When I was in my early twenties, my mother gave me a photo album, which contains pictures of me either by myself or with other family members. It’s a classic 1970s binder with thick, sticky sheets covered by thin plastic film. When the plastic film was peeled back, various photographs were placed on the tacky cardboard and hermetically sealed forever between the layers.
The series starts with a grainy black and white picture of me as an infant, as I’m wallowing around in a canvas bathtub in the kitchen. The tub is a wooden framed, foldable device that resembles a portable horse trough, and there I am in the shallow Ivory-soaped water, butt-side up and glancing at the camera. I have a look on my face that could either be complete surprise or a darned good impersonation of a tiny, alien creature caught taking a bath in the kitchen.
The pictures in the album are arranged chronologically and they are few, as parents didn’t take many photos back then. These scant pictures chronicle my life from shortly after birth to my high school graduation, with each picture looking gawkier than the last—a tradition that lives to this day. If my life were to be depicted solely by my photographs, people would undoubtedly walk away thinking that I had lazy eyelids and a twitch and that I learned how to smile by sticking my wet finger in an electrical socket.
I’ve taken thousands of pictures of other people, so I’m keenly aware that photographs are but 1/125 of that frozen second when the shutter clicked, so bad luck plays into some of the pictures. In my case, it seems to haunt me. Take a group photo with twenty people and me, and I’m the guy who will get caught picking something out of his teeth with his tongue or blinking or who was holding his hand in a weird position. If the shot is posed and I know it’s coming, I look as if the photographer is still draped under a hood and holding explosive flash powder on a stick. I freeze in place with a psychotic stare as if it’s 1840 and a portrait still takes fifteen minutes to expose onto a large daguerreotype plate.
I know this about myself, and even though it has become an inside family joke, I can’t seem to perfect a pose that works. I can partially blame this on my generation because having our picture taken was such a rare event that it always felt awkward. I have never been able to get comfortable with it.
To put this in perspective, it’s estimated that eight hundred and eighty billion photographs are now taken annually, with anywhere between ten and seventeen percent of those being selfies. There are about ninety photos of me from infancy to eighteen. A kid born today will have that many pictures taken before they even leave the maternity ward, most of them posted to Facebook or Instagram where they will have a trending hashtag before their first diaper is changed. By the time a child can say “cheese,” they will know exactly how to pose so that they look good in pictures.
When my daughter got married almost three years ago, there was a photographer and a videographer involved—which is a good thing because most of the day was a blur. I certainly remember the moments, but as most large, important events tend to be; it was an out-of-body experience.
When my daughter and son-in-law came over with two discs full of wedding pictures, we all settled in and looked at hundreds of digital images of the day. She looked beautiful, of course, and each moment was captured with a photojournalistic perspective that made the day come alive again. My impression after looking at the pictures was exactly the same as it was at the end of the wedding day: Everybody looked happy.
Naturally—and we all do this—I looked for the pictures of myself, and sure enough, not all of them were winners. In spite of my best efforts, a few were downright funny. On the day of the wedding, I was worried about my awkward smile but I never gave much thought to my hands.
A dozen years ago, a photographer at a high school father-daughter dance was posing my daughter and me for a picture. After coaxing us into the proper position, she asked me if I could put my hands in my pockets, and this wasn’t because she wanted me to look casual. I have what most people might call workingman’s hands–large, hairy and veiny with knobby knuckles that go all which ways. They are not exactly the hands one would see in an ad for an expensive wristwatch.
Well, as we were looking at the wedding pictures, those words from that high school photographer once again rang in my ears. In a few of the photos, I look as if I’m not only ready to palm a pumpkin but crush it into dust. I’m not so sure if those will make the final wedding album.
There are a few of me that turned out OK, and I’m grateful for the nice one with my daughter, her husband and my wife—all of whom are attractive and photogenic people. There is also a series of photos that were taken in our foyer when I first saw my daughter in her wedding dress, which turned out great. There were many wonderful pictures to look through, but as we were watching the images click by on the screen, I said something negative about my photos. My daughter sweetly replied, “You look like a dad.”
This was when it hit me. I want to try, I really do, but in the end, it’s what other people see, not what I see. When I show up in one of her wedding pictures, I know that she can see past any flaws that I perceive and just see me. Her dad.
It’s how we’re remembered, not how I want to remember myself. When I look at pictures of my mom or my grandparents or of anybody I care about, I don’t see bad pictures. I see them in that moment and for a second or two, I’m back there with them.
I wish I could perfect that unflawed Ryan Reynolds People Magazine cover look, but that’s not going to happen and that’s OK. It really is. Let’s see him get away my classic “pulling hors d’oeuvre beef out of a molar with my tongue” look or the rabid kung fu grip and make it look good. That, my friends, is a talent and I’ve got that down cold.