I just got back from Bennington College, where I spent the past few days taking pictures of new students in the MFA writing program from which I graduated three years ago. In exchange for my services as a photographer, I get to catch up with old friends, talk literature, listen to lecture, and dance. And in between the lectures, parties, and mealtimes, I track down new students and faculty to take their portrait for the picture board.
It’s not an easy job. I feel enormous responsibility when I take portraits. I’m aware of having the power to capture people’s appearance, and I don’t want to abuse that power by recording them in ways they don’t want to be seen.
Not being a professional photographer, I am hyper-aware of the surreal interaction between photographer and subject: while focusing on the exterior – the way the light falls on a face and sparkles in the eyes, the way a face is framed by the background, the angle at which a head turns to the camera—I try to manipulate the interior person, coaxing him or her into a more relaxed pose or a more genuine smile. I know I’m making people uncomfortable by pointing my camera at their face to capture their soul in pixels. Their discomfort makes me uncomfortable, but I feel obliged to keep shooting until I’ve got a picture that portrays them as I think they want to be seen. But, of course, there’s a limit to what I can do. Even in good lighting, at a flattering angle, and with intense photoshopping, I can’t revise someone’s appearance. You can’t get around it: we are our bodies, whether we like it or not.
It’s interesting to observe how differently people react to having their picture taken. Some glance at the preview screen, say “fine,” and walk away in a hurry, even if the picture shows them squinting and with lettuce between their teeth. I wonder if those are people who have so perfectly disassociated themselves from their bodies that they are willing to stick their name to anything.
And then there are people who are impossible to please, even when I think I have taken a fine portrait. Their idea of how they think they should look just doesn’t correspond with how they actually look. These are the people with wrinkled skin they think should be smooth, people with bumpy noses which they expect to be straight, full-bodied people who think they should be skinny, older people who still think of themselves as young, hearty-looking people who want to be languishing and distinguished, pale people who want to look bronzed… They’ll veto any picture I take because it doesn’t resemble their idea of how they think they should look. I took a portrait of an older woman who must have been accustomed to being considered beautiful when she was younger. But now she’s in her seventies and her skin is no longer as smooth as it may have been when she was twenty. I certainly wouldn’t consider her ugly, but she just looks her age. I took a picture of her that I thought was beautiful: her eyes are bright, and she looks intelligent and composed. “Oh my God, you can’t show this to anyone,” was her reaction, “I want you to delete this immediately!”
And then there are people who by cliché esthetics could be labeled “ugly”, but who are beautiful in the way they carry their “ugliness.” (And what is ugly and beautiful anyway?) Some people with pock-marked faces*, limp hair, buck teeth, and buttocks like down pillows – everything that by mainstream American conventions would deny them the designation of “beautiful” – have such a presence that they’re more beautiful than some of the “beautiful” people, who, with shiny hair, clear skin, symmetrical faces, and trim bodies, fuss about their appearance, and who, when photographed, want retake after retake, as if they’re models in a shoot. (Maybe they are picky because their identity is so tied to their beauty that when I don’t succeed in capturing it perfectly, they don’t recognize themselves.)
When I was younger I wanted to be ugly. I thought beautiful people couldn’t develop character because their exterior eclipsed their interior. I thought beauty is too easy, like strawberry bubblegum.
But I admit I now prefer to flatter myself in photographs, because I realize the advantage that “beauty” gives. It’s easy to pretend to want to be ugly when you’re not, but now that I’m actually getting older and beauty is becoming more elusive for me, I’m getting more attached to it.
But then again, I don’t even know how to define beauty. What others consider beautiful, I find boring. (I can’t keep track of American celebrities because to me they’re all just a blur of over-exercised abs and bland blondness.) During one of the Bennington dinners last week, someone asked me about the difference between beauty in photographs and beauty in literature. I was at a loss for an answer, because I realized I simply don’t know what beauty is.
There’s beauty that just hits us instinctively, beauty that we seem programmed to respond to: the beauty of teenagers with smooth skin and trim bodies, morning dew on a flower, a sunrise at the beach... That’s easy beauty. But transcending this, there is beauty that takes more effort: associative beauty that we create through culture and our mind; things we find beautiful because of the associations and memories they evoke.
Similarly, there are people who don’t look conventionally beautiful, but whom I think of as beautiful because I like the way they smile, or because their face reminds me of something beautiful they said, or because they remind me of someone else. My reasons for finding beauty can get so complicated (finding someone beautiful because they smell like someone I loved as a teenager because I imagined him to resemble a character from a favorite book) that I have no idea how to even make sense of my own esthetics.
Anyway, in the end, after all the careful posing, framing, and focusing, I messed up the record-keeping system for my portraits, so that “Elizabeth,” a stout redhead in her thirties, became “Anne,” a petite, middle-aged, platinum blonde, and “Patricia,” a black writer from the Midwest, became “James,” a bearded white poet from Brooklyn. I had to leave Bennington before I could realign the correct names with the correct faces. And maybe that’s for the best: now, everyone can just pick whatever face they want to connect their name to.
**Personally, I tend to find pockmarks very sexy. Maybe, it’s because I had a crush on a boy with terrible acne when I was fourteen.