Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No Flash Photography, Please

There are certain people I expect to have cultivated a talent, one that involves not staring, fish-mouthed and gaping, into a camera lens: folks like models, actors, politicians, and Galen Weston, who are professionally in front of the camera all the time. For the rest of us schmucks, however, it can be a challenge to figure out how to live in a world with cameras and not look deranged.

I suffer from being relatively attractive in person and looking like a pale, bloated mess when caught on film. I realize (although it sometimes takes some work to remember) that those who are being photographed on the red carpets of the world generally show up having showered and been made up and tanned and so on, and that a huge part of their job description is to actually be good-looking. So they get waxed, buffed, trimmed, dyed, shellacked, propped up on spindly high heels or receive a carefully mussed hairdo, and then they go out and have their pictures taken.

Adding to the mind-fuckery is the fact that many of these photographed people really are genetically blessed: Angelina Jolie, who, despite owning an Oscar, really does nothing for me with her snooty, slitty-eyed acting style, is an example of a person who is gorgeous, who could be famous just for being pretty, but who also happens to be famous for doing stuff (acting, adopting the United Colours of Bennetton advertising campaigns) where being pretty is a corollary. She's not the only one. All the models-turned-actors out there were first trained is being really, really good-looking, and then in emoting. So we get all these people in magazines and on websites who have been trained in the dark arts of looking really good, pretending to be civilians not experienced with being professionally attractive.

Like 90% of the population, I am not what you might consider a photogenic lady. I'm not fishing for compliments - I think most people are better looking when they're talking animatedly about something they love. However, the odds of a camera flash capturing us in a moment when we're being passionate, funny, smart and pretty aren't really all that high. It can be disheartening to wake up from a night out, and have the photos reveal that the camera flash rendered my shirt transparent, or that my eye makeup read more as "blind Russian whore" than "classy smoky eye," not to mention all the spastic facial expressions I wear during a typical night out at the bar/Icycle races/karaoke place/Legion.

I used to be cute enough to be a child model. I was young, a baby, and it was in Japan. I doubt that I would have been adorable enough to break into the North American market, but my platinum hair and anti-social attitude charmed the Japanese casting directors. Children make ideal models because they generally have no concept of what a photographer is doing, and that not doing it will make for a weird photo. There's a catalog shot from the late '80s: a gaggle of kids on a dock, modeling swimsuits. According to my mom, the photographer told the models to "pretend you're asleep!" Since I, since birth, have been a stomach sleeper, I naturally flopped face-down on the dock, leaving the frustrated picture man and my harried mother trying to cajole me into a face-up pose like the other kidlets. The catalog went to print with a line of perfectly posed "sleeping" four year olds and then me, at the end, looking like I had maybe drowned.

We live in a world of digital cameras and Facebook, so our lives are documented and archived. Even the unflattering pictures, the ones where we accidentally give ourselves double chins, or our smiles are all gums, or our hair looks like we styled it with a Dustbuster, are out there. I look back at some of my photos, marvelling at how my weight has yo-yo'ed, wondering why I ever thought dying my hair was a smart move, rolling my eyes at my glasses...it's a wonder I haven't seppuku'ed myself over the sheer embarrassment of some of those frames.

So what's a non-photogenic person to do? Well, the phrase "build a bridge and get over it" comes to mind, but it's hard to think that way when you're trapped in the self-loathing cycle that feeling unattractive can trigger. The magazines and websites will encourage a girl to try for photogenicness: clean, brushed hair (I'm bad at that), a confidence boosting outfit, sassy eye makeup, and not getting so drunk you end up sloppily "posed" facedown in the backseat of a gypsy cab. The basics, really.

But pictures can be the best way to remember fun bike rides, or sweet moments with ex-boyfriends, or how much fun my friends are. There's a whole series of photo captions that make me laugh ("Let's look like we're lost in a foreign airport!"), even though my friends and I weren't 100% successful at pulling off our own art direction. And remembering that the point of the picture for us non-professionally attractive people is not how good we look, but how good we feel, can be liberating. If I ever find myself on a red carpet, you'd better believe that I will have been shined and painted to within an inch of my life...but since the carpets I usually find myself on are of the "friend's living room" variety, I think I'll just focus on having a good time.


  1. Photography is hard, portrait photography especially -and for exactly the reasons you point out. It is, however, not not impossible to capture pleasing and evocative images of people who, in the average facebook photo at least, do not come off as "photogenic".

    It's genuinely important to recognize that the easiest way to make someone appear un-photogenic is to take a direct-flash lit picture of them, even worse when it's unposed, or posed in such a way or at such a time that the subject felt awkward and self-conscious. The most important parts of portrait photography are lighting and making your subject feel at ease.

    I think it's sensible to hypothesize that one reason there is something like a class of "photogenic" people, other than the reasons of extreme universal aesthetic appear and makeup, is that there is something like a re-inforcing confidence/non confidence loop. If I see pictures of myself where I don't like how I look, this will make me feel awkward and unhappy when I'm having my picture taken - which makes the pictures worse - which confirms my belief that I'm "unphotogenic".

    I'm not a particularly great photographer myself, but I have seen work by photographers of people I know who are not "photogenic", and yet look great in this specific set of photographs. And it has something to do with producing the set of conditions you describe above:

    " I think most people are better looking when they're talking animatedly about something they love. However, the odds of a camera flash capturing us in a moment when we're being passionate, funny, smart and pretty aren't really all that high."

    Aside from what I've already said about direct lit flash portraits, it's very difficult to take a great picture of someone when they are talking (their mouth usually comes off as strange looking). But I would agree that people look their best when they are feeling passionate, funny, smart, pretty - in other words, confident.

    Phillip Greenspun (http://philip.greenspun.com/), original creator of the now awful photo.net website, wrote somewhere that the most important tool a portrait photographer has is not their camera, or lenses, or flashes, or backdrops - but their stereo (music can help set the mood for a portrait session, put people at ease).

    There are certainly different, but equally successful, approaches to great portrait photography. One approach says you need to take at least 25 pictures of someone to get one photogenic expression. On the other hand, there are portrait photographers who use large format polaroid film costing 100$ an exposure - and who take a maximum of two portraits of their subject in a half hour session. (One of which produced Greenspun's favorite photo of himself: http://philip.greenspun.com/images/pcd2182/philip-and-alex-big.jpg)

  2. That is such an excellent comment. I do feel awkward hen I have my photo taken - I feel like I'm holding my mouth just so, which makes me feel so self-conscious about it - and as a result, posed pictures of me are just disastrous, generally. But I love action shots and group shots and feel more appealing when it shows folks doing something, instead of just standing there looking as though I'm waiting for the photographer to prank me.

    I think what I need is a photoshoot with someone who's actually trained themselves to make their subject feel comfortable, instead of mass digishots of parties where I'm half in the bag. Somehow, I think those photos might be more successful.

  3. I am guilty of taking a ton of photos and always forget that a lot of people don't like their photo being taken. I have thousands of photos from the past decade of hanging out with friends and family. Individual photos aren't always flattering, but the collection as a whole brings back so much information in terms of the mood and context, what we were doing, who was part of my life etc. It's not about looking good in photos, which I think perhaps has changed a bit since facebook etc because so many people are now conscious that others will see photos as opposed to being kept on a shelf in a family photo album.

    When I look back at pictures of myself from 10 years ago, at that time I was very self-conscious about how I looked and wasn't a big fan of photos. When I look at those again now, I think I look pretty good. I don't know if this mindset changes over time for others as well?