The “Ricky Martin Effect” is a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in portrait photography when one person is obliged to stand next to another person who is preternaturally beautiful, handsome, and/or photogenic. The effect is a certainty if the exceedingly beautiful, handsome, and/or photogenic individual is also a big star or bold faced name. Symptoms of “RME” might include: appearing ten to twenty years older than you actually are; the illusion of shrinkage or of being a much smaller person than you actually are; blotchy, mottled, and/or wrinkled skin; an expression of discomfort, agitation, or intense fear; persistent feelings of melancholia; baldness (men and women); or feelings of hopelessness that may present visually in the face of the afflicted’s facial expression that says, “Why bother?” The Ricky Martin Effect is so named because of a man so handsome, well-built, and charismatic that no one has ever stood next to him in a photograph without experiencing at least some of the Effect’s symptoms.
Many of us average Joes and Jills have complicated feelings around being photographed—I know I do. In this digital era of instant results, there are few among us who upon being photographed, don’t immediately attempt to exercise photo approval or at least a curatorial impulse. “Let me see, let me see,” we bark as we grab for the camera and scrutinize the image, wielding Anna Wintour-like control over angles and chin counts as if the photo was going to be on the cover of a magazine. With no film or development costs, we know we can just keep snapping until we get the one shot where we achieve a version of ourselves that is, perhaps, less truthful and more aspirational.
In recent years, I have rationalized my increasing aversion to how I appear in photos by telling myself I am more appealing in motion than in repose—the underlying theory being that it’s harder to focus on a moving target. Exceptions to this rule would include being carefully lit by an experienced lensman or being photographed from a great distance, say twenty feet or more. As I get older, I often think of the great Marlene Dietrich—an actress who knew as much about lighting as her cinematographers—and utilized every possible Hollywood tool and trick to create her mystique and shape the screen-goddess image which has outlived her. As she got older, this required more and more effort and increasingly dramatic measures, culminating in her final film, 1978’s Just A Gigolo, wherein her entire performance was filmed through a veil. Apparently still not pleased, she never made another film and, rather than permitting the sobering realities of age to further intrude on a lifetime of carefully managed image building, the actress opted out, preferring to live the rest of her days sequestered in her apartment and communicating only by phone or mail. If my experience with Ricky Martin is any indication, it may be time to go veil shopping.
My friend Jodi Marr—songwriter extraordinaire—who has known Ricky for many years, was in town last week and took me to see him starring as Che in the Broadway revival of Evita. Ricky was kind enough to invite us to visit with him in his dressing room during intermission where we enjoyed a few private moments with the always warm and friendly star—I met him several times about ten years ago and he really is unfailingly pleasant. He is also remarkably, astonishingly handsome. And also tall—really tall. Naturally, we asked to take a few pictures, which Ricky was only too glad to oblige. I have a very good Canon G11 digital camera but as I pulled it out of my backpack and did a quick assessment of the room, I became concerned that the chances of getting a picture as pleasant as our host did not look very good. Indeed, the result bore out my worst fear: not only a bad photograph, but—gasp!—the dreaded Ricky Martin Effect. “Why bother?” wondered I when confronted with the result:
In fairness to Mr. Martin, it would be inappropriate to put all of the responsibility for the failure of this picture on his large, capable shoulders. Certainly, it was unfortunate for me—a person with extremely fair, pink skin—that the room was painted a color that Benjamin Moore calls Mental Institution Beige, thus creating difficulty discerning where my face ends and the wall begins. I am flummoxed: my outfit was a shapeshifter, you know, one of those ensembles that seems to rock when you primp at home in front of your full-length but by the time you get to your destination has mysteriously morphed into a the uniform of a much older gentleman who lives in a small condo on the 37th hole at a Boca Raton golf course. My hat, only an hour before so natty and hip as I insouciantly cocked the brim down as I left my apartment with swagger, now looked like something Jerry Stiller would wear to go to a big box store. Was this also RME or simply bad planning on my part?
This shocking photograph got me thinking that in forgetting my own rules I had paid a dear price. If you know you are going to be photographed with someone who won the genetic lottery, there are indeed, certain precautions one can take to ensure that the photograph that memorializes the meet-and-greet does not look like the picture above. Here are five easy ways to minimize RME:
- Whenever possible put someone else next to Ricky Martin (or the “Ricky Martin person” in your photo). The other person will think you are being magnanimous when you are, in actual fact, protecting yourself. This fake gesture of kindness will dilute the effect, as the RME loses potency the farther away you stand from its source. In extreme cases such as posing with someone whose looks are as over-the-top as the phenomenon’s namesake, make an attempt to put two people between you. I can’t stress the importance of distance. By the time the viewer’s eyes get to you the effect will be much less pronounced.
- Wear sunglasses or tinted lenses. This serves the dual purpose of deflecting some of the RME in different directions, including, paradoxically, back toward the source, as well as giving you an aura of hipness that can circumvent some of the more obvious symptoms, such as a notable look of fear in your eyes.
- Ricky Martin, or the source of the RME in your photo, will inevitably have a tan or at least very healthy skin tone. Try to modulate your own skin color with at least a hint of a tan. If you are like me and tanning is not a physiological possibility, I recommend a self-tanner or tinted moisturizer—anything to not appear like an extra from a zombie movie.
- Don’t just stand there trying to look attractive, do something! For example, in this photo I should have done my open-mouthed look of happy shock, that says, “Can you believe I’m standing next to Ricky Martin?” A friendly hand gesture pointing toward Ricky would have been a perfect accompaniment to the mouth trick. “Look at this!,” it will say and you will be spared. If you feel disinclined to point, a palms-up, bent-arm gesture works nicely to, which says, “Hey look ma, presenting Ricky Martin!” and diverts the viewers’ attention away from you and toward Ricky. People will be less likely to notice that you look like you just gave blood.
- In extreme cases, do not look at the camera at all, look at the subject with an expression of slight awe and/or supplication! Though it may seem defeatist, trust me, this can work nicely, as it communicates a tacit awareness of the Ricky Martin Effect and says, “there’s no point in fighting it!” This is the photographic equivalent of letting a tsunami-size wave go over you. In doing so, you will end up doing in the photo what people looking at the photo will do anyway, remarking, “damn, that Ricky Martin is handsome!,” without the inclination to make the attendant comparison, for you will have already made it for them.