About the Feature

Photo by romana klee

The photographer’s studio is on wheels, hitched to a pickup truck, and parked today beside a Dallas tattoo parlor. At one end of the room, she has placed a wooden stool and three lights on adjustable stands. At the other end is a door to a tiny darkroom where she prepares the chemicals. I watch as she sets up for our appointment. “I don’t use cyanide,” she tells me, “and I don’t use cadmium,” but other than that, the techniques are essentially the same as the ones used in the mid-1850s. “Tintypes,” she says, “were the first time that the working class could afford to get their picture taken.”

She cleans the surface of a piece of metal that has been coated black. Next, she pours a slow stream of liquid onto the dark rectangle. “Collodion,” she explains, a gelatinous substance that contains salts that will absorb the silver; it’s still used in the medical field and was once employed as a “wound dressing.” She tilts the metal, so that the excess collodion drips back into the bottle. I hear the clinking of containers being opened and shut. I see a jar labeled “POISON,” a skull and crossbones hand drawn in black marker on the glass. “This stuff, if it gets in your eye,” says the photographer, nodding toward one bottle, “will make you go blind.”

While the metal plate is left to dry to a tacky finish, she turns on the lights, each one on its own stand. And now, “the composition of the photo.” I sit on the stool, while she shifts the beam toward and away from me until she finds the right level of glare. One of the lights shines inches from my right cheekbone.

This isn’t the first time I have been placed at the center of a triangulation of brightness. Four or five years ago, I posed in front of a range of neutral backdrops, tilting my head, lifting or dropping the corners of my mouth, widening my eyes. There was a makeup artist who applied many layers of foundation and powder, a soft glow of highlights, a lipstick the exact shade of my lips. After I picked my favorite from the proofs, the photographer edited the final image on his computer to fade the vertical indentations around my mouth, what are known as marionette lines. He whitened my teeth by a shade. He sharpened my jaw. To achieve an author’s headshot that seems both natural and perfect requires time and artifice.

In the tintype studio, everything feels a little less staged. There are no backdrops. No one is penciling in the shape of my mouth. Instead, I keep noticing the collision of old and new—how the camera is a wood box from “the late 1800s” mounted on a tripod from “the 1970s or ’80s.” Once the composition has been finalized, I am told to sit very still while the photographer loads the plate in the darkroom. When she returns, I see the plate has been placed inside a kind of frame that will soon be slotted into the back of the camera.

We decide I will smile in the photograph. She will count to three, my lips and teeth moving into position by the time she arrives at the last number. She lifts a piece of fabric at the back of the camera and bends her head beneath it. Like in the movies, I think.

“Your head is in the perfect position,” she says. “Hold still.”

The sound of creaking and loading.

One. Two. Three. And then a tremendous POP. A sharp flare.

Later, I’m amazed to see that my face stayed motionless, my eyes relaxed. I am sure I must have flinched at the surprise of the flashbulb’s great noise.

And now we are both moving. I slide off the stool. She brings out a small rectangular tub filled with water and begins to pour a jug of liquid over the metal plate, which sits in the basin. I hold my phone from above, so that I can film the change from darkness to image.

My face melts into being. The next day, when I watch the video I have shot, I see the process takes less than thirty seconds—the plate at first a haze of silver-blue with patches of shadow, then everything dividing into areas of black and white. Liquid swishes over the abrupt appearance of my skin.

And there I am.

The photographer points to the distinct scrolled pattern on the scarf around my neck, the perfectly glimmering coils of my curls. “The detail is limitless. You can zoom in infinitely because there’s no grain,” she says. “All that’s left is where the light touched the plate.”

In the tintype, despite the halo of imperfections at the edge of the metal and the streak of brightness in the top left corner, I don’t look as if I’ve been carved from another century. It’s the same face I’ve seen in selfies, in formal studio photographs, in snapshots. I had hoped to find a version of myself transported from an earlier era. In the tintype, I can see a few wrinkles on my forehead, the imperfect roundness of my cheeks. There’s nothing of the 1800s etched into my features. This disappoints me. But why? Why would I want to locate myself in the past? I had expected a transformation that didn’t occur. But why did I hope for it?

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes:

The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.

Examining the tintype, I feel the bruised intersection of these four “image-repertoires,” as Barthes calls them. What pierces me is that I cannot believe this face is who I am or who others think I am or who the photographer thinks I am or what kind of ordinary art I’ve been made into. My nose is a crooked stub. My eyes have none of the ambered quality that will hold the glance of another. I am plain, not only to myself but also, apparently, to the photographer and to any viewer who might consider this image.

I am often disappointed by the person I see in pictures of myself. Last year, a kind and gifted photographer took new headshots of me. I stood in a local bar, leaning against a wall of exposed brick, while he clicked and clicked. Yes, he would say. Beautiful, he said, laughing from behind the camera so that I couldn’t help laughing along with the flirtation of his lens. When he sent me the proofs, there were dozens of my smiles, but I could only see the roundness of my jaw, the places where the day was unkind to my skin.

