Tinder, the wildly popular matchmaking app—it has a reported 50 million active users—has turned dating into an increasingly insular act, relegated to gadgetry. There was a time, not so long ago, when you had to actually leave your house to meet other single people. But with Tinder, it’s as easy as uploading a few photos and waiting to be discovered.
If you're unfamiliar, here are the basics: When users look at your Tinder profile, they swipe left if they’re uninterested or right if they're interested. If both parties swipe right, a match is made, and the metaphorical gates are lifted for conversation to begin. According to Tinder, on average users log on the app 11 times a day, with men nearly three times as likely to swipe right than women.
Why aren’t women as enthusiastic? It may be because guys are advertising falsely, the most common cause of female repellant. Or it could be that many guys aren’t very good at making that crucial first impression online.
Enter Max Schwartz, a Brooklyn-based photographer who saw an opportunity. He created Tinder Headshots (which has no direct affiliation with the mobile app's creators) to give both men and women a much-needed Tinder image makeover. It began as a joke—he took Tinder headshots for a friend, who suggested he start advertising on Craigslist—and has since grown into a profitable business, with clients travelling to his studio from as far away as Boston and Washington DC.
“Some of these folks really feel like it’s their only source of meeting other people,” Schwartz explains. “Some guy told me, ‘I treat my Tinder as an investment; I want to put money into it because meeting somebody is like a business decision.’ I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it’s mindboggling the weight people place on their Tinder.”
I’m on Tinder, but I don’t use it very often. It’s a distraction at the checkout line at Whole Foods, or while I’m planking at the gym, but I’ve never met anyone because of it. I didn’t give much thought to my photo, and frankly, it’s not a very accurate representation. (I’m blonde in the photo, brunette in real life). But even being on the periphery of Tinder, I like the idea of giving my profile a facelift.
So I decided to put Tinder Headshots to the test. I made my way out to Schwartz’s studio in East Williamsburg with a brown bag full of sweaters and button-downs, ready for my close-up.
Schwartz’s studio—which doubles as his apartment—is a giant loft space with four bedrooms neatly tucked overhead. He leads me to a corner in the back, with a floor-to-ceiling white backdrop and large studio lights.
While he’s shooting, I ask Schwartz for the most common mistakes guys make in their Tinder profile pictures. “They stand there with a bunch of guys in a group with drinks at a bar,” he says. “Often they’re hiding things; not really showing their face. It seems like they’re trying to be a little deceptive.
In general, he says, guys tend to avoid photos in which they’re smiling or laughing. “They go for photos that make them look more manly or tough,” he says. But a Tinder photo, he says, will work best if it's warm and approachable.
According to Robb Willer, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, women get complex, mixed messages from our culture about how to present themselves, but for men it can be very straightforward (though just as confusing and misguided): Above all else, be a man.
“If you had to make one impression on someone, you'd want to show a masculine side,” Willer says. “You'd want to look strong, tough, confident. But on a dating site like Tinder, this can be self-defeating since women might reasonably be reluctant to meet a strange man with no expression on his face.”
Schwartz focuses on making his clients look less like masculine stereotypes and more, well ... human. There are a lot of small details that go into this, from making sure your face is unobstructed to making eye contact with the camera to avoiding slouching. And, of course, the biggest obstacle for many guys: smiling.
I review some of the photos he’s taken of me thus far. I think I see a pimple, but I assume he'll get rid of that. He must get requests all the time to doctor photos or Photoshop out imperfections.
“I do touch them up,” Schwartz tells me. “It’s mostly color tone and cleaning things up. If the teeth come out yellow, I’ll whiten them slightly. But I don’t agree with being deceptive. I won’t change the way you look too much. If you’re asking me to make you look thinner or change your hair, I won’t do that.”
We want people to love us for who we are, but we'd also like to obscure their view. Take Kim Kardashian’s recent naked butt photo, which ignited an online fury about the use of Photoshop. Though it’s hard to imagine photos of an unaltered Kim in the buff being any less “Internet-breaking” than the tightly-cinched waist concocted by Paper Magazine, this image exemplifies on a large scale today’s warped standards of beauty. We imitate what we see on the Internet and in magazines. It might start by removing a pimple, but good luck stopping there.
A few days later, Schwartz sends me 10 photos from our shoot. I have big smiles in most of them. I’m not used to looking this way in a photograph. It almost doesn’t look like me. What am I even laughing at?
I log in to Tinder and swap out my old photo for the new one. Like lighting a firecracker and running from it, I’m anticipating some kind of explosion. The results are evident immediately, not just in the number of responses but the quality. It’s less “sup” and more “Hey, really liked your pic." I’m also more acutely drawn to those who smile in their pictures.
Am I now better armed to meet “the one” (or even, will I get laid more)? It’s hard to say. What I do know is that this picture represents a version of me that I wouldn’t ordinarily have put out to a sea of strangers. I’m not sure why. It took a professional photographer, somebody who gets paid to make people look more desirable, to make me realize that I was trying too hard.
The Internet is a carnival hall of illusions, and you shouldn’t believe half of what you see on it. But that doesn’t mean you have to follow their rules. A Tinder headshot that represents you as you actually are? Well there’s something novel.