Real Men Don’t Say Cheese

I refuse to smile for photos. This highly controversial stance of mine has ruffled more than a few feathers in my familyfor I wholeheartedly, full-throatedly concur with Mark Twain when he says “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.

With the ubiquity of digital cameras, photos aren’t nearly as important as they used to be, of course—but Twain’s words still retain more than sufficient truth. For I can think of nothing quite as phony, nothing quite as annoyingly cloying, as a picture of a person or persons with shit-eating grins on their faces.

Not a big believer in constant sincerity or never-ending “authenticity,” but when it comes to smiling for the camera, I’d have to say that it behooves a man to just appear as he feels. Don’t know about you, but I, like the Melancholy Dane, prefer to have that within which passeth all show.

Admittedly, this whole anti-smiling thing is a fairly bourgeois worry. I’m well aware that there are more pressing matters like war, famine, superviruses, etc. to exert one’s brain cells on. Yet: smiling for pictures is one of those seemingly superficial things that signifies much.

Now, most people would say that flashing a smile for photos simply expresses a good-hearted attempt to exhibit one’s satisfaction with the festivities transpiring around one. Humans are social creatures, after all.

Fair enough. But there’s a touchy-feeliness—a cheesiness, if you will—to saying cheese for pictures that sets off some sort of nameless existential dread within me, making me think that something’s most certainly rotten in the state of Denmark. Hamlet’s words echo in my head: “That one may smile, and smile and be a Villaine.

Not a big believer in constant sincerity or never-ending “authenticity,” but when it comes to smiling for the camera, I’d have to say that it behooves a man to just appear as he feels. Don’t know about you, but I, like the Melancholy Dane, prefer to have that within which passeth all show.

We Americans suffer from positivity-itis. We feel inclined to always put a super-upbeat, optimistic spin on almost everything—whether it’s our relationships, our careers, or our free-time activities. Historians might say it stems from the relative youth of our country and a capitalistic system that turns even our personal lives into acts of salesmanship.

But as advantageous as capitalism can be, such salesmanship should be saved for the sales floor. There’s no reason to trot it out when you’re with your nearest and dearest. Part of being an adult is knowing boundaries, and you step way out of bounds when you flash a shit-eating grin for those who know you way better than that.

And how boring a photo full of smiles is! I would argue that nothing mars and distorts the face more than a fake smile. Exhibit A: our president. The man’s got a great face, but when he wears that typical politician’s grin he does himself and our great country a disservice. Lincoln never grinned like that. And that’s partly why we admire him: the somberness, the gravitas.

Like many a neo-Luddite, I’m constantly glancing back over my shoulder at former times. I don’t romanticize the past, but then again I don’t demonize it. So when I look at old photos, I’m often struck by their haunting beauty. Much of that haunting beauty comes from the subjects’ lack of smiles.

For nothing rivals the fascinatingness of the human face. Its curves and wrinkles, its years of engraved experience, its delineations of inborn traits, its poetic pensiveness—in all of it wrecked by an untimely smile! 

Peter O’Toole just passed away—God rest his soul—and his passing reminds me of a scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which a journalist tries to take the picture of Auda, a temperamental Bedouin who takes not kindly to it. O’Toole/Lawrence then says to the reporter: “Auda? He’s a bit old-fashioned. He thinks these things will steal his virtue. He thinks you’re a kind of thief.

Something to that. And I would posit that smiling for the camera is a sort-of deal with the devil. Very rarely are we presented the opportunity to assert our dignity—and when we freely cast our dignity aside and embrace an eager-to-please, puppy-dog state of mind, we in some way sell our souls.

Speaking mostly from the perspective of a man here. Women, for whatever reason, are inclined to be more sociable and sensitive to the perceptions of others—or so our cultural conditioning tells us. So I’m willing to cut the ladies some slack.

But men, at the very least, should feel disinclined to humor the too-finely-tuned sentiments of the moment. If you weren’t smiling a few seconds before the photographer’s finger pressed down on the button, there’s no reason why you should feel inclined to suddenly transform your facial expression in farcical imitation of Pavlov’s dog.

In other words: as you were, gentlemen.

  • January 04, 2016