How George Washington Taught Me To Love Awkward Family Photos
I hate photos. I must capture the bond my child and I share in a photo or die trying.
What do George Washington, Angelina Jolie and I have in common? Each of us has, very much against character, succumbed to staged portraits with our brood. This is because when you have a kid, the militant photo hater in you who “accidentally” stood behind NCAA Steve in family photos since 1992, who has wooden teeth or an abiding hatred of paparazzi, meets its match in the mom who suddenly just wants a nice, monogrammed family portrait cluster to hang on the wall.
I discovered my own feverish desire for family photos in the early postpartum days when I spent three hours crying into my Boppy because there were “no cute pics” of me and my daughter, a baby who didn’t yet have full neck control. Now a crucial piece of advice I give all new dads is to a) tell their partner constantly that they are a wonderful parent doing an amazing job, and b) take thousands of photos of their partner with the baby, deleting all the bad ones and passing along any that are objectively cute (high angle! natural lighting! selective cropping!). Yes, your wife is bloated and overtired, but a cute photo is 🔑.
“Everyone look happy, we only have the portraitist for two days.” — George Washington (1789, Edward Savage)
I hate photos — I am nearly absent from my own family’s albums between the ages of 8 and 20 — but the birth of my daughter Scout made me want to put myself back in the narrative. I wanted my own Instas of my #babyhaul.
The camera is not kind to me. I am no great beauty to begin with, but something happens in translating even the core details of my body and face I have made peace with when a lens is involved. Kind eyes become hard, tiny buttonholes; features pixelate; jawline recedes into lymph nodes. Then there is my expression: Emotionally, I can convey a rich love of life and family, or I can have lips. I cannot have both. This is the crux of the problem: I hate photos because they always undercut my memory of a moment — the happier I am, the more terrible I look.
But a child, a child makes you forget this, or at least consider sacrificing some level of vanity that you might have a precious keepsake of your little family. It’s inherent to all of us, this desire, just as it was inherent to Archibald Bulloch and his wife, who — much like me! — could perhaps have benefited from strobing or a basic CC cream, maybe.
“Can you me look maternal?” — Archibald Bulloch’s partner (1775, Wikimedia Commons)
Family portraits were originally a point of pride for the father, who was showing off his brood like a proud landowner. “Look how fertile my wife is!” is the subtext of many colonial portraits. “Look at the fine and sophisticated upholstery of our furniture in this meadow! Remark upon how few of us succumbed to smallpox!” Still, if you look at the mothers, including Mrs. Bulloch, you can already see in their eyes the burgeoning industry of newborn photography, of women placing their infants in tiny pumpkin hats and trundling them about in wheelbarrows. In the brushstrokes of the outstretched arms of Mrs. Bulloch’s animatronic lap-child, there is a seed that will one day bloom into terrible personalized baby photo frames, into Jena Malone’s Instagram feed. And for the bad rap that Instagram-as-mechanism-for-self-branding gets, I really do think it is a place where the curation effort comes more from a place of “I can’t help it just look at the child that is my liiiiife” than “check me.”
“Must your father appear in our holiday card, Susanna?” — John Copley (1776, John Singleton Copley)
There is something touching, too, about all the portraits you can dig up of George Washington, who never bore a biological child himself, but adopted his wife’s children, and spent a life rearing orphaned grandchildren and nephews (one of whom went by the name “Washy,” I kid you not; another bore the middle name “Steptoe,” which we can all agree should be returned to circulation). The friezes of George Sr. feature children of various ages tottering through the frame, testaments to the family you choose for yourself, long before that was a thing. He was sort of the original Carol Foster like that.
George Washington’s family portraits also showcase an important element of the quintessential family portrait: team attire. Back then, it was yoke collars, really high-waisted pants, and a pallid complexion; today, it’s Christmas jammies.
“Don’t ever talk to me or my son again.” — George Washington (Everett Historical)
Awkward family photos have come to have air quotes attached, but the only ironic thing about dressing your husband, twins, and cattle dog in matching Hanna Andersson for the Christmas pic is that you are going to treasure that damn photo. When you go from being the reluctant 14-year-old in John Lennon glasses scowling at the camera in a family ski pic to the parent staging their offspring around a faux fireplace, the cynicism simply dries up. In the course of mere weeks, I went from “do not dare thieve my soul with a photograph” to taking reams of selfies with my baby, searching endlessly for a chin angle flattering to us both. Because the other thing that happens when you make a baby is you see the same physical features you hate in yourself reproduced in miniature on a tiny boisterous person. And there, they are suddenly something you might render in oil paint and hang in a national portrait gallery.
Such parental hubris is presumably what brought us this priceless Gothic rendering of Denmark’s royal family:
“Nothing is more important than family, as this hellscape of uplighting shows.” — Princess Mary (Thomas Kluge, 2013)
I don’t do open-mouthed smiles in photos (there is a comprehensive dental history at work), but my daughter has one of the greatest smiles of all time. I hope when she looks back through the floating holographic montage of her life, she can tell I am overjoyed to be holding her in those early family photos, even with my lips pressed carefully together. And I hope that my parents know that I’m grimacing in the family ski photo because I know will come to regret skiing in those blue John Lennon glasses, wind-burn aside, not because I was unhappy to be there in that moment with my family.
In the next moment, I want to look good in photos — of course I do — but I’m just as happy to be there with my family looking like a bad wooden carving of Robert Redford for the sake of familial posterity. Before the smallpox gets us.
“George, look at the painter.” “Martha no, this is my good side.” (Thomas Prichard Rossiter, 1858–1860, Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)