I was recently paging through a book called Author Photo by Marion Ettlinger. The title says everything. It’s one of a number of such compilations and I buy every one I come upon. It’s a strange compulsion, I know.
I started studying writers’ faces early and have never outgrown my fascination. I study my tribe from a distance, and do so via appearances. I find that the slow inspection of postures, features and backgrounds grounds me in some way— as if I’m bringing these elusive figures back into the physical world, the place of fallibility. That’s one explanation, but there are so many others.
When I was very young, I would watch my mother reading. She would sit in her black chair without moving for hours, while I waited for her to notice me. What was she doing? What could be that interesting?
Then I learned what writers were—people who could pull whole worlds out of nowhere, who knew how to cast their spells on my mother. I was fascinated. I began to look at her books, to study the photographs on the back cover. Even before I could read myself, I was working on the mystery of who these gods were.
The mystery did not fall away when I did learn to read. If anything, it grew deeper. I felt the contradiction between the energy and imagination that created the work, and the calm reflectiveness presented in the photographs of the creators themselves. That caught me and holds me still. It’s part of the reason I keep looking at these photo books. I want to keep studying the paradox, but I now also see how it represents a much greater split in our living—between outer and inner, between the so-called world-as-it-is and the hidden energies of imagination.
That contradiction was what pulled me to books and writing. Interested as I was by noteworthy achievements in the outer world, I could also find explanations for most of them, be it physical training for athletic feats, or the applied calculations of engineering and science. Whereas this other thing—using words to create a dream-like merging of inner and outer worlds— seemed a genuine mystery.
Pondering the split does not lead to any easy conclusions. The inner life of imagination or the act of creation offers so little purchase. How can we ever get close except by considering the works themselves? But there’s something to be said about this other approach. It is oblique, but I feel that by contemplating the author photo, we might surmise not only what the writer was looking to project, and what the photographer thought would be the best representation, but also what we ourselves seek out and expect.
Studying these images, we can’t help but consider the nature of the style and basic subject matter. We look differently at a photo of Elmore Leonard than, say, William Gass. In the first instance, I would surely be screening for any evidence of the noirish state of mind, whereas with Gass, my sense of the work might have me looking for features that might conduce to sophisticated wordplay and darkly paradoxical imaginings. I have no way of knowing what the outsider who has read neither might find, but the fact that I try to guess shows the powerful sway our projections have.
Photographers recognize this, of course, and sometimes they play against type: putting the hard-boiled figure in a docile setting, or the mild-mannered one in front of some tumultuous scene. The point of this, I suppose, is to foreground a key aspect of character as part of the portrait—and, also, to call some attention to his or her inventiveness. I think of Annie Leibovitz’s photo of Whoopi Goldberg all but submerged in a bathtub full of milk. The image is at once outré, catching something of Goldberg’s public persona, but it also suggests racial identity as an element of the actor’s presentation. Is it really a portrait of Whoopi as individual, or is it saying that these aspects of her character cannot really be separated out from her core identity? Certainly it is Leibovitz taking her assignment in a fresh direction, and forcing us to remark on her artistic performance.
One of the obvious challenges of taking an author photo is what to do with the subject’s eyes, his and her way of looking at the lens. The photographer naturally wants to convey a resonant inwardness, for that is the vocation’s essence. But how to do that? Some portraits try to capture pensiveness—the writer shown with a brooding look against a background of books, with the books not only making the literal connection to the craft, but also collectively representing the great continuity of the life of the mind. The expression of the eyes—the gaze—is a key element here; it would defeat the purpose if the subject looked completely expressionless. But how to get the best nuance? Does the photographer say something like, “Think about something you’re writing”?
Whatever the directive might have been, we have no real idea what is behind the look. But here again our projections are vital. We fill out whatever the photo shows us with our private sense of who the person is. The unfixed stare, or the contemplatively downcast eyes, are an ideal screen. Knowing something about the writer, we fill the suggestive unknown of the expression with atmospheres we’ve taken from the work. Alice Munro would not be thinking about boxing, but rather the infinite complexity of human relationships. Tom McGuane would not be wondering about childhood memories, but would be, so we suppose, focused on the harshness of the natural world, or something like that. Our assumptions are inevitably part of our experience of the photo, as the photographer knows well.
But there are also photos, many of them, for which the instruction was clearly “Look right at me!” which in effect means: “Look right at me so that you will appear to be looking right at the person viewing the photo.” This creates a different dynamic. Now we are not observing and projecting. Rather, we are being observed, and venturing projections is much more difficult. When looked at, you lose distance and any semblance of objectivity. Instead, you are drawn into a peculiar alliance with the author. You know it’s a pose, yet at some level you feel you are being seen. This brings you much closer to the writer’s “inwardness,” not just via the faux eye contact, but also because when you are being regarded by another—or an image of another—you are not examining the features of the face as you otherwise would.
I do find it disturbing, though, that while I can’t resist the implicit power of the gaze directed right at me, I also know it’s an illusion. The writer is looking at everyone in that way, which means that he’s not looking at any one person. His direct stare is really a travesty of a direct stare—it is objectless. And it hinders, for finally I find that I can neither study the face as I would like to, or project imaginings on it as I otherwise inevitably do.
