I was born in the Soviet Union in the mid-70s, which in photography standards was equal to 1950s America. My father, my first photography inspiration, snapped all of my childhood photos on black and white film and developed them in the tiny bathroom of our one-bedroom apartment in Kiev. I was the muse and subject of his never pursued, dormant love of photography. In those preschool Soviet years, the camera lens had yet to have a piercing effect on me. I appear naturally happy, almost go-lucky in those images of me blowing a daffodil or flying high on a swing.
My earliest cognizant memory of being in front of the camera is a male family friend taking my photo. I was about five years old and new to America soil and my mother had cut my hair into an ugly short hairdo. I wore an itchy, polyester red dress whose neckline choked me. The man, who professed himself an amateur photographer, positioned me against a stark green lawn and I stood there, a Russian Jewish immigrant, looking like a Dorothy Hamill Christmas card. I didn’t know how to pose for the camera; this was three decades pre-selfie when cameras came out for special occasions. The man made me stand, lean, and finally sit on the sidewalk, which was uncomfortable because I had to focus on keeping my legs closed. The worst part, though, was his constant reminder to “lick your lips” because apparently a five-year-old’s shiny lips are imperative to the success of a photo. In retrospect, this seems perverted and I wonder if this contributed to my lifelong preferred position: behind (the lens).
The camera lens feels like a microscope of my imperfections. I do not come alive; instead, I retreat into my invisible shell. I am better behind a keyboard or a lens than in front of one. I can’t comprehend the “make love to the camera” thing, duck lips, and when my husband says, “chin down, head out,” I resemble a bobble head rather than a supermodel. The flicker in my eye which ignites when I’m passionate about something is instantly extinguished with a camera. I hold still long enough to say, “are you taking it already?” and consequently my mouth will be open in the photo. I will tell my husband he doesn’t know how to take a good photo of me (he’s a professional photographer) and he attempts another time, but I act more paranoid this time, stiffer, with an unapproachable aura. I stand there wide-eyed, thinking, “how long do I have to stand in this pose before he clicks?”
My photo avoidance created a complication in the first five years of my relationship with my husband, who is not only a professional photographer but also a professionally-trained actor. Before me, he had photographed plenty of naked models and for years, when the camera went up, I froze, thinking I’m not possibly as beautiful as all those naked models. Why would he want to photograph me? (I’ve gotten over it.) He, on the other hand, thrived in front of a camera as much he did being the photographer. He knows exactly how to stand, how to hold his head, which direction to point his chin, where to focus his eyes, what to think about when staring back at the lens, and his Blue Steel is dead on EVERY TIME.
Yesterday on a walk through Times’ Square, we ran into a Zoolander 2 promotion. They took a photo and printed it on the white foam of a cappuccino. My husband wasted no time getting in front of the camera. Within two minutes, the coffee emerged and his photo was headshot-worthy! Excited to try, I followed suit. Only my image came out faded like it was hesitant of the image it wanted to project. My insecurity permeated to a frothy free coffee topper. (Too much real life imitating art irony here.)
I’ve gotten much better at being the subject in the last five years. I review old photo albums and realize how young my eyes look without the crow’s feet framing them. I’m the youngest I’ll ever be right now, the most alive I’ll ever feel. As I’ve realized, my good ole days are now so I better smile and immortalize.