Author Photo: Portraits, 1983 - 2002

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About the Author

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The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof).  This is one of my hobbies–if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel.  My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, “Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo.”

The nerve!  I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing.  You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger.  She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina.  Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we’d only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned.  Perhaps it’s that last quality–old fashioned–that rubs me the wrong way.  Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books.  I can’t imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner.  Maybe that’s the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader.   But as we head towards 2010, that’s more and more implausible.  Newsflash: writers live in the world.

There are a few of Ettlinger’s photos I like.  The full-body shots are better than the close-ups.  Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition.  Or the one, of James Ellroy: he’s gone whole hog with the photo’s anachronistic qualities, and it’s fun.  Other full body shots, however, are a disaster.  Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga?  If I were to title this picture, I’d call it, “The Failed Seduction.”  We’ve all been there, Ladies, haven’t we?

Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird.  I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off?   Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful.   Most of the time, though, they look like they’re starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel’s pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger.

Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos.  Many bad examples abound.  There’s the “I love my dog!” variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance–somehow Ellroy doesn’t fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop.   There’s also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there’s the “I’m just a harmless debut author” Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter.  Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many.  Lastly, there’s the “My spouse took this picture the night before it was due” Club.  I won’t even bother with an example–just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you’ll understand.

Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work–far from it.  It’s simply the photos I protest.  But getting one’s picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public?  You want to look serious, but not too serious!  You want to look attractive, but not too attractive!  You want to look young, but not…you catch my drift.  It can’t be easy.  I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether.  I said he couldn’t, or else people would assume he was ghastly.  And that’s true.  Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity.

I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I’ll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up.  Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.

Surprise Me!