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Life's Rich Pageant

John Madden Taught Me A Better Way To Smile For Photos

John Madden and Al Michaels pose in front on of a backdrop. Cartoon word bubbles have been inserted in. John Madden is saying testing and Al Michaels is saying cheese.
Evan Agostini/Getty Images; Art by Dan McQuade

I’ve been looking pretty good in photos recently. This isn’t due to any particular effort on my part. All it took was one word: Testing. The person who taught me this simple trick: John Madden.

Well, sort of. Madden, the Hall of Fame NFL coach and former broadcaster who died late last year, was not directly responsible for me learning the “testing” tip. But it came via him. Last April, Alex Shultz of SFGate wrote an article about a weird and wonderful website, JohnMaddenPhotos.com.

John Madden Photos is run by Bay Area photographer Ted Kurihara. Sometime in the 1990s Kurihara picked up an assignment to photograph John Madden for a commercial. It went so well that Madden specified he wanted Kurihara for all future ad shoots. Hey, wait a minute, now that’s a great client!

The site has a ton of photos that I simply love. There’s John Madden holding a pair of giant scissors. There’s John Madden giving a thumbs-up for mufflers. There’s John Madden holding a dry-erase marker, a football and a hockey stick, a bag of tools, and boxes of crackers. There’s John Madden wearing a windbreaker I very much want. There’s John Madden holding a pair of giant scissors in the other direction. Ah! Only the $150 price tag for each of these John Madden photos prevented me from putting a bunch of these photos on Defector dot com.

Though I don’t have a John Madden photo to call my very own, what I got from Kurihara was much more precious. He taught me how to smile in photos. From Shultz’s article:

Kurihara determined the perfect word for the subjects of photoshoots to repeat when they need to crack a semi-natural smile. Kurihara made this discovery while working with Madden, who wasn’t so great at nailing a grin. Nobody is, to be fair. “At least half or more of the photos you take of someone aren’t going to have the right expression,” Kurihara estimates. So aspiring photographers, take note. The word to utter isn’t “cheese,” it turns out. It’s “testing.”

Kurihara repeats the word “testing” to me over and over in different octaves and voices. He’s as animated as he’s been the entire call. “With ‘testing,’ you have a reasonable mouth position and you’ll look pleasant,” he says. Apparently, Madden was “all for it.”

A story about a photographer who took photos of John Madden in the 1990s is incredibly up my alley, and so I read this story not long after it was published last April. I have been utilizing this tip in the 11 months since, and it really works. I swear. I say “testing” in photos now and my smile has never looked better.

I used to try to think of something funny, to get a natural smile. It didn’t always work. But now I just say “testing” and I look great. Seriously. Try it. You don’t even have to hold a giant pair of scissors to make it work.