An Approximate Taxonomy of Author Photos

At least the incidence of lip and mouth cancer (not to mention plenty of others, or cardiovascular diseases) might have fallen since we moved on from the prototype author shot featuring a pipe and a tweed jacket – preferably with those patches of leather on the elbows to accommodate authorial lounging across the writing desk. It seemed to be the look chosen by/for almost all authors on my parents old hardbacks (with the possible exception of Virgina Woolf).

Some author pics in the weekend papers had me thinking of author photos over the years, and the looks that become re-used time and again.

When I started out we were well into the hand-to-chin (and/or finger-to-temple) era, and I was called upon to do it a few times. You know the pose. The author may or may not be leaning on something, but has chosen to bring their hand to their chin contemplatively, often with the index finger half signalling a new idea and half giving the temple a gentle massage. During most of the 90s, practically no author heads were photographed hands-free. It seemed as though authors must have the necks of neonates and require a hand to support their otherwise-lolling heads at all times.

Next came the pic of the author fascinated by reading his/her own book. Elle Macpherson aside, I don’t know of any author who would choose to do that. Give me the surprise of the unturned page any day. But no, there we have it, with the person in the world least able to be fascinated by the book and least likely to open it willingly, posed with eyes glued to a randomly chosen middlish page. Have literary editors never worked out how abnormal this is? And what’s the picture trying to say anyway? ‘This article is about reading. Don’t know what reading is? Please see attached pic.’ (No, what it actually says is most newspaper photographers are seriously time poor.)

My preferred variant of this species of author photo is the one where the author has a pen hovering over the page, as though a random edit this late in the day isn’t out of the question, or as if they might spontaneously doodle on p178, something not really encouraged by bookshops. But perhaps this pic also has a message. Maybe it says: ‘This article is about writing. Don’t know what writing is?’ etc.

The newer crop of author pics – and I saw a fine example of this one on the weekend – is the author looking mildly perplexed about something happening 30cm in front of their nose. Either that’s where ideas happen and what they look like, or the author has just wandered into the garden without their glasses and found something that might be either (a) a lost dinner plate or (b) a tiny alien space ship sitting exactly where the camera is. We all know that an author, deep in monotasking their way through a grand idea, doesn’t in the end have much chance of differentiating between the two.

Then of course there are the author shots with legs – the shot from a decade (or more, or much more) ago that the author likes a bit too much and hangs onto and hangs onto and hangs onto as they become increasingly more tattered themselves. Or that’s what we all think about those I’m-forever-28 author shots, isn’t it? In fact, it’s rarely anything to do with the author at all. The simple truth is, old pics never die and, in the age of the internet, they die even less. Magazines and festival organisers source them from who knows where, and out they come again.

Usually it just looks like author vanity but, with the right (or very wrong) pic, it can send a different message entirely.

I remember meeting a well-credentialled British author in her 60s when she was touring Australian some years ago. We were on at the same festival and I’d seen the program beforehand, in which her picture made her look a bit like, well, Mrs Pankhurst. In real life, she was so unlike the image that I actually asked her about it. ‘Oh, that,’ she said. ‘That’s been annoying me for weeks now. I don’t know where they got it, but it’s been preceding me all over Australia. Everyone thinks I must be an Edwardian re-enacter, or that everything I write’s set in Edwardian times. It was taken years ago, on the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage. I was playing Mrs Pankhurst.’

Mostly though, it’s the same kind of pics we see time and again. Which is why you see the occasional whacky author shot. Because after a tour full of predictable posing day after day, if a photographer says, ‘How about we dress you up in a bear skin and you pretend to club this stuffed sabre-toothed tiger?’ even the most introverted author might just decide to hit monotony on the head and say Yes.

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6 Responses to An Approximate Taxonomy of Author Photos

  1. DrD says:

    Thanks for this post, made me laugh! I’m just booking a photographer for my author shots and am terrified! I have looked at all my books for ideas, and yes, they seem to be a mixture of harry-high-pants men leaning against bookcases, or women reclined in leather chairs reading. I’m not sure what I’ll end up with!

  2. Rob Payne says:

    I used the same photo for five books. Luckily, over all those years I didn’t age, so I was OK.

    About two years ago there was a deluge of “author with his/her dog” shots. Now obviously some of those dogs might have helped with the book (research, copy editing, etc)… but some were freeloading on the fame.*

    *fame! ha ha ha, I meant minor and fleeting attention

    • nickearls says:

      I think it was Martin Amis who said he grew up seeing his father photographed with the family cat so many times that he assumed it was a more important family member than him.

      Then one photoshoot I agreed to that involved our cat unfortunately followed a vet visit in which the cat’s temperature had been taken rectally. The photographer arrived and started setting up and all seemed to be going well. Then he pulled out a tripod with extendable steel legs. The cat’s eyes practically bugged out of his head, and he tore a piece from the shoulder of my shirt on his way out. I’d swear he thought it was the biggest rectal thermometer he’d ever seen.

  3. Lia Weston says:

    I’m kind of stupid, so it didn’t even occur to me to get an author photo done when I signed a contract, let alone finished the book. My publisher sent me a note asking for one “by tomorrow”. Cue panic. I needed a haircut, an outfit, better genes and a photographer. In the end, I was perched on a rickety stool in an acquaintance’s kitchen while my best friend held pieces of paper next to my head to reflect the flash. Then my husband lovingly air-brushed all of the sweat, terror and stray hairs out of the final shot. Now when people say, “Oh, what a lovely pic!” I laugh and laugh.

    The only other useable picture out of fifty taken was this one, which I converted into black and white so you couldn’t see how desperately damp my face was. Ha!

    • nickearls says:

      Brilliant effort. I think my favourite part is the shamelessly crap approach to the flekkie. If only pro photographers knew all they needed was someone to hold a couple of piece of paper next to your head, instead of popping out a huge gleaming look-at-me-I’m-a-pro-photographer disk.

      • Lia Weston says:

        And then you follow it up with a PC without Photoshop – poor husband used Paint to do his painstaking pixel-by-pixel retouching. (It must be love. Or OCD, either one.)

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