The other day someone dropped by my desk to ask me about something, and I had to ask him to wait while I finished sending an email. My cube has built up a fair number of pictures over the five years I've worked at Big Tech Corp. My visitor leaned over to look at a wedding picture of me and MrsDarwin and after a moment asked, "How long have you been married?"
"You look very different in the picture."
Once I'd dispensed with his question, I found myself looking at the picture. Had I really changed that much in eight years? Certainly, I looked very young in the picture, but it's been one of my charges against myself for some time that I look too young to be taken seriously.
Thinking on this, I realized that one of the hardest things to know is what oneself looks like. It often seems to me that pictures do not "look like me" or that pictures of my wife do not really "look like her." Perhaps, though, this is because it is the people we know most closely of whom we have the strongest mental image -- an image which may not actually bear the closest relation to reality.
Looking at the pictures on my desk, perhaps the most extreme example of this is the picture I have of my father, taken a few years before his death. My father, like me, is someone of whom there are few pictures, since he was almost invariably the one behind the camera. And almost invariably, pictures of him look wrong to me. This one looks to old -- I never picture my father with white hair. A sprinkle of gray perhaps, but nothing more. Recently I find a family picture dating from when I was in second grade -- something which I had apparently salvaged when cleaning out my grandmother's house and then forgotten about. There my father looks too young. Or perhaps he looks the right age, but he is rounder-faced that I remember.
The real source of all this, I think, is that we carry in our heads mental images of those we love most which are composite images -- formed over time and influenced by how we feel about a person. Of ourselves, even more so, we have an image formed around how we think about ourselves. What we see in the mirror, who we think we look like, what we think are our best and worst features. Yet this image may not be the same as what a camera, in its mechanical dispassion, will record.
In this sense, we probably see strangers most clearly. The unknown face in a photograph or painting is something we can look at as an image and nothing more. While the face of a loved one, however much it may remind us of that person, does not look the way we see a person. Because when we look at those we love, we see the person, not the image.