One year, I spent New Year's Eve with a relatively new boyfriend and a group of his friends. There were six of us--not all couples going into the night, not all particularly close, but by night's end we would have appeared to an outsider as lifelong friends. The night was shrouded in the carpe diem attitude that often accompanies New Year's celebrations--I'm on the brink of something important, This will be my year, &c.. As we progressed from a party at home to dinner in a restaurant, the evening was well documented in photographs posed with the requisite signifiers of celebration--party hats and metallic blowers--against a backdrop of tinsel garlands tacked to the walls like sine waves.
These days, when a photograph is taken, there is immediate gratification. You can see what has been captured so quickly that there isn't much time for emotion to build up, the sense of elation or disappointment you anticipate in checking the image within the small rectangle against the emotional perception in your mind. When I snap a shot of one of my daughters, simultaneous to the moment my finger presses the button, she flies toward me faster than light hits the digital sensor and squeals, "Let me see!"
But the event I'm referring to occurred prior to the prevalence of digital cameras, back in the day when you hungered after photographs as they were being developed; when, during the moment of finally picking them up, you got antsy after handing the person in the photo store your small white strip of envelope and, as he turned his back on you to flip through the bin that corresponded to your stretch of alphabet, felt an anxious excitement--the same anticipatory pleasure I feel when looking for a specific book on the shelf of a bookstore as my finger approaches the space I expect it to inhabit: Will I find it? Will I see what I'm looking for?
This particular January, however, after picking up the New Year's Eve photos and flipping madly through them on the icy sidewalk outside the photo store, I was struck by the way I was, in the bulk of the pictures, out of focus.
I thought of Deconstructing Harry, thought back to the only part of the film I'd retained, when, in an enacted short story written by the title character (Woody Allen), a crew working on a film set tries to adjust the camera's lens because one of the actors (Robin Williams) is out of focus. They soon realize it's not the camera that is the problem, but the actor himself. "I don't know how to tell you this," the director says, first beating around then bush, then giving it to him straight, "you're out of focus." They send him home, suggesting he get some rest and do his best to "sharpen up."
Robin Williams enters his apartment, and, in response to his wife's surprise, explains, "At first they thought it was the camera... then, then it was me! ...They sent me home. It's so humiliating."
What I saw in those New Year's eve photographs, in my blurred image, was that I was in the margin of the photographer's perspective--and, because my boyfriend did much of the picture-taking, there was another kind of documentation that I hadn't anticipated: his emotional perspective on me at the time. I was not in the center of his field of vision. Being out of focus does, indeed, feel a lot like being sent home, or at least relegated to the sidelines.
A camera on auto focus will make the center of the frame crisp and everything in the margins blurry, much as, to a person taking part in a conversation between multiple people but centering on one, the words of the marginal figures may sound muted, fall in with clinking spoons and frothing cappuccino machines, the whine of car brakes, or the interruptive beeps of a truck backing up--become, in other words, background noise. The burning sensation I felt cross my face as I looked at the pictures that cold January day was like the humiliation Robin Williams' character says he feels in being out of focus. Each of us wants to be the protagonist in our life, not an extra or a background blur.
When looking at a photograph, you can learn a lot by focusing not on the subject of the picture --you, a child, a cat--but the representation of the subject and what it tells you about the emotions and psychology of the person doing the representing. In other words, when looking at a picture of yourself, you'd maximize the amount of information gathered by searching beyond what you look like to how you have been represented by the person behind the lens.
In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus famously tells his daughter, "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along better with all kinds of folks." The trick, as he explains it, is that "[y]ou never really know a person until you see things from his point of view...climb into his skin and walk around in it." An imaginative leap into another person's state of mind, helps you to feel his feeling as a way of better understanding it.
Mimicking the expression on another's face, Edgar Allen Poe explains in his story, "The Purloined Letter," will allow you to feel the emotion to which an outward expression corresponds. Poe demonstrates this technique through the genius detective, Dupin, who can instantaneously apprehend a person's state of mind. Dupin, as a boy, learned this skill from another child whose "success at the game of ‘even and odd' attracted universal admiration." The game involves guessing whether one's opponent is holding in his hand an even or an odd number of marbles. Because the game is played in rounds, the trick is to try to guess whether the player will change the parity from round to round or keep it the same. The boy's method of reasoning was to project himself into the shoes of his opponent to predict his move, as he explained to Dupin:
‘When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.'
