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the diary thing 
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11.09.00
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 portrait
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i am not my faceWENT TO BED PATTING MYSELF on the back for calling the election so utterly dead-on. Drifted off to sleep consoling myself with the thought that, with the house and the senate so closely matched, even the most obtuse GOP wonk will be able to see that American voters just want their damn government to work together to make laws, instead of turning Capitol Hill into a nasty, bloody Jacobean revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi  re-written by Foreign Affairs magazine.

Woke up to news of the Florida re-count. Will this finally make Americans consider reforming their election structure, perhaps even tossing out the electoral college? Naaaah, I doubt it.

What a strange goddamn election. That lovable anti-Semite Pat Buchanan got huge returns in a Florida district known for its liberal voting record and a considerable population of Jewish retirees -- the voting cards were apparently badly formatted and people thought they were voting for Gore. There's already some kind of vague allegations of ballot-box stuffing down there in the Sunshine State. It wouldn't be the first time it happened, though these things usually happen in districts where there's a bit less scrutiny on the results. 

Since it seems obvious -- and history has proven -- that rigged results are not uncommon (the Illinois returns in the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy race come to mind), I'm sure the rules of engagement are simple enough: Both sides agree that they'll mess with the machine, but that no one will complain too loudly about it when the results come in -- a strange variation on honour among thieves. Unfortunately, Florida was too tempting a prize and, apparently, things just looked too fishy to pass with the usual wink and shrug. Of course, the real story will probably always remain a mystery. 

How's that for cynical paranoia? 

Weird election, alright. A dead guy won 


 
"Life without vanity is almost impossible."
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- Leo Tolstoy
The Kreutzer Sonata

 
I am not my face. I think Duane Michals said that. A nice sentiment, and one that I have to mull over every time I look at a picture of myself.
for governor in Missouri* -- really, people, think about it. And in New Hampshire an incumbent Republican lost to a Democrat named Dick Swett.

Say it out loud a couple of times. It's probably the most poetic thing I've heard all year.

I'VE WRITTEN A PIECE -- a sort of memoir, I guess -- about my father, based on the war letters my sister and I found a few years ago. Originally I was going to write it for the fancypants venerable magazine published with the weekend edition of the national daily I work for, but an awful experience with the rude, lying jerkoff editor at the venerable mag made me decide to take it to the competition, the other national daily, the one I used to work for a few years ago.

It's something I've been thinking about since last year, when I put the war letters online, and when K. did a similar memoir thing for the other national daily -- a more than happy experience thanks to sympathetic editors -- I decided now was the time. Remembrance Day seemed the perfect time for it to run, so I pitched it at the end of the summer, and went off to Ottawa looking for material to round the story out.

It was finished last week, minus a few tweaks, and I delivered a package containing some old photos of mom and dad, and a couple of letters for them to use as artwork. They called me back and said the artwork was great, but that they'd like to take a picture of me to run with the piece as well. I said okay, and told them Wednesday morning would be fine.

I hung up the phone with decidedly mixed feelings. Cynically, it's not a bad thing for your photo to run next to a big feature you've written for a weekend broadsheet -- it's "celebrity status" for a writer, and might go some way to helping me publicize the novel-in-progress, maybe get an agent, or at least a bit more work writing this kind of thing. 

Honestly, though, I kind of wished they wouldn't bother. As much as the story is told in the first person, I'd still like to think it's about my dad, and hope that the focus stays firmly on him. Less nobly, I have to say that my wobbly sense of vanity just doesn't make me comfortable with having my picture taken. 

Like most photographers, I love having my picture taken even if I'm not all that photogenic -- or rather, I used to like it. Too many cringe-making candid snaps of me have prompted a kind of Pavlovian twitch, a gut aversion to cameras pointed at me. Still, I go out and get a shave and ask K., late at night in front of the t.v., what I should wear.

"I don't know," she says. "What would your mother have liked to see you wear?"

"A suit," I tell her. "She thought all men looked good in a suit and tie." And a hat. My mother never made her peace with the casual revolution of the sixties and seventies.

"Well, that's out, I guess."

Unlike my erstwhile friend Seth, I can't pull off the "man trapped in another time" look of fedoras and ties and rumpled suit jackets, though God knows I tried. I decide on my leather jacket, a subtle check flannel shirt and the gray flannel Gap cargo trousers. Sort of an updated "returning serviceman" look, if anyone bothers to notice the whole "Dana Andrews in Best Years of Our Lives" allusion. Clever.

*Correction:

Marc Robinson, a reader, writes in:

"Excuse me. I lived in Missouri more than half my life. A dead man did not get elected governor there. He was already governor when he died. He was running for the U.S. Senate. Thus, a dead man was elected to the Senate. The Lieutenant Gov., who ascended to the governorship, plans to appoint the dead man's wife to the Senate seat.

"Besides, what's so strange about electing a dead guy? He probably has more life in him right now than Strom Thurmond does."

