Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Girl Woman – Age 24
Cameras have never been my thing.
For years, I didn’t even know how to smile. Seriously.
I would practice in the mirror but whatever I practiced never came out that way in my photos.
When I was in the third grade my mom told me she was sending my twin, Debbie, and me to JCPenney for portraits.
I thought I was gonna be good to go.
I was wearing my favorite red and white sailor shirt that Aunt Sarah had bought me and the dark wash jeans that snapped at the ankles. Outfit: check.
My hair would be in two “Indian” braids with a bang–a favorite style that Mommy rarely let me wear because I usually managed to end the day with more of the hair outside the braids than in. Hairstyle: check.
I practiced smiles in the mirror until I settled on one. Check.
I got to the studio and did my thing.
When the pictures came back I was a little horrified. Or at least that what my grimace, erehem smile, looked like. I had clamped my teeth together and pulled my lips away from them–kind of a grinning ear to ear type look. (I had apparently taken the phrase literally).
As usual, the camera captured an awkwardness that I wasn’t fond of. That’s why I stayed away from them when I could.
Fast forward. Grad school. A few decent pictures, plenty of bad ones too, littered the space of years since the JCPenney incident.
I decided to spend my lunch break outside my building. It was a beautiful fall day, and the Writing Center I was working in was windowless–I needed the fresh air.
Ellen, and I chatted about the previous night’s writing workshop; she munched on her usual: pretzels and diet Dr. Pepper. Squinting into the sun, I saw a guy approaching with an SLS [read: serious photographer gear] camera in hand. There were always plenty of artist types milling about here carrying all manner of toolboxes, portfolios, and cameras. So I paid him no mind. “Can I take your picture?”
I looked to Ellen pale and freckled and she looked to me head wrapped and barefaced, “He’s talking to you.”
“Oh,” I stammered for a moment in his direction. Then as I was prepared to turn suspicious he explained that he was taking photos for an upcoming gallery show. “So where is the show?” I couldn’t turn the suspicion off that easy.
He told me all about it. I bought it wholesale, looked directly into the lens: Cheese!
“Umm…” he hesitated between the first couple of snaps, “Well I liked your profile,”
Duhh. Me and Ellen giggled but quickly returned to our candid faces and pretended to talk some more as he snapped away like we were on ANTM. My leg, which had been positioned beneath me the entire time, was falling asleep, just as he thanked me for understanding and told me more about the show.
I never went to the see it.
Avoiding facing myself in the camera is quite at odds with what and how I write, though. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than honest to and on the page. Ironically, in recent years, I’ve found it increasingly more difficult to hold back than to tell all. Even my behavior is guarded, nearly private. But not my writing. Then again, that is, as James Baldwin would say, the best way to keep a secret.