The Tyranny of the Perfect Portrait

Let me tell you a little secret about me: I have never been accused of being an overly lighthearted person. I laugh a lot and I experience joy, but I am also a bit of a worrier. I am a serious person, and I read and think about serious things. (Okay, maybe it’s not *that* much of a secret).

I think about things like: what would happen if I died? How would my children feel? How would they remember me? Would they remember me at all?

I also think about things like: what if one of my children died? What if all of them did? What would I have left of them?

Do you know what is sad? I cannot remember my children as babies. It is as though someone went into my brain with an eraser and wiped all of those days away, as though they never happened. Literally all I have left of those years is pictures. Mostly bad ones of my older three. But I love them because they are all I have.

collage of baby and family pictures


Why can’t I remember? I don’t know. But I hate it. I can remember so many awful moments (and fun moments too) from my childhood and teenage years. But now that I have finally realized the life I had always dreamed of, enjoying the memories of it has been a bit like trying to nail Jello to a tree.

This is, without a doubt, the happiest time of my life. I want proof that it happened. For me, or for them. Hopefully for all of us.  This desire to document my life as it is drives my photography, both my personal work and what I shoot for clients.

Documentary family photography is a niche, at least it is so far. Sometimes people don’t get what I’m trying to do. Because, as a fellow photographer astutely pointed out, people don’t think of hiring a photographer to shoot their everyday lives. For most, professional photography is about becoming an idealized version of themselves for a short time. It is about that one shot — you know the one. Everyone looking at the camera and smiling, perfectly posed, perfectly coiffed, that goes on the holiday card, birth announcement, large canvas over the mantel, or (most often these days, it seems) the Facebook timeline.

I like holiday cards and I send them every year. I like to see a picture of myself in nice clothes wearing contacts and makeup (which, if you know me, you know is a most unusual look for this mother of four). I like to see my children all together, turned the same direction, and not fighting. Maybe even smiling if all the stars align. I bet you like all those things too.

There is nothing wrong with that picture. But what it does not say could fill an ocean.

Who are we together? What makes us unique? What do we mean to each other? The perfect family portrait cannot answer that. No one image can answer that, but some come closer than others.

My children never sit in a neat row, all smiling at the same time. While that picture may look nice on a holiday card and get a hundred likes on Facebook, it doesn’t reflect their real selves or our life together, and therefore it doesn’t do a damn thing for my heart.

This does.

collage of family pictures

So why would we want to be someone other than exactly who we are in our photographs?

There are reasons.

For one thing, most of us are deeply insecure about ourselves. We wonder if we are good enough, attractive enough, thin enough, wealthy enough, good enough parents, and on and on and on. In that perfect portrait, we can be these things. We can portray ourselves in the way we want others to see us. It is worth paying to be able to do that.

I was a highly insecure young adult. I never felt pretty enough or accomplished enough. But over time, things changed. Impressing people started to matter less and less. Don’t get me wrong, I still clean the house before people come over and slap on some makeup and jewelry before I go out to dinner. But my perspective has changed, and it’s about time.

No, I mean it is literally about TIME. I am turning 40 this year. The combination of aging and parenthood has given me a sense of my own mortality and the finite nature of human life in a way that the mountain of evidence that has been presented to me about it since the day I was born could never do. And made me realize that all the things I thought weren’t good enough were always better than good enough — I just couldn’t see it.

Last night my five year old asked me to carry him up the stairs to bed. And I did it because I know that it could be the last time he ever asks. He was so heavy, so big in my arms. How did this happen? I thought to myself.

It happened day by day. Day by imperfect, beautiful day.

The first time I shot a Day in the Life for my family, I had my husband take this shot of me reading to Jonah before bed. It was our routine every night, that I would read Jonah his stories and put him to bed in (what was then) his room.

mother reading to toddler in bed

A few days after that image was taken, Jonah moved into the other bedroom with his big brothers. Just like that, our storytime ritual was over. How glad am I that I have this picture?

It’s so easy to dismiss the idea that everyday life is worth documenting because it doesn’t live up to our preconceived notions of what it should look like. To think that our homes aren’t pretty enough or clean enough or enough like a catalog. But that is precisely why we should do it. What is memorable about a catalog? You know what my house looks like right now? Like this.


And that is a beautiful memory of a time in my life that will be over far too quickly.

The perfect portrait is for right now. It fills an immediate and obvious need, like a business headshot. The desire to remember the little things only becomes clear in hindsight. We are so focused on the now that it’s easy to forget about the future. But think about this: When you look through your family albums from your own childhood, what are your favorite pictures? Dollars to doughnuts they weren’t taken at Olan Mills. They were taken in your home, or on your family vacation, or in your backyard, or at your grandma’s house. I know mine were.

Northern Virginia lifestyle photographer

Most of us will still have a family portrait taken from time to time. There is a place for those pictures. But even if you use your phone, I encourage you to give your children the gift of remembering who you really are. Messy house, love handles, tantrums, snotty noses, double chins, tears, all of it is your life. The life you chose. The life that makes you happy even though it is sometimes tedious and frustrating. The life that is not perfect like that family portrait. The only life you get.

It may not be perfect, but it is beautiful.

Add a comment...

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *