their subjects, making them look just a little younger and prettier than they really were.
(Snapchat filters aren’t really much of an innovation at all, when you think about it. Just more job security to keep us coming back to stare at ourselves.)
But here’s what is different today: the ubiquity of self-images and the rise of the self-portrait.
My family didn’t have a camera growing up. It was an event to have our picture taken, and, to be frank, it was an event I very rarely won. The flash and the uncomfortable poses, a stranger telling me to smile on command, all made to add an awkward expression to my already gangly body and dubious hair. (hello 1980s!)
You had one chance to get it right, and the bad images live on even today on the pages of yearbooks and in dusty frames in the family home.
I never got good at having my picture taken and I still have that awkwardness as soon as a camera comes out.
For other people, especially anyone who grew up in the 21st century, cameras have been everywhere, aggressively documenting their lives since the moment they were born. These cameras weren’t loaded with expensive film (or even more expensive paint and canvas), but with limitless amounts of data. A whole generation of people have had their image created thousands of times over.
Pictures aren’t a big deal. Or maybe, they’re a different kind of big deal. Because now, we control our image in a way no portrait subject ever could.
It’s the age of the hand-on-the-hip-to-look-slimmer photo. It’s the age of filters and edits and hold the camera up higher to hide your double chin.
It’s the age of the selfie.
We have a control of the image we present to the world in a way we haven’t been before. We delete and untag every image that is imperfect. We practice our smiles, figure out our best angles, and take endless pictures of us staring at ourselves in the mirror.
I don’t think one has to be familiar with the story of Narcissus to be uncomfortable with this trend. Beyond the inherent self-absorption of selfie-culture, I think it points to another critical missing element.
That reaction “Is that what I look like?” is about more than just realizing that you don’t look the way you thought you did. It’s also an awareness of the face you present to the world. A good portrait shows the way you have grown, the cares you’re experiencing. Your personality comes through in the gleam in your eye or downward turn of your mouth. It doesn’t flatter you as much as it reveals you.
A selfie is all about the you you wish you were. It is good hair and practiced smiles and disguised flaws.
But it’s not who you are. It’s not how others see you. And it’s isolating.
Portraits don’t just happen when an image is made. They happen in conversation with a good friend. In compliments and flirtation from a stranger. In the rapid back peddling of someone when they see you glower. In a portrait, you are forced to pay attention to how people see you and decide if you like it. A good portrait gives you a glimpse at the you that you cannot see.
I’m probably too old and too big a curmudgeon to ever really appreciate endless photos of grinning faces taken from an arm’s length away. But I do love a good picture of someone. Whether posed or candid, taken with finesse or just in fun, I love seeing the person I know: a little flawed, a little older, but real. Beautiful because I know the beautiful person they are, not because they know how to hide their flaws.
I like our camera culture. I like that we can take pictures easily and share them just as easily. But I wish more of us would learn the art of portraiture. Of creating images and letting images be taken of us that we may not always like, but will ultimately help us better understand the face we present when we are truly being ourselves.
I wasn’t kidding about not being so good at that whole having my picture taken thing. (And yes, I take my chopping very, very seriously)