Why are license and passport photos always so awful?


My mother, British and ever blunt, viewed old age without delusion.

“Eventually, we are all old pumpkins left out in the field,’’ she said more than once, although once was surely sufficient. “Everything about us goes mushy.’’

She then typically would clasp both hands to her face, tug each cheek down gently to exaggerate her mushiness, and note each time that she appreciated living long enough to see herself “gone to seed’’ in the field.

She grew up in rural England, not far from Manchester, and fruits and vegetables often worked their way into her life analogies, in part, I suppose, because fruits and vegetables were about all her family had in life besides each other.


Her Christmas present each year was a stocking that contained both an apple and a piece of candy. Lean years, leading up to World War II, it was just the apple. She deighted in the fact, virtually to her dying day, that she could peel the skin off an apple in one long, sculpted ribbon, delicately working a small paring knife around the contours of a Mac or a Golden or a Granny Smith.

“Now, see that, I shoulda been a surgeon!’’ she’d say, hoisting high her handiwork, before depositing it triumphantly in the kitchen wastebasket. “But what would I do with all that money?’’

I’m in my early 60s now, and officially in receipt of my pumpkin papers. I have brand new photos to document it. Two of them. Not just any two photos, but the worst pictures in the history of all photography, one taken a month ago by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, the other by my local post office.

About the best I can say is that neither was taken at the local police station.

How comforting to know that I only have to show these two pictures every time someone asks for my driver’s license or my passport. In each case, I will offer them up and wait for the store clerk or customs agent to be merciful enough to say nothing, or at least offer heartfelt sympathy.


That said, as I am sure my mother would, I’m glad to have these pictures. They may be hard on the eyes, and harsher on the memories, but I’ve lived a bunch, I’m grateful to have traveled far, and no way am I going to allow two tiny buzzkills that I normally keep tucked away in wallet and/or computer bag to pull me to the depths. Uh-uh.

I was here in the office last week when my new passport finally arrived. The whole process took less than a month, from the time I filled out the form and handed it in at the post office in early-December. I despise all that paperwork, associated documentation, figuring out the best way to send it to the State Department. Different rates. Cash? Credit card? Debit? Varying promises of how soon it will arrive in Uncle Sam’s hands. Who needs those choices?

Really, I’ve done some of my worst work at the post office counter. A couple of years ago, up against deadline, I had to send a pal of mine two autographed hockey jerseys for some big charity thingy. I tossed wallet, car keys, checkbook, hat, pocket change all on the counter, then proceeded to jam both jerseys, each wrapped in plastic, into one of those flat-rate stuff-and-ship boxes the post office constantly markets. “If it fits, it ships.’’


It was a 3 p.m. deadline, and it was precisely 2:52 on the clock behind the post office counter when the clerk heaved the box with the two jerseys into the bin behind him. And it was exactly 2:56 when I raced back, frantic and bug-eyed, to tell him that I coudn’t find my car keys.

“I gotta open that box I just gave you!’’ I said. “ ‘My car keys, I think they’re in there!’’

Dead stare. Smirk. Head shake.

“Really?’’ he said, chin tucked, looking down at me over his reading glasses as he handed back the box.

Sure enough, with the help of a quick slice of a letter opener, my lone Nissan key spilled out. A quick tape job, and I made it, 2:59 p.m. Victory.

For the passport, I picked up the renewal form at the same post office in September and it took me nearly 90 days to get around to filling it out. I was pretty pleased with myself when I brought it to the post office, all inked in, some five months ahead of my passport’s expiration. No rushing this time. As I walked through the post office doors, I made a point of tucking my car keys deep in my pocket.

“Well, you got this wrong!’’ said the postal clerk, with all the personality of my first grade teacher, the memory of whom still makes me cringe 55 years later.


“You’re kidding,’’ I said, certain I had been meticulous.

“Nope,’’ said the first grade teacher come back to life as the post office dragon. “Look, right here, it says it must be filled out in black ink. You used blue.’’

Guilty. I used blue. Certain that the NSA, the State Dept. and probably the CIA had to be taping this conversation, I figured I was finished. It took me almost three months to face filling out my passport renewal form, and I used blue, not black. Shoot me. Silently I said to myself, “Do I give a flyin’ [bleep] if I ever see Europe again?’’

The postal clerk must have detected my state of borderline psychotic explosion. I wondered if she’d been there for the car keys incident. Or maybe she was there the day when instead of asking for three air mail stamps, I committed the all-time post office faux pas and asked for three e-mail stamps. It’s just a bad place for me.

“But the ink should be no big deal,’’ she said abruptly. “I’ve processed enough of these to know. The blue’s dark enough. I think they’ll accept it.’’

Just under four weeks later, 26 days to be exact, my new passport was at the house. Another 10 years to live long, prosper, to go to infinity and beyond. Or at least to Wimbledon this summer. Maybe Montreal in the spring.

“Open it up,’’ I eagerly said to my wife, who called me at work to tell me it had arrived. “How’s it look?’’


Of course, I really meant how did the photo look, how did I look? Would I be embarrassed to show this around the world for the next decade? How odd to think that way, because, if you are showing the photo, it means you’re there with it.

“Not so good,’’ said my wife, the first in our family to see the new passport me. “For one thing, it’s a big picture . . . your eye’s slightly closed. Honestly, you look like a serial killer.’’

OK, not the picture many would embrace. But then, when you’ve grown up knowing that we are all headed to the pumpkin patch, that life comes to its inevitable mushy ending, a bad photo isn’t so hard to accept. There’ll be better days. Lots of them.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com or follow him on Twitter at @GlobeKPD.