Among other professional considerations, newspaper columnists and criminals also share the mugshot. I’ve had my share. The first came after a thwarted attempt at grand theft auto at age 15, another at 19 for boozing on a college campus, followed by yet another after my failure to appear in court and finally, when I went legit, the moon-faced photo that floated above my byline in the Petaluma Argus-Courier in my early 20s. Given my proclivity for changing my appearance (nearly perfected in the four years between arrests, but only nearly), I’m presently on my third mugshot (see above) at the Sonoma Valley Sun. Some may call this vanity, but I call it accuracy, though I’ll compromise and call it “accuracy in vain,” or just “accurately vain,” if you prefer.
Another photographic phenomenon associated with this gig is the staged “photo op,” proffered by publicists and mutually loathed by both subject and shooter. The abbreviation of “photograph opportunity” was apparently coined in the early ‘70s, when an aide to Nixon’s press secretary thought it was a pithy way to usher photogs into the Oval Office for their daily dose of saccharine. Of course, history later revealed such moments gave new meaning to “camera obscura,” but until then, the administration was all smiles.
The first person ever captured on film was apparently not ready for his close-up – or even knew it had occurred. In 1839, photography pioneer Louis Daguerre focused his camera on a Parisian street scene. A gentleman ambled into the frame and stopped for a shoeshine, where he stood still long enough to have his figure captured by the 10-minute exposure. One-hundred-seventy years and a googolplex of photographs later, the voyeuristic imaging of others continues to evolve, including bastard forms like the stolen moments of paparazzi and the pixilated perceptions of surveillance cameras. In this light, the title of once-popular reality show forerunner,“Candid Camera,” is something of a misnomer – the camera wasn’t candid at all, it was the people, flummoxed and humiliated, who revealed the human spirit and beguiled with their candor. When Allen Funt revealed his ruses with “Smile, you’re on ‘Candid Camera,’” the rubes would invariably smile – in relief, surely, but also from the Pavlovian tug at the lips inculcated from a lifetime of saying “cheese” or “Hi, Mom!” in the presence of a lens.
There are very few candid photographs of me. My dad spent the better part of my youth as an amateur photographer, consequently, I developed a kind of sonar for whenever the shutterbug bit. From about the age of five onward, I can be seen striking a pose in most photos. By 11, I’m an intolerable ham and by 14, I’m a dramatic, sullen wastrel. A decade later and all of this posing and posturing was channeled into my first, official “mug.” Of course, I approached the procedure as if all my prior vanities were suddenly reframed as rehearsal for the moment at hand – a moment that would last less than a second, but was imbued with a sense of the eternal. I didn’t smile. I should start, lest the coming generations think I’m a punk.
I have great love for these future voyeurs, who someday will peep into our past. Somehow, we’re already gazing back. I had this sense last week, when my wife and I peeped into the future with the aid of an ultrasound. There, somewhere within the herky-jerky shadows flickering like a Lumiere, was an image not of us, but of someone quite like us, sparkling like a prism and a mirror all at once. Through this keyhole, this phantom aperture, like a proud pair of peeping toms, we spied the squirming sprout that will be our child. Baby’s first mugshot.