The Author Photograph
Is This a Good Author Photograph?
When University of Central Arkansas student Park Lanford took this picture of me a couple of weeks ago (for the school’s literary magazine, the Vortex), I immediately thought, “That looks like an author photograph.” My next thought was, “Why is that? What makes a good author photograph?” Do you need, if you are a man, to look somewhat craggy, earnest and intense, as I do here? Does it help to be bearded, as so many of the giants of literature in the past have been? I am being facetious, but you get my point. For obvious reasons, perhaps, publishers favour full-face pictures. For less obvious ones, at least for ‘literary’ authors, they prefer deadly seriousness. If you want to be worried to death by your next dose of fiction, it looks as if the shot above is a winner. But what about this one?
In fact this is the shot that I and my publisher, Daniel Staniforth of Skylight Press, decided on when my collection Stoning the Devil came out in 2012 (picture by Christina Reaves). It’s unusual because I’m not looking into the camera, and I’m smiling–not only unusual for an author photograph, but perhaps also for me. However, perhaps it wasn’t the most appropriate shot because although there is humour in the book, it’s black, and the overall tone of the story cycle is bleak.
Here are a couple of other photos, taken by Dayana Galindo in Portugal last year, that I thought might work as author photographs, I suppose because they seemed appropriately soulful as I gaze into the distance:
But really, what is wrong with this, also taken by Dayana Galindo in Portugal (in Evora), earlier in 2016?
Perhaps simply too cheerful and light-hearted for a deep-souled literary man?
The serious point buried in my levity of is that marketing matters for a writer, sadly. A couple of weeks ago, when Jennifer Steil, author of The Ambassador’s Wife, spoke at UCA, she admitted that she buys books based on the covers. So do I, I confess. And I think we buy books based on the author’s photographs too. We want to be charmed, entertained, enlightened; above all, we don’t want to be bored. So we may judge a book by its cover and its blurbs and the picture of the author. A cursory look at the bestseller lists will show how many authors are young or at least look young, and attractive, these days. That seems to matter (sadly, for the crusty old guys like me.) Authors are being asked to make videos, and the big houses hold professional shoots for their authors. We may deplore this development–I do–but I fear that the pressure on writers to be glamorous and chic, to project an image, to have a brand–how loathesome that term is!–will only increase in our money-driven arts scene, especially in the States.
Garry Craig Powell
Garry Craig Powell, until 2017 professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas, was educated at the universities of Cambridge, Durham, and Arizona. Living in the Persian Gulf and teaching on the women’s campus of the National University of the United Arab Emirates inspired him to write his story collection, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), which was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2009, McSweeney’s, Nimrod, New Orleans Review, and other literary magazines. Powell lives in northern Portugal and writes full-time. His novel, Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, was published by Flame Books in 2022, and is available from their website, Amazon, and all good bookshops.
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