Quick Hits

About the Author

By posted at 6:41 am on October 28, 2009 29

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.”

coverThe 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.

covercover
coverThere 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.





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29 Responses to “About the Author”

  1. J.M.
    at 11:15 am on October 28, 2009

    “I love my dog!” variety — hilarious!

  2. Anne Trubek
    at 12:05 pm on October 28, 2009

    My favorite author photo is this one of Jack London:

    http://www.whataboutclients.com/archives/london1.jpg

    –Anne

  3. J. P
    at 12:31 pm on October 28, 2009

    I think this photo of William Vollmann captures just the right blend of seriousness and self-deprecation:

    http://www.themodernword.com/SCRIPTorium/vollmann.jpg

  4. kristen
    at 12:35 pm on October 28, 2009

    I recently looked at an author’s photo and said “yikes!” because he looked so frightening. I’ll see if I can remember who it was and hunt it down.

  5. Leslie
    at 12:48 pm on October 28, 2009

    I was always jealous of the one of Patricia Cornwell, standing in a bomber jacket in front of an airplane, as if to say, “Look what MY books can buy!”

  6. Carolyn
    at 1:12 pm on October 28, 2009

    The head-in-hand thing isn’t just about being thoughtful, it implies the connection between the mind and the hand of the writer. Hey look, I’ve got a hand! My hand is in the picture! Writers write with hands!

  7. The Second Pass
    at 3:10 pm on October 28, 2009

    […] grandparents?” . . . Edan Lepucki considers the anxieties of the author photo, and particularly the stunning(ly goofy) work of Marion Ettlinger. (“Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful.  Most of the time, though, they look like […]

  8. Cecil
    at 4:39 pm on October 28, 2009

    How about the prop (other-than-dog) photo, perhaps more apparent in kid lit? Or the wacky-setting-because-I-am-deep photo? Sometimes both prop and wacky setting photos work super well. Other times – not so much.

    Maybe for my next author photo I will go to glamour shots!

  9. Author Photos « Life After M.F.A.
    at 4:49 pm on October 28, 2009

    […] a comment » A post over at The Rumpus led me to a post over at The Millions led me to Marion Ettlinger’s online gallery. OK, so there’s my paper […]

  10. Austin Kleon
    at 4:51 pm on October 28, 2009
  11. Tom B.
    at 4:53 pm on October 28, 2009

    Ellroy’s dog wasn’t (just) a prop — he and Barko (the pit bull) posed together for photos several times.

  12. Tom B.
    at 4:55 pm on October 28, 2009

    Argh — hit the submit button too soon. Meant to say that Barko belonged to Ellroy.

  13. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 5:22 pm on October 28, 2009

    One of my favorite things about the PEN World Voices festival catalogue is the profusion of author photos in close context. (You can see them here: http://www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/1792 ). It’s always amusing to calculate the “hand” percentage…as in, this year 42% of authors are cupping their face with their hand.

  14. Edan Lepucki
    at 5:27 pm on October 28, 2009

    Thanks, Tom B., for the clarification. I guess it’s not necessarily the dog-in-photo that I protest, but the style and tone of the photo itself. I love all the other examples you guys have mentioned. Let’s see some more!

  15. Anne Trubek
    at 9:13 pm on October 28, 2009
  16. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 11:24 pm on October 28, 2009

    I’m of the “my husband took my photograph on my rooftop the day before it was due” camp, myself. Eventually I’ll get a new picture done, but professional photographers are so damned expensive.

  17. Patrick
    at 1:37 am on October 29, 2009

    Emily,
    Your picture is great, so you don’t need a new one. The worst your picture could be accused of saying is “I live in New York,” but I mean, don’t all the authors?

  18. Edan Lepucki
    at 1:43 am on October 29, 2009

    Yeah, Emily, I thought your picture *was* taken by a professional!

  19. Bookninja » Blog Archive » On silly author photos
    at 10:25 am on October 29, 2009

    […] The Millions has a funny piece on the absurdities of some jacket photos. Listen, I once had a photographer ask me to climb up on a ledge on Susan Sontag’s roof so he could get the Empire State Building in the shot. We do what we’re told when people pay attention to us. 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? […]

  20. Chelsey
    at 2:32 pm on October 29, 2009

    TC Boyle’s gallery of author photos has been my favorite for years.
    The leather!
    The rayon!
    The murals!
    The fuzzy scraggle of hair (facial and cranial)!
    A stunning gallery of bad ideas. http://tcboyle.com/page2.html?5

  21. Daniel Cecil
    at 5:10 am on October 30, 2009

    No, some authors live in Europe.

    I vote Dan Brown into the last minute press photo category:

    http://angryweb.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/danbrown.jpg

  22. C. Max Magee
    at 1:29 pm on October 30, 2009

    Gary Shteyngart is my all-time favorite: http://www.rolfpotts.com/pictures/writers/sht2.jpg

  23. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 4:18 pm on October 30, 2009

    And, lest we forget the cat-people writers, behold this photo of Philip K. Dick clutching a demented tuxedo cat: http://learn.bowdoin.edu/italian/dante/pkdwithcat.jpg

    It’s the cover photo for the Library of America edition of PKD.

  24. sarah ciston
    at 8:05 pm on October 30, 2009

    Chabon and Boyle should get their own special category, of the one-disturbing-tendril-of-hair-in-the-face-to-denote-eccentricity variety.

    And, Dan Brown, no holding of your own book allowed! Or else maybe that’s a whole separate category we hadn’t thought of? Authors everywhere holding copies of The DaVinci Code.

  25. Justin Bryant
    at 12:23 am on November 2, 2009

    Nice article, but I have to point out Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House Press and the late great Moby Lives wrote a very funny piece about Ettlinger’s photos.

    http://www.mobylives.com/Ettlinger.html

  26. Edan Lepucki
    at 11:12 am on November 2, 2009

    Thanks, Justin, for pointing this essay out. It’s great, and I’m sorry to have missed it before, when I was penning my own.

  27. Justin Bryant
    at 1:22 am on November 3, 2009

    Well it’s nearly a decade old and buried in the ML archives, so don’t feel bad for missing it. Yours is excellent too.

  28. Charlotte
    at 9:40 pm on November 3, 2009

    Great stuff. I feel though that there’s some unaddressed territory here – the I-stopped-having-new-author-photos-taken-when-I-turned-forty-two-even-though-now-I-am-sixty-seven category.

    I am considering entering this phase myself right about now…

  29. How to Avoid an Author Photo Fail
    at 6:15 pm on May 6, 2010

    […] to take care of the rest. And, no, you don’t have to fork over the big bucks to get “Ettlingered,” but remember that your photo is a marketing tool, so don’t skimp on the budget.Phenix & […]

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