"Withered Tiger Lilies 6" by Eric Rennie
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
--W.B. Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom with Time”
I am not a studio photographer, but lately I have been picking wildflowers and bringing them indoors to shoot close up under a high-intensity beam of light using a macro lens. I learned I have to be quick about it, because wildflowers, unlike the kind you buy at the florist, will often wither in a day. Viewed at close range, they are so beautiful it is almost a crime to pick them. I console myself with the thought I am preserving them by taking their picture.
Human beings, unlike wildflowers, do not wither in a day. But if truth be told, they are often far more interesting to photograph when they are long past their ostensible sell-by date. George Orwell once said that everyone has the face he deserves at age 50. By age 50 we have lost the baby fat, the effortless good looks, the bloom of youth; our true character – or lack thereof – has emerged. A lifetime is etched on that face, whether for good or for ill (most likely some of each). For a photographer, such a face is a gift.
The best portrait I ever took was of my father-in-law on his 100th birthday, and it was completely impromptu. He was sitting in his dining room gazing off into space, as magnificent as an Old Testament prophet. He was so deaf I don’t even think he heard the shutter click as I shot him in profile. I have another picture of my own mother, taken in a nursing home on her 88th birthday. She had the thousand-yard stare typical of soldiers in combat and of patients who are far-gone in dementia. These obviously were not glamorous or flattering portraits, nor were they intended to be. But they were true in the sense that Hemingway used the word when he talked about striving to write one true sentence. Hemingway’s best sentences were utterly without adornment or affectation of any kind. To photograph people the way Hemingway wrote sentences, you have to shoot them as they are and not as they wish to appear.
A portrait photographer seeking to get at the truth often finds himself dealing with an unwanted intruder who tries to get between the camera and his true subject. The intruder is the part of us that strikes a pose when a camera is pointed in our direction. Vanity doesn’t really explain it – or at least not all of it, since plenty of people are the opposite of vain when it comes to having their picture taken. These are mostly people who have been told they are unattractive or who think they are no longer attractive. They might frown or otherwise make a face. My mother, who was beautiful when young, reached an age when she no longer wanted to have her picture taken at all. I have had people turn their backs on me when I pointed a camera at them.
Based on my experience photographing my beautiful young granddaughter, it appears people have already learned to strike poses by the age of two. Not coincidentally, this is also the age when children acquire a sense of self. Although we think of the self in individual terms, it cannot develop in isolation from others. Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “looking-glass self” to describe how our identity is formed by imagining how we are perceived by others. What better way to learn how we appear to others than to see photographs of oneself? And unlike when I was growing up, we don‘t even have to send film away to be developed. The feedback is instantaneous.
One withers into the truth the same way Hemingway wrote sentences, by stripping away every adornment and affection and by leaving unsaid all that doesn’t need to be said. You don’t necessarily need to initiate such an undertaking. If you allow it, life will do that to you. Suffering will do that to you. By the time you have acquired the face you deserve, you should have been worn down to the nub of the real you. And if you find yourself still striking poses, then prepare to suffer some more.