"She makes for good copy – and good photography." So said Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman of Michele Bachmann in a recent New York magazine article.
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black – or, in this case, the photogenic second-tier presidential candidate calling the photogenic second-tier presidential candidate a – well, it's sort of a mouthful and I think you get the picture.
But it does point to a larger unspoken condition of our political life: the rule of the photogenic.
Photogenic people seem to be in charge of everything. Time was, nobody was photogenic. We were all malnourished, and if we weren’t, smallpox got us and made our faces look like angry sandboxes. As a consequence, we were delighted to elect individuals to office with the raw physical appeal of Martin Van Buren, including Martin Van Buren. “You can see in his face that he survived the smallpox!” we would murmur, looking at our officials. “That shows character.”
But then cameras happened. And since Warren G. Harding, increasingly photogenic people have been running the country.
Perhaps all this goes back somehow to the comfortable delusion that the camera was capable of capturing the soul.
Look presidential? You just might be.
But photogenics are far more devious than that. There are three kinds of people. People who are good looking and look good in pictures, people who look better in pictures than in life, and people who are vampires and do not photograph well at all. (There are also the people who are holding the camera, but they will never get anywhere.) I know people of all three persuasions. A good friend of mine looks absolutely stunning in pictures. In fact I often show her images to hostile combatants, hoping to neutralize them. But when you see her in person, she is – sure, stunning, but only mildly stunning, like walking into a glass door.
I've always made for bad photography. In most pictures I look as though I am just recovering from a blow to the head with a frozen chicken. And those are the flattering ones. “You look much less like a weird thirty-something than I was expecting,” people often say, upon meeting me.
I always related to The Picture of Dorian Gray. "Someone else who looks better in real life than in pictures!" I would exclaim.
Making for good photography — as Bachmann and Huntsman both do — is a distinct characteristic.
Photogenic is a term from the Greek for “not yet balding visibly.” It’s not the same as good-looking. That second stick figure hunter on the cavern at Lascaux actually was hideous in person, but he had the right angles.
Being truly photogenic means that after you step off a transcontinental flight with icicles in your beard and a mouth that tastes like damp socks, if someone pulls out a camera, you turn inexplicably into Robert Redford — not old, corrugated Redford, but the one from bygone years with a chin that could grate cheese.
“Good looking" is possibly sexist. “Photogenic" goes beyond that. To be photogenic is to possess a rare, sexless, ageless, timeless quality. Buildings can be photogenic. So can cats or dogs or certain alarm clocks. Our opinions of looks vary. But some things are as clearly unphotogenic as other things are clearly photogenic.
Being photogenic is quite distinct from being attractive. In person, photogenic people quite often resemble ham loaves in dinner jackets or skeletons in wrap dresses. But put them in front of a camera and they magically develop great angles, whatever those are.
And there’s a distinct subset of photogenic that is coming increasingly to the fore in the Republican primaries: the “presidential look.” The best way to describe it is that it appears that you came included with the podium.
We’re suspicious of the too ridiculously good-looking. Look like JFK, you might cause some sort of missile crisis. These days, we prefer the Presidential Model.
Presidential men these days are a dime a dozen. You can tell that you look presidential because made-for-cable movies keep coming up to you on the street and asking you to star. But it's almost a requirement of the job. Ron Paul? Please! Newt Gingrich? Maybe in 1890, but the look’s somewhat gone out of style.
For women, it's the Geena Davis look – commandingly un-blonde, in a suit, with heels: Bachmann, in a nutshell, or Palin, when she’s not in a jogging suit lovingly gazing at a moose. That's what America wants.
True, the criterion doesn’t have much of a track record.
People who look like Warren G. Harding often govern like Warren G. Harding.
Perhaps we should listen to the poem, attributed to Woodrow Wilson, about not being a great star when it came to beauty. "My face I don't mind it, for I am behind it – It's the people in front that I jar."
The eyes may not be the windows to the soul, we say, but perhaps the camera is. Unfortunately it seems that the most it can capture is the shape of your nose.
But in the mean time, it makes for good copy.