The more I study the tintype, the more I realize it’s my smile that has failed me. When we view black-and-white photographs of our great-grandparents in the old country, when we look at strangers posed in high lace collars, we know they come from the past by the severity of their faces. They seldom smile, no doubt because of the long exposure required to capture these images. A closed mouth is easier to hold before the slow, searching stare of the camera.

A tintype demands stillness. A person who sits for a tintype portrait must be most frozen in the moment of the plate’s exposure to light.

How different this is from contemporary thinking about the camera. Now it is the camera that must keep up with us, must catch the blurring gestures of arms and legs. For our wedding, my husband and I hired a photojournalist who shot celebratory events in her spare time; I liked the semblance of spontaneity in her work. In one of my favorite pictures, I am mid-laugh, my head tilting back, my arms wrapped around Jeremy, the two of us crushed in the middle of several concentric circles of wedding guests dancing the hora. This photograph is evidence that smiles are a thing of quickness and change. They are enlivened by their transience.

I always smile in photographs. I learned early on that others thought mine lovely. What a beautiful girl, guests would tell my parents as I looked away, pretending I hadn’t heard. My father taught me how to smile on cue for the camera, how it’s possible to lift one’s features into the quick proof of happiness. As the daughter of American diplomats, it was useful, I discovered, to be able to smile on command at official events, a photographer snapping casual shots for the public record or telling clusters of people to turn toward the lens. When I look at pictures from my parents’ years in the Foreign Service, I notice my father’s teeth, the confidence and decisiveness of them, that large smile overwhelming all the grim, adjacent faces. If I were to open my wallet right now and remove my driver’s license from the narrow pocket, I could point to a similar expression. Those teeth. The disarming force of that grin. Yes, I can summon a smile even in bleak bureaucratic spaces.

As Barthes explains, our awareness that we are being photographed transforms us “in advance into an image.” Sensing the gaze of the camera, we alter ourselves. “I feel that the Photograph creates my body or mortifies it, according to its caprice,” he writes. In my case, that creation or mortification is the smile. Even away from the camera, I have transformed myself in advance of the image, my smile a form of concealment at dinner tables, in conference rooms, and on the street, a way of making others think my mind is less of a cutting thing. In particular, I use the smile on men, knowing its dazzle. It conceals a sharp edge. And I have seen what happens when I drop the smile, the way one might drop a glass on the floor. The falling. The shattering. The smile is a fragile vessel, but it holds reassurance. I am not a threat, it seems to say.

Of course, there is the occasional picture in which I am solemn. Many years ago, I had my portrait taken for a newspaper interview titled “For a Navy Wife, First Panic, Then Poetry.” I am staring large-eyed into the camera, the burgundy collar of a coat pulled high around my neck. My mouth is a thin line. How dour I look. How unrecognizable to myself.

And for nearly four decades, my father has carried a photograph in his wallet. The paper is curled at the edges, worn from the friction of rubbing against dollar bills and other currencies. In the picture, I am five. My shirt is pink, the couch cushions damask. I hold a black booklet on which the name “Hammerstein” is visible in blurry white. My body is in the posture of a reader, so intent on the words in front of me that I don’t seem to realize I’m being photographed, that my father is standing only a few feet away, that this image of me will last beyond the impermanence of the sofa, the bobby pin in my curls, the paisley drapes hanging in the top right-hand corner of the snapshot. The photograph is composed in the way of a painting from the 1800s; it recalls Mary Cassatt’s diaphanous pastels of women and girls bent toward the pages of a book, the world a swirl of close reading. Here, I do recognize myself. This is one of my daily expressions, not so much gloominess as concentration, the creased brow that signals thought. In some ways it is my ideal image: unaware of external lookings, too absorbed in the interior life of language to feel the burden of another’s scrutiny.

But this is the exception. Most of the time, I am smiling. Every morning, to document the clothes I wear for my social media account, I stand in the brightest corner of the dining room, my left hand tucked in a jacket pocket, my right hand hanging at my side, and hidden in my palm, a remote control approximately the size and width of a pinky finger. On the table in front of me stands a tripod, perhaps twelve inches tall. It holds my cell phone in the spring tension of its grip. When it’s time to take the picture, I press the round button of the remote control with the edge of my thumb, a touch so tiny that the camera does not observe my movement. I click and click. I shift the angle of my chin. I open my mouth to the right size of smile—after months of practice, I have learned that this amount of toothiness, this degree of tension in the muscles of the face, preserves whatever beauty might still be mine.

When I have enough shots, I swipe through them on my phone. The mistakes—the droop of an eye mid-blink, my chin pressed into Shar-Pei wrinkes—disappear in the time it takes me to touch the miniature icon of a trashcan. Delete. Delete. Delete. Like this, with only the tap of a finger to glass, I disappear myself.

“People want the idealized image: a photograph of themselves looking their best,” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography. “They feel rebuked when the camera doesn’t return an image of themselves as more attractive than they really are.” We fear, she says, “the camera’s disapproval.” According to Sontag, the first technique for photographic retouching was introduced in the mid-1840s. “[T]wo versions of the same portrait—one retouched, the other not—astounded crowds at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1855. . . . The news that the camera could lie made getting photographed much more popular.”

