Say “Cheese”

Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl"

I have a great smile.  You may be shocked at the immodesty of that statement, but of all the things I believe about myself it is that one thing – I have a great smile.  I have high cheekbones, full lips, straight teeth and dimples.  When I smile, my eyes crinkle up and I can make them twinkle.  Yes, twinkle.  That’s normally not an adjective that I want anywhere near me, but there you have it.  I have the kind of smile that people drop-by to see, “Beth, I just came by for your smile.” And I’ll flash them a grin.  “You just made my day.”

This also happens to be my “fake” smile as Mom often referred to  it – a combination of my Mother’s dimply smile enhanced by some of my Father’s traits.  My “real” smile is more primal and fortunately there are few pictures that capture it.  In fact the way you can distinguish: if I am glowing, that’s the fake smile.  If I look like I’m going to eat your face, that’s the real smile.

You’re probably thinking, “that’s all well and good that you believe you have a great smile – real or fake, but where are we going? Great hair next? Nice toe nails? C’mon!”  It starts with a rant.

from the Lib. of Congress

I recently posted a self-portrait on Facebook.  I’d been playing around with an application that was new to me on the iPhone called Hipstamatic.  It’s a camera application that adds interesting effects to digital photographs – like what you’d see if you still had one of those old plastic cameras (think Holga).  For a long time now I’ve been admiring a friend’s photography who has been creating some remarkable things with this tool. So, with my iPhone in hand, I wanted to give it a “shot” (the pun was mostly unintentional).  I ran around the house flipping settings, taking photos of our fuzzy family and finally turned the camera around on myself.  The first photo was interesting.   The expression on my face is one of concern with a hint of uncertainty as I was trying to find where the button was to take the photo.  It also looked nothing like me, but exactly like me if that makes sense.  The colors and shadows make a few interesting negative comments about my face – things that I like to believe go unseen, but despite it being a wholly wretched and unflattering picture of me, I really like it (not enough to share it here, mind you).  The next photo I took, I was leaning over the camera, hair falling around my face with another serious look.  It’s the face I typically wear when I’m not smiling.  The one I have on as I’m typing.  The light is playing off a mirror in the bathroom, but I don’t think most people would guess it was the middle of the night or that I was inside.  I liked this photo, uploaded it to Facebook and made it my profile shot.

Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother"

The next day, I got the first reaction to my profile photo.  “Your face scares me.  The one you posted.”  Pardon? My “face” scares you?  “Are you going through some dark period? Why can’t you smile?  I’m really scared of that picture.”  I found myself defending it.  “I like it.  I am playing around with an app.  I like the effects.”  “Really, because it scares me.  I like the one where you’re smiling better.”  Well, at that point you might as well say, “Beth, please never change the new profile photo,” because let’s face it, that conversation guaranteed a long run of that photo.

Let’s put aside for a moment that this completely plays into some “ugly” issues I may nurture and turn it into what I find interesting in photography – portraits.  Sometime in the early 20th century camera technology advanced to the point where people no longer had to sit completely still for long periods of time in order to get a clear photograph.  Then along came a miserable man who invented the phrase “say cheese” and thus began our long-standing marching orders to always smile whenever a camera flashed.  It’s a shame.  I think in that instant, photos of people became a whole lot less interesting.  People replaced character with caricatures.

Some of the most beautiful photos I’ve seen are captured when people are in their most candid moments, whether they’re pensive, overwrought, or even genuinely amused – when they’re not “faking” an emotion simply because someone long ago dictated that smiling is the only acceptable emotion to convey on film.  Personally, I lean towards black and white portraits like Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph of the migrant farmer during the Dust Bowl.  In the simplest of interpretations, Florence Owens Thompson’s face conveys the hardship of the Great Depression; it’s poignant.  A smile, in that moment, would have completely detracted from the photo.  The kind of thing you find in a yellowing photo album and it would have been wholly inappropriate for what the photographer was trying to convey; it would no longer be a story.

So, while I can smile and smile beautifully, it’s not what interests me.  It’s fake.  And somedays I’m just not in the mood to ape a smile. I just want to see a picture of me.  I’m not going to waste time trying to discern what makes others feel more comfortable in a photograph of me.  Oh, and I still like the picture.

Big Blue Mess "Self Portrait"

One thought on “Say “Cheese”

  1. Seth A says:

    Personally, hate, hate, hate posed photos, especially those crowd pleasing fake grin types of photos when the photographer admonishes the subjects to “smile’. Bleh.

    The candid photo is thousands of times more interesting. A candid self-portrait is a difficult feat to pull off, but it is possible, as in your Hipstamatic posted above. I really liked your other self portrait too, though it is less flattering, and I can see why you haven’t posted it here.

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