Soapbox: In pursuit of a presentable passport photo

Three of the author’s passport photo attempts

By Kathy Meeks

Oh dread. My passport has expired and I need a new passport picture. Looking on the internet, I go to a shipping/mailing/copying outfit a 10-minute walk from me in the East Village that provides this service. In a space teeming with customers waiting to mail packages, one of the clerks lines me up against a white background screen and takes the shot. It costs $15 and it looks like a mugshot.

I am not running around with a passport that makes me look hungover for the next ten years. When I was young and photogenic, I could get away with drugstore passport photos. Now that I have reached a more, shall we say, sophisticated stage of life, I need help. I need a real photographer. But I don’t want to pay an arm and a leg. I’m not trying to get a date or an acting job, impress people on LinkedIn or immortalize myself as a dynamic executive. I just want to look like a normal, respectable person in a passport photo.

Lucky me. I chanced upon David Beyda, who has a very small studio on 40th Street opposite Bryant Park. He does photos for all of the above needs, but also passport photos, and the passport pictures packages are reasonably priced from $20 to the “deluxe” $99 package. I choose the deluxe. I figure I could use all the help I could get. After a certain age, lighting and camera angle are everything.

I arrive a few minutes early so I can get through reception (he’s on the ninth floor and you have to sign in, have an ID photo snapped and be accompanied) and find his studio in a translucent tent-like structure. He has told me what to wear (dark, simple, flattering neckline). After he finishes chatting with his previous customer, I’m up next. He suggests I add a black cardigan to the blouse I’ve selected. We chat. I tell him the kind of work I do. I tell him I’m caught in the midst of a corporate takeover and that it is his job to distract me from that so I don’t look haunted or hunted. He does. He asks me where I’m from (the Midwest), the favorite kind of food people eat there (canned). He laughs and jokes with me and asks me questions, and has me saying stuff like “I love Libby’s Canned Sweet Potatoes.”  All the while he is snapping, snapping, snapping. The ad said the deluxe package includes 25+ shots. He has shot more than a hundred, most of them cluster shots. The whole process takes 15 minutes. He shows me a few. Without much ado, we find a shot we both like. But instead of deciding right away, I decide to wait and see them all.

The next day the proof sheet arrives digitally and I peruse it on my computer. The platform is cleverly designed so that favorite photographs can be easily compared. Looking at this gallery of proofs is therapeutic for me. I realize I have never “seen” myself before. I never realized how different I look at different moments, at different angles and with different expressions. There are some shots of myself that I would barely recognize. Is that me with the arched brows? I look kind of interesting but I don’t recall seeing that face before. I think I look like an actress playing a role in a Noel Coward play. There are photos in which I think I look haggard, but then there are those taken seconds later in which I look stunning. My hair looks flat in one picture, a little cowlicky in another and good in a third. There’s been no wind and I haven’t moved more than a foot or two.

The painter Albrecht Durer wondered what beauty consisted of in humans and how to measure it. He tried measuring angles, distances and symmetry, but could never manage to figure it out. He finally concluded that it was a combination of small things. From this experience, I learned that it is a combination of small things that apparently are always changing like a kaleidoscope. I stare at all these images, even the less-than-flattering ones, and choose one (there are a number of good ones)—but embrace all of them.  As Shakespeare described Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” Damn straight.

Katherine Meeks has been a resident of Stuyvesant Town for the past ten years.

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