I’ve been going around saying “bad photos are better than good ones.” Now, what do I mean by that?
Well, I came across piles of pictures my dad had taken, from a distance, while we posed on the front stoop, or by the old Dodge sedan.
“Smile!” is what we ask of our models when we snap a photo, but I have always detested that command and its fake patriotic cliche. The big grin is a mask that hides the truth, a lie we insist on. (It sells things and wins votes?)
My current top choice for my favorite antique photo portrait of my brother and me poses a problem. What were we thinking, my sibling and I? We are wearing the same outfits, knickers and caps, and holding hands with our lovely mom at the front gable.
He is standing straight and smiling evenly. I, on the other hand, have let my knickers sag, with the long stockings drooping. My head is tilted down, and I look either sad or mad. Why?
Is the answer that it was just a momentary reaction to the tedium of the task at hand, or a hint as to the past, or the future, of my boyhood in the family hierarchy?
I was the youngest of a trio of boys. I had already discovered my failures. I was demoted from the glee club into a “listener.” I relied on my brother or mother to sketch illustrations for the papers I had to produce for school. I couldn’t even see a ball, let alone catch or toss it, unlike my eldest bro. So I had not inherited the talents and skills that existed in my gene pool. They had already gone to my elders.
Do these disappointments explain my stance in that old photo? Yes, I suppose so.
But I did have one thing up my sleeve. I could stand up to talk, to ask, to stare at words on a page. I guess that’s how I turned out to be an English major and, in due time, teacher. But what could I instruct? I did not desire to be a learned lad, instead preferring to be one of the guys. I was successful enough in that part to be elected class president before graduating into high school. I won by a single vote, against a graduating sports hero!
Fast forward (whew!) beyond college and graduate schools, and, just two years after earning a master’s in teaching, I found my calling, my career, my vocation at the Rhode Island School of Design. Home again, after sojourns in Paris, in New York, in intellectual Boston, I rediscovered my house, my haven, my heaven.
Students came from farms and factories both for an education and to seek employment among the thriving industries in this town, the state, the “colony” where the American Industrial Revolution had been established and welcomed refugees seeking what our founder Roger Williams had promised: “soul liberty,” a marvelously vague phrase for the privacy of one’s purpose to pursue. It suited me from day one. I could rattle on and babble on about what I had learned during my journeys and voyages, and since I had the myopic gift of perfect spelling and punctuation, combined with a yearning for the essence of poetry (ambiguity, ambivalence, irony, paradox – in a word, nonsense), I had designed my destiny!
And I appealed to artists, makers, outcasts, newcomers. I am proud of the loyal friendships of alums who confuse their own courtesy with the illusion that their particular genius was encouraged by me.
So I see in the snapshot a prediction, to a point, of our future careers. My smiling sibling taught architecture, also at RISD, putting up a practical structure on the good ground. I taught “literature” – through movies, the funnies, graphic novels, anthologies – and translated my personal distress into a recognition of the existential human dilemma (as artists in every genre must come to recognize and enjoy), which is the essential doom and dismay that confront us.
And with my birthday coming up this month, in December, the day is short, and the future is cold and uncertain. But my smile as I write this is sure, and will endure.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.