Garry Craig Powell


Author of  Stoning the Devil

3/26/17  Is This a Good 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?

Author photo used for Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012)

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.

  • Rissa Miller

    As a writer, I feel you on this. I hate having my picture made, and as I
    get closer to finishing my novel, I am toiling with the “author photo.”
    However my full time career for 15 years has been in photography ~
    first photojournalism and then commercial photography. I’ve been part of
    hundred if not thousand of headshots for authors, actors, models,
    business owners, CEOs, chefs, stylists, athletes – the list could go on.
    An author photo is a connection, like any other headshot. No matter how
    much anyone loves words, the human element is critical. The author
    photo explains to a reader, in seconds, WHO you are. Being young and
    attractive or grizzly and wise is not a plus for some people – but having a genuine, authentic and recent photo
    that reads in a moment, is a plus for anyone. What makes a great author
    photo is always connection. I could bore you with the technical aspects
    of how that happens in a picture, but like any art, it’s subjective. If
    you want to browse the most amazing personality-defining pictures ever,
    check out the work of Arnold Newman, As a photographer, I can only dream
    to create such imagery; as a writer, I can only dream to have that much of
    my personality show up in a picture. 🙂 We give our clients this advice –
    pick your favorite five images and have strangers tell you which one is
    best. People who know you have baggage when they see your photo; most
    readers are going to be strangers. 🙂 Good luck with those author
    photos, Garry!

    • Garry Craig Powell

      Rissa, my apologies for only replying to this comment now, since I’ve only just seen it. What a wonderful, insightful comment it is too. You’re right about the connection: a really good photograph makes us feel we know the subject. Sadly, most of us are not lucky enough to be photographed by artists like Arnold Newman! (Or you, I suspect.) Thanks for the advice too. I shall take it, next time the occasion arises. Good luck with finding your own best photo–and finishing your novel.

About Garry Craig Powell

Garry Craig Powell

Garry Craig Powell, 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 novel-in-stories, Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012), set in Dubai and other parts of the United Arab Emirates. His short fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2009, McSweeney’s, Nimrod, New Orleans Review, and other literary magazines. He has been awarded fellowships by the Arkansas Arts Council and the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow. He has completed a novel about the Italian poet, playboy, war hero, pirate and proto-fascist statesman, Gabriele D’Annunzio.