The idea is that if one matches the outward expression of another person, the emotions that initially led to that expression will follow in a reverse direction.
In other words, if you want to know what another person thinks of you, "fashion the expression on [your] face, as accurately as possible in accordance with the expression on his" and take note of how you feel. You can also do this with body language, actions, or speech. If someone looks over your shoulder while speaking to you, look over their shoulder while speaking to them. How do you feel? What does it tell you about how they feel? If they use wide eyes for emphasis but do not couple the wideness with a smile, widen your eyes without smiling as you speak. How do you feel? Emphatic? Annoyed by the other person's stupidity? Hostile?
I used to perform this mimicry of expression with phone messages, imitate another person's pattern of response. If someone didn't call me back for three days, I would wait three days to return his call. Then I'd ask myself how it felt to wait that long. Usually, the answer would be that I'd forgotten about him, pushed him to the back of my mind on a low, dusty to-do shelf where--and this is the startling aspect-- I'd find myself, right where he'd placed me the week before, where I'd perceived myself being placed in a split-second perception that hadn't made its way to consciousness.
But wait: if the perception I rediscover in mimicking another's expression was mine in the first place, am I really figuring out how they feel about me, or how I feel they feel about me?
A photo with you as its subject will also express how you feel about the person snapping it--or, more precisely, how you feel about how you imagine they feel about you. That feeling will play into your expression: upon catching their perception of you in the split second that the photo was taken, you may have taken your position--looked the part that they cast you into--resisted, receded, or had some other reaction that is visually traceable in your image.
This method of incorporating into your expression what you imagine to be the other person's response was termed addressivity by M.M. Bakhtin, a language theorist. We anticipate our addressee's reception of what we are on the brink of uttering and construct our utterance with that response in mind. In other words, we are always taking our audience into account, picking up on flashing split-second cues from others and responding to them at some level of consciousness by editing what we had set out to say. Our expressions, in short, operate simultaneously from the inside out and the outside in.
This is why you may feel like a brilliant, charismatic conversationalist before a person whose response encourages elaboration, and a stilted dud before someone who seems bored by what you are saying. If the attention of the person you're talking to seems to wander, the sense that what you are saying is not interesting will likely cause you to break off or back away from what you were in the midst of conveying. The more you receive affirming cues, on the other hand, the more likely you are to step into that affirmed position and elaborate, become increasingly animated.
The photograph, in other words, will tell you just as much about what you imagined the other person felt about you, as it will about their actual feeling. What's more, how you imagined they felt in that moment may or may not have corresponded to how they did, in fact, feel. The most compelling revelation that accompanies examining snapshots is likely to be the exposure of what you want or don't want (and I'm talking here, as Freud did, "in the language of the oldest--the oral--instinctual impulses [in which] the judgment is: ‘I should like to eat this', or ‘I should like to spit it out'") and whether or not you felt you had it in the instant the photograph memorialized.
Ultimately, what those New Year's Eve photographs told me was that I wasn't at ease with my new boyfriend and his friends, but, at the same time, wanted to fit in with them. The out of focus images of me might have reflected, at least in part, my vacillation between feeling out of place and wanting to belong. That ambivalence--I should like to eat this, I should like to spit it out--could have acted as a kind of psychic blur that left visible traces in my expression.
The plight of the character Robin Williams plays in Deconstructing Harry is resolved in a doctor's office when the physician hands the actor's wife and children special glasses that will help bring Robin Williams' character into focus, modify how they see him. Harry's therapist says, in reference to the story's ending, "You expect the world to adjust to the distortion you've become."
It would be nice, wouldn't it? If we could hand others' glasses to see us through, manage their perception of us? Yet the reality is, of course, that, as much as we'd like to, we can't control how others see us. We can't even control how their perspective on us--at least our sense of it--controls how we see ourselves.
In many ways, not liking a picture of yourself is another way of not liking your interaction with the world--or at least the smaller world that brought that picture into existence. The sense of insecurity that ensues is likely what the new wave of teenagers avoid in adopting a "kissy face" in group shots or profile pictures. Contorting your face into a prototypic expression can act as a kind of emotional airbrushing with the same benefit as its cost: you won't have to feel --or face --what you're feeling.