And, in the end, don’t I want the lie? Scholars like to speak about the gaze, a regard that comes from someone else. A gaze can shape the body, what the body wears in order to be desired, how hair is pinned back to show the alluring taper of a neck, the naked collarbone below. The gaze decides how a body is interpreted as, for example, studious or virginal or debauched—a matter of glasses perhaps, a string of pearls, a black seam dividing the back of a leg from hem to pump. But what kind of power do we have over ourselves? The most tyrannical form of looking might be the self-gaze, as when I say, The roundness of my jaw, the places where the day was unkind to my skin.

I may long for the lie. But I also distrust the accomplice of my smile. It collaborates with the camera. Its curve seems to indicate I am a baby doll with articulated limbs. I am a girl waiting to be asked to dance. Or a woman who’s hoping someone will buy her a drink. Or confused and in need of explanation. Or weak and wanting help with her luggage. Or someone whose voice goes high with uncertainty at the end of every sentence. Smile, a stranger has told me on the street, and whether or not I choose to obey may determine if he follows me for the next few blocks, calling out, Hey hey hey.

Over the past year, my teeth have been begun to fail me, too. The first time was in my office on campus. I shut my mouth and suddenly felt a jagged piece of stone on my tongue; it was half of a lower molar, broken off after almost a decade of pounding contact with the hard porcelain crown on the tooth above it. Like a chisel, my dentist said, striking and striking. Next came two more crowns. An infection in the gum. Let’s wait and see, the endodontist told me when it seemed I might need a root canal. Then I had a deep cleaning. Like scraping barnacles from the underside of a boat, my dentist said.

All those long afternoons leaning back in the chair, a blue paper bib pinned around my neck, I thought about Freud. According to my yellowed copy of The Interpretation of Dreams, it’s very common to dream about teeth. “Dental stimulus,” he calls it. “To represent castration symbolically,” Freud explains, “the dream-work makes use of baldness, haircutting, falling out of teeth and decapitation.” Sexual repression leads to what Freud calls “transposition,” the mind shifting its anxieties from the provocative lower half of the body to the safer, less discomfiting upper half: “[I]t becomes possible in hysteria for all kinds of sensations and intentions to be put into effect, if not where they properly belong—in relation to the genitals, at least in relation to other, unobjectionable parts of the body.”

But I’m not dreaming. And what I worry most about is a mouth full of emptiness. If dreams of tooth loss represent castration and feelings of sexual powerlessness, what does the actual loss of teeth mean? I look in the mirror and worry that I’m witnessing not only the end of beauty, but also my diminishing ability to control how people see me.

And this is why, when the photographer sends me the digital scan of my tintype, I immediately want to pass the image through an array of digital filters. Can I make myself more attractive? Might there be a gauzy glow or an artful blur that could transform this picture into what I had wanted?

Instead, I download an app for my phone. It allows the user to transform any photograph into a tintype, its tagline: “Selfie like it’s 1899.” Once a picture has been taken, the app converts it into black and white, decreasing the depth of field. As with a real tintype, the digital image appears rough and decomposed at its edges. I take a fake tintype of my dog. She is reduced to a black nose in a cloud of gray fur. I turn the camera on myself and, after many attempts, finally achieve something like what I hoped for in the tintype studio. My eyes are ghostly and pale, the center of focus.

I remember how I used to love looking at a certain black-and-white photograph of my mother, taken when she was nineteen. That was the year she won a beauty contest—the prize, a scholarship to study in Madrid. In the picture, she is a perfect composition of pale skin, her shoulders sloping toward a sweetheart neckline, her hair not quite in a beehive but a series of wound coils. All the exquisite adjectives could apply to her. Alabaster. Shimmering. Luminous. She looks of the more recent past here, like a mid-century movie star.

It is possible that, with the right hairdo and the correct positioning of lights, I could achieve some of my mother’s dewy smoothness. But what I desire is a more uncurated beauty. In a tintype, a face is permitted its wrinkles. And because we are seeing hard-lived history, the people who sat for these portraits are viewed as entitled to their pockmarks and creases. They’ve earned the right to asymmetry. They are beautiful—despite the absence of makeup, filters that turn their features radiant; despite the fact that they do not know the twenty-first-century craft of tilting their heads to pleasing angles, do not ingratiate the viewer with a smile. In some real, unedited way, they are beautiful. This is what I tell myself.

Earlier I asked why. Why would I want to locate myself in the past? The answer, I suppose, is to know whether I am beautiful. It’s a matter of vanity. But also a way of knowing what weapons are mine.

Already, at forty-three, I wonder where my features are going. “All that’s left,” the photographer told me in her studio, “is where the light touched the plate.” Is this what aging means—that the light will no longer touch me? I feel my face undeveloping. It’s like watching the short video of the tintype I shot, this time played in reverse. I am submerged in a basin, my features clear beneath the glass transparency of water. And then there is shadow. A stream of liquid lifts from the pan back into the pitcher. In less than a minute, my face spreads out in ripples. The plate returns to its silvery haze until only the still sheen of metal remains.

About the Author

Jehanne Dubrow is the author of seven poetry collections, including American Samizdat, and a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Pleiades, and the Southern Review. She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas.