Who likes to have their picture taken? Movie stars? Celebrities? Egotists? I can think of only a handful who enjoy being captured by an objective eye in a permanent way. Many of us are shy around a camera, smiling too broadly or not enough, opening our eyes as if we’ve been poked, or squinting as if we’re in the sun even though we’re indoors. Let’s face it: allowing yourself to be captured on film, or even with a cellphone, is difficult.
A group shot isn’t bad, where no one looks their best anyway, and someone will undoubtedly have his eyes closed. A nature shot helps, as you can focus on the background. One with your adorable dogs is probably best of all, as no one really pays attention to you.
However, I had to bite the bullet last week and have a professional photographer pin me to the wall. The photo I had on both my website and my last book jacket was wildly out of date, taken when I was fifty. Every time I used it I felt like a fraud. One reader and fan wrote me to say “you age very well” when he learned I was sixty-three, and I knew that he made the comment only because he was unknowingly looking at the Linda of thirteen years ago. In some way, I was hiding behind that old younger photo. Plain and simple, I needed a new representation: me now.
But there was the experience of the past looming in my memory. The guy who was to take the photo for the book jacket of Half in Love was napping when I arrived at his house for my appointment. When he came downstairs he remarked, “Oh yeah, you’re the realtor.” Dismay rendered me silent for a moment. A formulaic pose with a practiced smile was exactly the sort of head shot I didn’t want.
After reminding him that I was a writer, I followed him out to his driveway, where he had a white paper background set up as an ersatz studio. He proceeded to take shot after shot while I sat there feeling excruciatingly uncomfortable as the minutes passed, and then even had me stretch out on one hip in a seductive pose, which I loathed when he took it and loathed when I received it. I am no more a sex kitten than a realtor. In the end, he managed to snap one shot when I was smiling and looking pretty–although it didn’t seem much like the “real me,” as I wasn’t relaxed. Big surprise.
This time around, I asked the circle of authors who form an internet group to which I belong if anyone knew of a simpatico photographer. I got back ten recommendations, all for the same woman. I forced myself to call her, and we talked on the phone for an hour. She was warm and genuine, and seemed interested in me and in what I do. She even went onto my website to look at my books and newsletters. I described my aversion to being captured on film and she told me she specialized in people who were camera shy.
To make me more comfortable, she came to my home. What an improvement over sitting in your photographer’s driveway! She, too, took photo after photo, but the difference was that she engaged me throughout the four hour session by talking about life. In this way, she relaxed me. Thank you, Irene Young (website below).
I just received about ninety photos from her in an email. Some are serious, some laughing, some shy, some bold, some flirtatious, some even look as if I am thinking of a private joke. They all make me look attractive, maybe even pretty, despite my age. My husband helped me make a selection that Irene will take to her darkroom to work on. But as he and I paused over one we liked in particular, he asked me an interesting question: “are you going to have her photoshop your wrinkles out?”
I looked at it again. It is true that a fine network of wrinkles surround my eyes, and a few line my cheeks, and others dimple the edges of my mouth. I considered his question for a long moment.
I’d never had a role model for growing old–either gracefully or awkwardly. My mother died when she was forty-four, still slender, with just a few crow’s feet that crinkled when she laughed. I never knew her as a woman who’d had gravity work its way on her body and face. What would she have done with the question my husband had asked me? I really didn’t know.
I admit to being vain. In the past, I have even gone to the dermatologist to treat these very same wrinkles with Botox and fillers. All that effort probably made me look five years younger than I actually was, but I gave up these temporary stopgaps a while back.
“If I take the wrinkles out,” I said to him, slowly, feeling tempted despite my good intentions, “I might as well use the old photo. And isn’t what I really want a photo that’s honest? One that looks like me now?”
I remembered then what the singer Jim Morrison said: “I like a man who wears his soul on his face.” In this day and age, the same should apply to a woman. I asked myself if I couldn’t be as brave as Virginia Woolf or Anjelica Huston, or others who have borne the camera’s scrutiny with aplomb.
My soul is more than evident on my face in all Irene’s handiwork. Her photos may give away my age–but, more importantly, they capture the essence of me, complete with all the trouble and the joy I’ve experienced during my lifetime. My wrinkles are part of who I am at sixty-three. And so, despite vanity and the temptation to remove them, they will stay as a testament to that. No airbrushing allowed.
The photo I choose for my website will be up shortly on my consulting page, where you can check it out. I hope it portrays my warmth and my emotional availability. Someday soon it will be on a book jacket as my author photo. It’s time to put myself out there, hoping I look my best–but being happy with whatever my best turns out to be. And I’m finally comfortable with that.
Irene Young’s website: ireneyoungfoto.com