Why Does Every Dude Make That Same Face in Every Photo?

Answers for modern men.
April 17 2013 12:45 PM

Why Does Every Dude Make That Same Face in Every Photo?

A gentleman’s guide to the selfie.

(Continued from Page 1)

This is to say that the raised eyebrow is an unfortunate manifestation of a healthy tendency. When considering the current media climate—the nexus of consumer technology, the global media business, and your idea of who you are—it is good to cast a skeptical glance. Giving advice about selfies to Nightline, fashion photographer and reality-show beauty arbiter Nigel Barker says, “Don’t pose.” But how can you not, if your ambition is not to merely model a look but to represent the only soul you have?

I am highly sympathetic to the passage in Camera Lucida where Roland Barthes reflects on being forced to pose by the awareness of the presence of the lens, confessing, “I don’t know how to work upon my skin from within”:

“Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing,’ I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image. This transformation is an active one. …

“I decide to ‘let drift’ over my lips and in my eyes a faint smile which I mean to be ‘indefinable,’ in which I might suggest, along with the qualities of my nature, my amused consciousness of the whole photographic ritual: I lend myself to the social game, I pose, I know I am posing, I want you to know that I am posing, but (to square the circle) this additional message must in no way alter the precious essence of my individuality: what I am, apart from effigy."

The arched eyebrow is a contemporary American edition of Barthes’ sly smile (with its air of the floating sign of the Cheshire Cat). Same dynamic, just less subtle, like its time and place. Perhaps this current period of its prevalence is just a phase. I mean that it could be a phase of the culture; the way that human nature and technology are molding each other, soon Americans will be thoroughly acculturated to performing for the camera with every breath. I mean, also, that it is a phase of the guys’ lives; the guys who are twentysomething now are the same as twentysomething guys have always been—unseasoned, still waiting for their faces to accumulate enough depth of experience to communicate an earnestly manful expression.

Back in my twentysomethings, those of us who’d developed an intuitive mistrust of the camera didn’t have the luxury of being “ironic” by raising an eyebrow. Or maybe our self-irony was of a different kind. In any case, we raised two eyebrows, and we did not feel that the facial gesture was voluntary. Rather, we were self-conscious about being on the business end of a recording device whose importance cannot be underestimated, and we were looking to place some distance between our selves and our shells, returning the glare of the lens with a leery and watchful eye. I have had a hard time shaking the habit, the evidence below will indicate.

Upon receiving Anastasia’s question, the Gentleman Scholar sketched a plan to model examples (and counterexamples) of how to struggle to comport yourself for a picture. As I say, there is no longer any excuse not to have one good crisp portrait of yourself available at the touch of a finger. (You would count yourself well prepared if it were easily cropped to serve as a passport photo.) This portrait should be professional in both senses: appropriate to a business-class context and created by a photographer who lives by her eye. I called up my friend Christi, went over for pancakes with her family, and we took a couple hundred pictures, with the idea of illustrating the Do’s and Don’ts of what to do with your eyebrows and the rest of that mug of yours when faced with a lens. Also, I wanted to find my literary persona an image more consistent with the Gentleman Scholar’s tone; some commenters had found my current photo rather too rustic in tone, with one even indicating that its mood put him in the mind of Norman Mailer enjoying a post-hunt Glenmorangie.

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Photo by Christina Paige

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The Don’ts came with ease. A tight smile (as in photo 1) presents the appearance of excessive cheekiness, and the sort of sidelong glance that suggests an airy disregard for the camera (photo 2) risks overcorrection in its air of insouciant self-regard. And don’t forget to have the photographer or another trusted source review the pictures with you. The picture you like because it captures an authentic moment of, say, question-eyed necktie-fidgeting (photo 3), may out of context read as ironic primping. But photo 4 demonstrated the Do: Relax your body but not quite your gaze, square your shoulders, and greet the camera with your chin set at a slight angle.

Photo 4 is the one sort of picture a guy needs in his repertoire—respectable and straightforward while projecting the illusion of personality in consequence of a practiced attempt at what Tyra calls the smize. The Gentleman Scholar was highly tempted to adopt it as his new author photo—but disappointed that it failed to catch the certain snazziness to which his prose pretends. He put the question on the back burner and went over to the bookshelf, where he came across a picture of himself that he liked.

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson

Courtesy of Christopher Bonanos

It was a Polaroid made by the guy who very literally wrote the book on Polaroid, whose name is Christopher Bonanos. The Gentleman Scholar had initiated a conversation with the camera-toting author because he was then fascinated with the ability of instant photography to create a social context, to promote a childlike sense of play, and to exert a concrete analog charm amid all the day’s digital chimera. He is now struck by the book’s mention of an old Polaroid jingle—“It’s more than a camera, it’s almost alive”—and its relevance to the raised-eyebrow pose: a deliberate, forgivable act of assessing an omnipresent animal that’s every moment swallowing the world and spitting out our images.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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