Sunday, September 18, 2011

Author photos

There are two tasks that most writers detest: Pitching story ideas to publishers, and having their author photos made. The former will always be with us; the latter is something that rears its head periodically, dragging with it the weight of years that have somehow failed to steel the author's invariably sensitive ego, which is now charged with publicly personifying both itself and its creation, the book, for skeptical shoppers and for posterity. Vanity, is what it is. Although, I must say, this elderly gent doesn't seem to mind it one bit, and he pulls it off pretty well.

Who shall I be? The pensive author, perusing a book (inevitably, his own), sitting at a desk, refillable ink pen in hand, musing at a computer monitor or, in olden days, a typewriter? Chin resting on the palm of his hand in a paneled study? Glance around the room, surely there’s a pipe in there somewhere. But wait, this guy's actually using one for a prop, still.

Also, those look suspiciously not like books on the shelf behind him, which makes you wonder what he's staring at.

It's possible to pull off the reflective author with pipe thing, of course. This guy did it pretty well -- in fact
he's probably got 10 author photos where he's holding the stereotypical prop. It appears to have been a kind of branding, but considering that he's the greatest writer in American history, to date, I guess we should give him a pass.

Then there's the glossy head-shot, with all it evokes about success, but not to the point of implying inaccessibility. Everyone is attracted to good-looking people, right? So long as they don't appear to be overly aware of their good looks. This one works, I think, though it may simply be because she's so pretty.
There’s the happy author, the offbeat author, the serious author, the author "in the field," the author posing with his dog, each with their own special lighting, backdrops and facial expressions. And what to wear? You dress like a writer, which is to say, your clothes say very little.

But I keep coming back to... the hand, used as a prop, literally. Lots and lots of those.
The updating of the author photo is now upon me and the co-author of my next book, Michael Rejebian, and though the photographer we used had an original take, and chose a suitably decadent venue – an abandoned building in the ruined Farish Street neighborhood of Jackson, Miss., she could not quite overcome my distaste for posing for author photos, and it shows.

In most of my author photos I am borderline morose. This one is actually my slightly happy pose. Also, I’m staring away from the camera, as if to say… what? That I don’t know my picture is being taken?

For my first author photo I used a picture taken by my friend Nancy Goldman on the occasion of my 40th birthday trip to Italy. It was a truly candid shot, taken by someone I liked, at a happy time. That’s why it worked so well, right up to the point that at a signing for my book Mississippi in Africa, in 2003, someone asked, in passing, “When was this picture of you taken?” The only possible subtext of the question was that it did
not appear to have been taken yesterday. I had to face the fact that as much as I liked to think so, I no longer looked precisely as I had looked just eight years before. I didn’t even know, until the question was asked, that it had been that long.

This is how you get those occasional obituaries in the newspaper where someone who died at age 92 looks, in the photo, as if he wasn’t a day past 40. He just didn't like most of the pictures taken during the last 52 years of his life.

Thus chastened, I arranged to reshoot the Mississippi in Africa author photo for the first paperback edition, using something more “up-to-date.” James Patterson, a very skilled photographer in Jackson, took a series of photos that he and his then-assistant pronounced really wonderful, but in which, I couldn’t help but observe, I looked considerably older than the 27-year-old I still saw myself as.

Next up, the author photo for my book Sultana, taken by a photog friend in New York City, Everett McCourt. It's artistic and striking, but I look a bit ill. Also, I appear to be as grave as a monk -- actually an appropriate look, I suppose, for the author of a book in which thousands of people die, but still.

For the upcoming book, We're With Nobody, I needed to look the opposite of morose, because the book is both serious and funny – quirky, even. But in this effort I was thwarted by the photo-shoot dynamic, in which I appear to be very studiously considering what I look like, to the detriment of how I look.

So I went back to James, who had taken a series of photos at my house for a magazine article, and offered to let me use any of them for my author photo, gratis. For the purposes of the upcoming book, I’d have actually rather gone with something less mainstream, such as the next one you see, below. But at a certain point trying to look “different” speaks to a familiar paradigm – look how little I seem to care about the paradigm of author publicity photos, even as I artificially showcase my face for an author publicity photo. Also, I think this photo is about eight years old now, too. And one of my eyes is open a little wider than the other.

It could be worse, I guess. You could always come off looking strange, like these people who turned up during a Google search of "author photos:"

Or just, not someone whose book you'd want to read.

But there's always the possibility that you'll look cool, middle aged and appropriate to the subject matter, such as my friend Sebastian, who's got a lot to work with.

In the end, I’m thinking of going with this one, taken by James, but I go back and forth. I'm still not looking at the camera, but at least I'm not morose, or weird, and I'm not propping my head up with my hand. Plus, 10 years from now, it’ll look young to me.

Like I said, it's all about purposeful vanity. I've posted a note about the process of selecting a photo of myself, as if you should care, and used it as an excuse to highlight various photos of myself, in none of which does my bald spot show. That is one more reason why this is such a distasteful task. I need you to like my photo.

This is Michael, by the way, having his author photo shot by Christina Cannon:

All of us, when we see ourselves in a photo with a group of people, our eyes invariably land on our own image first. We care how the world sees us, and I can assure you that it's even worse when you need to personify a product that you very much want the world to buy.

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