The picture of discomfort

KEVIN COWHERD

January 29, 1993|By KEVIN COWHERD

In just about every snapshot taken of me since reaching adulthood, I seem to be wearing this harsh, just-out-of-San-Quentin look.

L In each of these snapshots, there is an attempt at a smile.

But invariably the smile is captured on film as a grimace. And the grimace causes my eyes to disappear into twin slits, creating a vaguely menacing appearance.

The total effect is of a man who, seconds before the picture was snapped, threw the last shovelful of dirt on the shallow grave of someone he'd just strangled.

This, sadly, is the plight of the photogenically impaired.

The photogenically impaired are those who are simply incapable of being captured in a flattering light by the camera.

Kodak Instamatic, Nikon One Touch 200, Minolta SLR auto focus . . . the make or model doesn't matter. Fish-eye lens, auto zoom, electronic flash . . . no amount of fancy gadgetry will prevent a photogenically impaired person from looking less troll-like on film.

Unfortunately, despite the millions who suffer from this affliction, there are no support groups for the photogenically impaired. No fund-raising telethons take place where the weepy, exhausted host collapses in paroxysms of joy and Ed McMahon sings out "HI-YOOO!!" as last year's pledge total is exceeded.

Instead, the photogenically impaired lead lives of quiet desperation, cringing in terror whenever they hear the words: "Give us a big smile over here!"

Family reunions, birthday parties, long, Heineken-fueled weekends at the beach . . . in situations where normal people would pose politely, something in the photogenically impaired triggers an adrenalized fight-or-flight response.

I have known people in such situations to actually hurl themselves through a picture window, do a quick shoulder-roll on the lawn, and sprint down the street to avoid having their picture taken.

In my own case, the early signs of photogenic impairment were evident in my senior year of high school.

High school is a tense, awkward time for most kids. And for whatever reason -- indifferent grades, raging hormones, a maddening inability to lure girls into the back seat of a '65 Pontiac -- it seemed to especially take a toll on me.

I say this because the picture of me in my high school yearbook shows what appears to be a brooding, agitated young man with a thin, forced smile.

Under the photo, it might as well read: "Kev". . . likes wearing bootblack under eyes, camouflage pants, twin ammo belts across chest . . . dislikes subscription hikes at Soldier of Fortune . . . Helter Skelter . . . will spend summer at survivalist camp . . . "Hey! Are you looking at me?!"

Little has changed since then. I still take a lousy picture.

For example, not long ago I attended my 20th high school reunion. Toward the end of the evening, sensing that most people were now well-oiled and pliant, the photographer asked us to pose for the obligatory group picture.

Most people did this with the usual amount of good-natured grumbling; I did it with stomach-churning anxiety that not even four beers could anesthetize.

Sure enough, when the finished print appeared in my mailbox several weeks later, all the old anxieties returned.

In the picture, I am at the far right in the second row, gesturing uneasily at the woman next to me while flashing a wan, cryptic smile.

You look at me in this picture and the first thing that comes to mind is: Hinckley. Hinckley in those final frenzied hours, his obsession with Jodie Foster burning in his brain as he waits to complete the terrible deed that will guarantee lasting infamy. Only I look even more unhinged.

In the few photographs of me in which I don't look like a presidential assassin, I'm still no Richard Gere.

In some, I look like the victim of demonic possession. Burning red coals seem to glow in both pupils, which I'm told is a common problem (yeah, right) in photography.

In other photos I look terminally dim-witted, like the victim of several generations of furious in-breeding.

Maybe my mouth is open in slack-jawed puzzlement, as if I've just finished saying to the photographer: "Now?"

Or maybe the camera has captured me at the exact moment that I blinked, creating the eerie effect of a man who has actually fallen asleep while waving a Triscuit in the air at a cocktail party.

The other day, I received a phone call from a woman who occasionally glances at this space on her way to the TV listings.

"You should have them take another picture for your column," she said.

If she only knew.

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