I stand corrected, Marc. Americans didn't elect a dead governor, they elected a dead senator.

I'm glad we straightened that out. 

And I love the way that Strom Thurmond calls the microphones at hearings "the machine". I wonder if he calls the helicopters ferrying officials all over the capitol "autogyros".


THE PHOTOGRAPHER ARRIVES the next morning, and I pull on my jacket and meet him at the door downstairs. He seems surprised that I assume we'll be shooting outside, and asks to take a look at the apartment for a location. Just at this moment K. comes back from the Goth coffee shop around the corner and offers him her latte. He declines, and we make our way upstairs.

He looks around the living room with the tight-lips-and-darting-eyes expression I know all too well from my own, often desperate searches for a suitable background for a shot. I notice that he has a couple of the really nice Nikon digital 35mm cameras around his neck, the kind that actually work, as opposed to the piece of crap I had to use a couple of months ago at the film festival.

He fixates on the glass-paned door leading out to the "mini-deck" outside the living room, and slips outside to check it out, switching from one chunky, barrel-lensed camera to another. He asks me to stand as close to the glass as possible, looking out past him at the overcast sky and the roofs of our neighbours across the street. He shifts up and down, carefully placing his feet amongs the pots we moved out to the mini-deck last month when the landlord demolished the deck upstairs to fix a leaky roof.

Doing portraits with a 35mm camera is a tricky business -- the compact size of the camera and seamless interface of the optics with your eye make for a finicky process of composition, especially when you're doing a close-up. You pivot the camera lens around, shift your shoulders and go up and down on the balls of your feet, bending your knees and shuffling from side to side. It's a faintly comic little dance, by no means conducive to making a nervous subject more relaxed. 

I've been on his end so many times that I'm happy to stand there, the breath from my nose fogging up the glass as he snaps a couple of test shots and checks the exposure in the little LCD screen on his camera. He takes a couple of minutes to get something he seems to like, and shows one of the shots to me when we crawl back into the living room.

It's a moody portrait, all right, with me looking out the window and into the distance, my eyes and nose just peering over a reflection of the bare trees and rooftops. It would be a lovely shot if I wasn't in it.

I have a joke with K. -- the "potato headed Canadian". It's based on an observation I made a few years ago that Canadian men, by and large, share a basic physical type, one that asserts itself more and more with age, and with each generation, regardless of your original ethnicity. Stocky and big-boned, a bit barrel-chested, with a face based on a broad, fleshy, jowly oval. 

It's a face you see in our major rock bands -- The Barenaked Ladies, Tragically Hip, Guess Who, Alex Lifeson from Rush -- and in the casting choices of our beer commercials and domestic television programs. It's a face you see in portraits of voyageurs and fur trappers and loggers and doughboys. It seemed to recede a bit during the Depression, but only because everyone had that gaunt, haunted look then. It re-appeared after the war and finds its penultimate shape in the face of the Canadian archetype: The Hockey Player.

I have that face -- with the little, brushy goatee and round glasses of the intellectual-guy, but I have it. Clean-shaven, it's a little on the lumpy-potato side, and in the little LCD screen of the camera, it was large as life. I suggest that we head off, down to the lakeshore and Sunnyside.

In the car, I try to explain that I'm not sure I have the right face for the "moody/poetic/reflective" kind of thing I saw in his camera, that I try to have my pictures taken where there will be a little bit of context to distract from it, or at least in a situation where my mug isn't in big, bruising close-up.

Down at the old bathing pavillion, we wander around looking for a nice spot. I try not to be a pain, another photographer making suggestions. I promised myself to be patient, compliant, to make this job as easy for him as possible. Finally, he settles on the old, drained fountain in the courtyard of the pavillion. I sit on the edge with my legs in side, where the water would be, and he shoots from across the still-filled little birdbath in the middle of the fountain. I expect there'll be some kind of reflection of the sky, or my face, in the stagnant, greenish water, but as long as I don't take up most of the frame, I imagine it'll be survivable.

He asks me to look up, over his shoulder, away into the near distance. I comply, trying to put some kind of thoughtfulness, some "presence" in my eyes. It's a bit chilly today, the sky overcast, and I slowly look around the pavillion as he clicks away. I see a few nice photos myselt -- a stacked wall of empty wire garbage bins in front of some weathered stucco, the arches of the pavillion with their wrought-iron gates, the boardwalk, beach, water and breakwall behind, drawing together in the horizon of the lake. I imagine how I would have shot this assignment. It occurs to me how little portrait work I've done in the last year or so. A sobering thought.

And we're done. He packs up his bag and we make small talk about people at the other national daily as he drives me home. I tell him the story of how I called an art director at the paper a "rude fucking hag" on the phone once. He laughs uproariously -- the woman is universally hated by all the photographers at the other national daily. 

"Did you really say that?" he asks, through guffaws. Sure I did -- and I never got another job from them again.

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Rick McGinnis
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