Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thoughts on Author Photos

Does it make me shallow if I admit that I almost always look for the author photo when I pick up a new book? Not that I think it can necessarily tell you much about the writer -- often it just tells you how the publisher wants to market the book. Still. I'm usually curious about the author's age, for one thing. I'm better disposed toward a book by an author my age or older, or one who displays a bit of eccentricity. I dislike pets in pictures, though this is probably ungenerous. I'm deeply disappointed if there's no picture at all.

One great picture is Jane Smiley's on the flap of Moo. It's a flash picture taken in what is probably Smiley's kitchen, and she's grinning and wearing a pair of huge glasses. The anti-glam shot!

Men should not wear tight white tee-shirts in their author photos. It makes them look like they're trying too hard not to be effete. Writing is effete! Get used to it!

My first author picture was taken by my husband in the woods behind my parents' house. It was ten degrees and windy, and I was five months pregnant. Not surprisingly, I look simultaneously puffy and rigid. They got Marion Ettlinger to take another one, for the paperback. She is a marvelous person and an incredible photographer but unfortunately I remember little of the experience because she had to feed me about 18 glasses of wine in order to get me to relax enough. I do remember asking her why she chose to photograph writers, of all people. And she said, It's easy to make actors and models look good. But writers are a challenge!

Haha! True enough! I brought the poor lady a paper sack full of wrinkled thrift shop dresses that smelled like cat pee, and until that day had never plucked a single eyebrow hair in my life.

Anyway. Maybe that's the appeal of author pictures: they're of people who are a challenge to photograph. I am in fact deeply suspicious of writers who are too good looking. I can't help but think the book can't possibly be any good. And if it is, No fair!

I would like to see more creativity in author photos. I'd like to see a picture of Philip Roth biting into a giant burger, for instance, or Claire Messud looking all red-faced and sweaty after a game of softball. Would that be cool, or weird?

* It has been brought to my attention that JRL once wore a white tee-shirt in his author pic. Sorry!


Matthew Tiffany said...

Roth with his teeth sunk into Messud's forearm. That would be a good author photo.

myles said...

Author photos usually look like people imitating writers. You can almost hear them thinking, "Must look like serious writer, must look like serious writer." They're trying so hard to be worldly and aloof.

But I'd pay more to see Roth eating a burger, or Donna Tartt in her old pyjamas … or Thomas Pynchon doing anything

Monketah said...

Why do so many authors have to wear hats? Do you wear a hat while sitting at your desk?

myles said...

Try googling "favorite author photos and portraits". The first result is a rather ill-designed site, but it has some terrific pictures.

jrlennon said...

Rhian's not going to tell you this, but you can actually see her super-glamorous Ettlinger pic in the book AUTHOR PHOTO.

As for my white tee shirt, what can I say? It is the most representative garment for me.

Anonymous said...

One of the best pieces of "writer" advice I got was to get an author photo taken the moment I first started even thinking about writing. That's what I did, and five years later, when my first book came out, I looked so young and happy and full of hope in my author's photo.

Folks are a little shocked when I show up at conferences, though...hee hee.

5 Red Pandas said...

I ponder author photos all the time. I'm also a bit suspicious if the person is a bit too good looking and I know that's not fair.

Authors rarely smile in their photos and that puzzle me because most times people are yelling at you to smile.

If I was going to have an author photo taken of myself I'd probably want to look good, but another part of me would like to use something like this:

I don't look good, but I'm having a good time and I manage to look a bit lecherous as well. I also find it hilarious that someone left a comment and it turns out that she or he regularly doctors women's photos so they have facial hair. I guess I made her/him happy.

jrlennon said...

That would be very brave, using that pic on your book. I would buy ten copies.

Love the ukelele lady on your flickr, BTW!

One of my all time favorite author photos was on one of Ian Frazier's collections of comic writing...he's wearing a trenchcoat and holding a briefcase as he waves while stepping down from a Learjet. It's hilarious--mocking the whole concept of the author photo.

My favorite of my own is the one for The Funnies, which is actually a cartoon of me I commissioned Ruben Bolling ("Tom The Dancing Bug") to do. The best part is that he'd never actually seen me before, not even a photo.

AC said...

Rhian, was Afterlife your first novel? If so, I actually bought it (used) because of the author photo. I didn't recognize your name, but I did recognize J. Robert Lennon in the photo credit. (I'm always interested in reading books set in/written by authors in upstate New York.)

I thought you looked rather uncomfortable, but I just chalked that up to you being a writer.

jrlennon said...

I think she looks uncomfortable because it was ten degrees out!

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

This is extremely funny, especially since I just spent the morning watching YouTubes, reading interviews and looking for pictures of one of my very famous ex-boyfriends and his very famous current girlfriend and feeling miserable because they both look fabulous, rich, brilliant and self-satisfied and I look like crap, depressed, inarticulate and a failure, though with great hair I pay a fortune for, and my husband, who looks better than all of us in my opinion, like me, will never win a MacArthur prize like them. Pathetic? Perhaps, but a common misery where I come from.

bookfraud said...

great post. you can tell a lot about an author from his or her book photo, including the plans of the publisher's marketing department for how they're gonna sell the book.

a friend of mine's photo for his novel makes him look like a serious intellectual, where instead he's pretty goofy. when did author photos start gracing book jackets? in the 70s?

pretty funny before/after photo of jonathan franzen here:

now the question that really needs an answer: what's ashley alexander "i was eliot spitzer's hooker" dupre's author photo going to look like when she "writes" the inevitable tell-all book? serious or sexy? clothed or naked?

sorry, couldn't help myself.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

Bookfraud: The Franzen photos show just how deceptive photos can be, even before the airbrushing and photoshopping get started. There was once a Seinfeld episode about a girlfriend who was gorgeous in some lighting and horrifically ugly in other lighting, unpredictably, throughout the same date. Photography is kind of like that. Interestingly, the best individual photos taken of the famous couple I mentioned earlier were taken by eachother: the most relaxed, sensual and handsome/beautiful. Through the eyes of a lover.

rmellis said...

AC: Yes, my first and only. The discomfort was partly the weather and partly the whole getting-photographed-while-sober thing.

Gloria: Now you *know* I'm dying to know who that ex is.

You know, I think the McArthur is the best prize imaginable, better even than the Nobel. You don't have to apply for it, and it means you're a **genius**. Wow. Of course, it's also the most painful when your exes and/or rivals win it...

David Rochester said...

The great Robertson Davies agreed with you ... he always looked at author photos, and liked writers to "look bright and sassy, like Evelyn Waugh."

I bought my first TC Boyle book because I liked his photo. I now buy them because I love his writing.

sara said...

Just this morning, I flipped over the book I'm reading (by Peter Carey), and thought, why the hell do people like to see author photos? I don't care what the writer looks like. In fact, the appearance of a writer can bias me against him (I'm sorry to admit). I'm thinking of a Haven Kimmel photo that almost made me put down a book I was liking very much. On the other hand, I know that I've spent an inordinate amount of time staring at the great photo that Doris Lessing has been using for about 25 years.