This direct gaze might be more a feature of Ettlinger’s style, for as I now turn to look through Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk, I find a very different (and to me far more compelling) approach. Here are photographs of writers in their working element—sitting at a desk working, leaning back and gazing into the familiar indeterminate distance and so on. Where Ettlinger’s photos present the writer being photographed, Krementz’s try to persuade us that we are getting a voyeuristically privileged glimpse into the writer’s sanctified lair. The effect is enhanced by the fact that not one of the dozens photographed looks remotely prepared to be captured by a lens. Not Edwidge Danticat, not Peter Matthiessen, not Saul Bellow, not Eudora Welty, and certainly not Krementz’s husband, Kurt Vonnegut. Which is to say that it’s not the individual that is the subject, but the individual’s presence at the site of his or her creation.
Krementz’s approach is a kind of cinema verité version of portraiture. Paradoxically, though, it is a greater artifice than Ettlinger’s: the poses and expressions make it clear that there is a camera directly opposite. Which to prefer? If the criterion were honesty-in-depiction, I would vote one way. But if the photo were considered as an object of meditation, I would go another.
It’s worth considering at this point that all of the subjects know, of course, that they are being “taken.” Ettlinger’s are, I suspect, in some way urged to present their essential selves for portraiture. Krementz’s are told, maybe, “Pretend I’m not here.” They are ambushed at a moment the photographer sees what she wants, something characteristic about what they are like in the solitary pursuit of their inspiration. But don’t forget, they know they are being stalked. Does this bit of awareness change anything? Is there not the slightest shamming going on? How not?
Sham or no sham, I find it telling that I get a much stronger sense of a writer’s being if I see her at her desk, even if it’s just a face in profile (e.g. Krementz’s photograph of Eudora Welty), than from the full-face portrait, no matter how expressive. This is not really a mystery, I suppose. Most of us are inveterate readers of clues, semioticians of the world around us. There is a vastly greater amount of information in the situational image than in the portrait. I can stare all I want at Ettlinger’s profile of Truman Capote, which is as evocative a profile as can be imagined. But I can only read so far into the tilt of head and the set of the mouth.
There comes a point—it comes soon—when I can do nothing more than conjure and surmise. How much do I elicit from Krementz’s photo of John Ashbery, sitting upright at a desk, typing on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, seen only in partial profile. We register from his posture his absorption, his intentness (almost banishing the idea of a photographer in the room), and we take a good deal away from the rest of the scene: the absolutely utilitarian office desk, with file drawers on one side; the architect’s lamp; the cheap white slatted blinds; and the anomalous presence of a computer monitor pushed back into the corner where the walls meet.
What I surmise—which I never would from studying a facial portrait—is that here is a writer who refuses the traditional comforts of the workspace. The room really could be an office cubicle, with nothing wooden, nothing soft, no books, no window view. The neatly vested poet looks completely absorbed in his task; he is almost a monk. Does this mean he eschews the amenities, or that he is so subject to temptation that he must turn away from everything in order to work? The image, paradoxically, has us thinking in terms of a more vivid inwardness—a mind-state that can overcome all that surrounding drabness. We get less of this sense of inward pressure when we view the writer, Robert Penn Warren, say, installed in a more familiar sort of clutter . . .
It was while looking through yet another book of writer photos—this one by Nancy Crampton—that I came across a central consideration. In Mark Strand’s short foreword he writes: “We may be looking at the photo of a face, but what we feel is the presence of Crampton’s attention. The issue of discovering a connection between the photographs of authors and what we have experienced in one or many of their books is put aside...There is more to her photographs than just the face of an author. The positioning of the body, the angle of the head, the sudden or gradual fall of light—all play a part in creating pictures that magically combine the immediacy of a snapshot and the premeditated calm of a formal portrait.”
Attention—I had looked past a major component of any photograph, but one that is possibly even more central where images of writers are concerned. For the serious photographer will have done her research, will have read some of the subject-to-be’s work and will necessarily have a strong impression of the person she is going to “take.” This impression cannot but guide the process—the staging, the angles, the lighting, and so on. The result is at some level an interpretation, a reading of character based on impressions and intuitions. The writer, meanwhile, who by his very nature solicits attention, is certainly hyper-attuned to the intensity of this focus. Writer or not, one can’t not feel flattered when posing for a photographer. How rarely such unwavering attention is felt! The subject feels looked at, important. And this must, in the way of Heisenberg’s dictum, affect the result. A person sure of being looked at appears different than a person captured incidentally.
The photographer, who is looking for the best way to transmit her sense of the writer’s character, trains her lens on the author who, highly aware of this, consciously or unconsciously looks to somehow signify his authorial self.
The photograph marks the point of meeting of photographer and writer.
Thinking back now on my early fascination, and how it has continued, I realize that while the act of looking is a constant, and the images are the very same, there have been great changes. The writer-subjects have, of course, all aged in real time, as have the import and significance of their work. I have aged as well. A writer who I once took to be a genuine grown-up, with all the wisdoms accruing to adults, appears to be the young man he in fact was. The re-reckoning of age changes other things. I see the postures as just that, the expressions as (mainly) adopted for the occasion. The gazes are now less an invitation to the voyage, more a necessary part of the posing. And so on.
Does this reduce the hold that the idea of authorship has on me? A certain amount, sure. I have brought these writers down from the mythological sublime they once occupied for me and returned them to regular citizenship. But, for whatever reason, they still occupy a world apart from other worlds. Maybe—just maybe—this is because, age or posture notwithstanding, I still feel they contain worlds; they are creators and keepers of an unseen order of things. To me they will always represent the realm of the possible, the yet to be that is vitally implicit in the human imagination. Gray-bearded and daft as I may become, there won’t be a time when I stop pondering the physiognomies of these inscrutable people who preside over language and keep piquing and unsettling us with the way they see.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).
He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)