CERTAIN PROFESSIONS ALMOST GUARANTEE a minimal level of physical attractiveness: astronaut, actor, trophy wife, anyone who handles a pole, whether fireman or exotic dancer. With their vigorous, active lives and multiple cosmetic procedures, these are humans other humans want to see.
Writers? Not so much.
Our lives are spent plopped on the gluteal upholstery for eight hours a day with only imaginary friends for company, spinning lies, marinating in envy, and wondering when the Pulitzer committee is going to twig to our brilliance. This is not the route to the body beautiful. This is the route to the complexion phosphorescent and eye bags like poached eggs.
Why, then, the author photo? Shouldn’t authors be read and not seen? This is my firm position, taken as I contemplate a contact sheet of photos intended for use on the jacket of my next novel.
Let us now consider legendary authors and their photos. The burly macho of Hemingway. The Jazz Age elegance of F. Scott. The dewy depravity of Truman Capote. The neurasthenic splendor of Virginia Woolf. The craggy magnificence of Lillian Hellman. Let us now consider this contact sheet I have before me. Hmmm. Seems all I really got right are the crags—that and a hint of macho around the mustache I probably should have waxed.
Once, in a kingdom long ago and far, far away, Eudora Welty was what a serious female writer looked like. You didn’t study Welty’s transcendentally compassionate face and wonder, “You been hitting the Botox, babe? Had some ‘work’ done?” Now we have Zadie Smith. Super writer. Supermodel. Probably an extraterrestrial.
Best not to dwell on Zadie as I address my current dilemma: I need an author photo for a book that is completely serious. I need a pensive, staring-out-the-window shot, a classic AP based on Rodin’s The Thinker, angsty enough to warn readers that there is no yukfest in store. I need Marion Ettlinger, famous photographer of famous authors, who seems to have revealed to her subjects right before clicking the shutter, “You’ve got pancreatic cancer and three months to live. Now, stick your chin in your hand and deal!”
Okay, maybe I don’t absolutely have to look as if I’m trying to decide who I’m going to leave Mama’s china to, but this current AP must communicate a lack of funny-osity. I don’t want disappointed readers around the world, misled by my grinning mug, asking, “Pas du yuks?” “Vo ist der yuks?” “Donde estan los yukos grandes?” Or, most plaintively, in the poignant glottal clicks of my base, the bushmen of the Kalahari, “N!xau/!+?”
Still, as I review the bags and crags, I find myself trapped between two competing desires: that of every woman who ever gets in front of a lens to appear fifteen years or fifteen pounds lighter and that of the Serious Arthur to project the kind of gravitas that gets her reviewed in Important Books Weekly.
On one hand, I need to look like Lillian Hellman after a bad bender, yet I still yearn for the diffusion filter, that special gift to women that makes it appear as if we were photographed in a steam bath. The pound-of-Vaseline-on-the-lens quality of the filter erases crow’s-feet, laugh lines, complexion irregularities, mouths, noses, and ethnic identity. With enough filtering and eye makeup, the subject can end up looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost. Just two heavily outlined and mascaraed holes floating in a sheet of white. The diffusion filter, however, creates its own set of wrinkles. No writer wants to show up at a book signing and have some fevered fan ask when her daughter, the smokin’ soft-focus babe on the jacket, is going to appear. Nor does she want to discover a walker and an oxygen tank waiting.
The problem is that I outsourced. As with all my other author photos, I should have done this one in-house. Intrepid young photojournalist I once was, I loved cooking up my AP. The head shot was my idea of a major yawn, which is why I’m having a tea party with my coonhound, Honey, in my first AP. In the second, I am “washing the dog,” a saucy snap of me at a Laundromat measuring Tide into a cup while long-suffering Honey sits, disgruntled, inside a washer.
I tried full nudity in the next attempt. As part of a story this very publication was doing, a genuine celebrity photographer, Mark Seliger, was dispatched to my backyard. Because I had stupidly revealed that, like Voltaire, much of my writing was accomplished in bed while wearing jammies, minions set up an antique bed and perched an antique typewriter and an increasingly antique writer upon it. They dressed me in striped cotton pj’s that cost $150 and came from Neiman Marcus and told me not to sweat on them, since they were going right back. Ditto for the striped sheets. The baby was mine; I got to keep him.
Teen Boy was eight months old at the time, and because I begged for just one picture with him, he was turned loose for the last shot. As reflectors were adjusted to focus even more blinding sunlight into my eyes, he crawled onto the expensive sheets with me, and I managed my first real smile of the day. As much as Teen Boy now hates this photo of the cutest tushie on the planet, I love it. The stripes. The sweat. The postpartum depression. My golden-haired boy. It captures motherhood perfectly: a prisoner doing hard time on the rapture chain gang.
Alcohol enlivened the next two outings. My new best friend, Carl, beside me in the AP for Virgin of the Rodeo, was bounteously lubricated. The editor of Virgin objected to the photo on the grounds that it appeared that Carl was trying to cop a feel. I assured her that this was indeed his aim, and the case was closed. Since Carl projected a far more compelling authorial presence in the photo than I did, I borrowed his technique for a subsequent effort. On the jacket of Yokota Officers Club you will find me, freakishly large hand on chin, toasted to a mellow golden glow. (El Hubbo, the Hub of My Universe, snapped this one in a bar with a disposable camera from Walgreens.)
How quickly, though, we forget the wisdom of the elders. Before the AP for my latest novel was taken, I neglected to get a buzz on, and, boy, does it show. A nip or two would have really helped take the edge off when the photographer told me about the pancreatic cancer.
Sarah Bird’s author pictures
The Flamenco Academy
The Boyfriend School
The Mommy Club
The Yokota Officers Club
Virgin of the Rodeo