I photographed well until the age of 7. Most children do. Then, circa second grade, three things happened simultaneously: Titanic came out, I became aware of my own mortality, and my photo smile stopped being cute. I developed a self-conscious, clenched grimace that has only worsened in my later years. When I smile for photos, I do not look flirty and fun. I look like I've been sitting for an old-timey portrait for eight hours in a whalebone corset and a hoopskirt. My face scrunches and distorts, and I look like the bottom critter on a totem pole.
When MySpace was born, and my peers started curating photos of themselves into profiles, I knew my Squidward smile would be a problem. Then Tinder arrived, and it became an even bigger problem. In the real world, I'm an 8—an 8.5 if I'm really dehydrated and a little tan. On Tinder I'm a 4. I am clinically un-photogenic at a time when the ability to pose for a photo can actually determine the quality of my suitors. If mating preferences drive evolution, then the next round of humans will be born with photo-ready angles, faces heavily contoured with a flattering Valencia-filter flush. If Kim Kardashian is the stunning bird with elaborate plumage for attracting a mate in the canopy, then I'm the bird crusted in mud, stress-eating star fruit on the forest floor.
The most important part of photographing well is looking breezy and relaxed, which is why I'm standing on the stoop of an apartment building in Brooklyn in early February, stressing. I've arrived at photographer Max Schwartz's apartment-slash-studio as Plan Z in my quest for one good photo of myself. Almost four years ago, he built a website called TinderHeadshots.com. In its early days, the site got some press from bewildered media, and Schwartz started shooting about six people a week in addition to his full-time job. Since then, a competitive industry has popped up around him.
Tinder photographers don't have the easy word-of-mouth marketing of, say, wedding photography. A lot of people are embarrassed about paying to have photos taken for dating apps. Another photographer, Charlie Grosso, told me that men are particularly reluctant to admit that they paid for a service, but 90 percent of her clients are men. This is due less to a gender-based dysmorphia than it is to the cultural rules surrounding who gets to take photos and who gets to be in them: On certain photogenic streets in New York, you can't walk a block without tripping over a fashion blogger's boyfriend army-crawling on the sidewalk trying to get a photo of his girlfriend in a fun hat, but you rarely see the reverse. “Men are in this weird situation,” Grosso explains. “They can't ask their buddies to do it for them, because their buddies will make fun of them.” My embarrassment about being photographed comes from within, from the chorus of sneering bros inside me who govern my self-esteem, but I sympathize. Which is why I'm about to spend $150 on a head shot for a dating app.
Schwartz's $150 rate is actually pretty cheap. One Tinder photographer I spoke to charges $650, though for a much more comprehensive service that involves several location changes. Schwartz's sessions appeal to people like me, who are willing to pay to look good without totally defeating the purpose of a free app. I compose myself just as he opens the door. I trust him immediately because of his “cool photographer” haircut—long on top, freshly sheared on the sides. I bet he has 100 Tinder wives.
Schwartz tells me that people are rarely as un-photogenic as they think they are and that many of the grinning model types I see on Instagram are actually Photoshop chimeras. (This soothes me until he pauses from taking my photos, looks at his camera, and tells me, “You definitely look better when you're not doing that smile.”) He has a very good camera-side manner. On professional sets, photographers don't usually exchange small talk with their models, but for our short time together—Schwartz calls these “expedited portrait sessions”—he asks questions the whole time, like a nurse who's giving a kid a tetanus vaccine. His objective is to catch you off guard a bit, so that you don't fall into whatever crazed smile you've practiced in front of the mirror. Photos in which you're genuinely happy and smiling, he says, are much better for Tinder. I find it very difficult to appear genuinely happy when I am doing the thing I hate the most—posing for photos—but Schwartz asks me innocuous date-y questions about my hometown (“So what are the best restaurants in Seattle?”) and I squeeze out a few normal faces in between my horrific defaults.
As Schwartz gives me tips, I catalog them like an alien gathering background on humans: Lean into the photo a little bit, like you would when you're listening to someone on a date. Don't face the camera head-on, turn your head to the side—but not too much! And never, ever wear a wrinkled shirt, because a wrinkled shirt ruins even the best photos. Schwartz's button-up shirt, I notice now, is virtually wrinkle-free. In a Tinder photo, you should look like the warmest, safest version of yourself. Only a serial killer would wear a wrinkled shirt.
I'd hoped Schwartz would bless me with Photoshop sorcery, but he tells me he doesn't do dramatic retouching. He'll edit out stray hairs and blemishes, but he won't give me an Emily Ratajkowski bod. When clients ask him to make them look slimmer or to add more hair to a balding pate, he declines. “I don't want you to show up somewhere and have to explain to someone why you don't look the way you do. You're starting that date off negatively.” When I consider this, my situation seems preferable: My Tinder dates are always pleasantly surprised when I arrive. When he sends me his selections, I am surprised to find several that I don't hate. Schwartz says that when given the choice, people will pick a photo of themselves in which they're making a face they'd make in a mirror. “If you ever stare at yourself in front of the mirror, you're not going to laugh and smile normally. If you are, it's a little creepy,” he says. “But if you're at dinner with friends and they make you laugh, that reaction is very genuine. And your friends are going to pick out the photos where you look like that.”
So I send four photos to everyone I know, demanding that they select their favorites. Every Tinder user should lay their photos out for a platonic jury, because it is revelatory. My friends and family are uniformly torn between a photo where I'm laughing and one where I look a little bit sneaky—neither of which was a favorite of mine initially. I pick the close-mouthed, sneaky smile and upload it to my Tinder, which has been languishing since the summer.
"I feel like I've found the real secret to confidence. This must be why Instagram stars, with all their perfect photos, are insufferable."
And then, as is so rarely the case with self-help services, it works. Overnight, every man on Tinder swipes right. All the men I approve of approve of me right back. Instead of careless “wut r u up to” messages, I get “What are you up to?” I feel like the nerd in a high school rom-com who, after whipping off her glasses and letting down her hair, gets to date Freddie Prinze Jr. I am mad with power, swiping over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I get so many Tinder matches that I become overwhelmed and retreat to a convent to live out my days in chaste peace. Just kidding—I keep swiping. I change my Twitter photo to the sex portrait, then my LinkedIn photo, then my Facebook, and then the little photo that appears next to my e-mails. My ex-boyfriend messages me on Facebook to tell me it is a “bomb” photo. I feel like I've found the real secret to confidence. This must be why Instagram stars, with all their perfect photos, are insufferable.
I haven't overcome the humiliation of paying for a Tinder head shot. When Schwartz asks me why I fall back on my “cheesy smile” in photos, I tell him it's because I get uncomfortable when I do anything earnest, which might be the most honest thing I've ever said to a person. Voluntarily having your portrait taken by a stranger is the most earnest thing ever, but I think it's worth it to have even just one good photo of yourself. Just like in the olden days.
Lauren Larson is a GQ associate editor.
This story originally appeared in the April 2018 issue with the title "Me Smile Pretty One Day."