The Author photograph

This piece first appeared in The Author, the magazine of the Society of Authors

by Jill Dawson

It’s that time again. The novel is put to bed, the publicity round (or nail-biting lack of it) is yet to start and meanwhile there is a casual request from the Marketing department at my publisher that perhaps it’s time for a more up to date jacket photograph of the author? No budget is mentioned so I could of course use the time-honoured low fee husband-as-photographer ruse. I’d at least be sure I’d cleared permission to use it and manage to spell his name right on the credits. Still, that youthful photograph he took of me on my second novel with (now I look harder) a wallpaper background that gives me Mickey Mouse ears was perhaps not well advised. That is only one of my author photograph disasters: I could also mention the time I, heavily pregnant, mentioned I felt less than glamorous and the photographer whipped out a lipstick and lent me his own green fur-collared robe to wear. There’s more: there’s one of me sitting on a bench which had huge curving arms that I now realise looks exactly as if I was in a wheelchair. No wonder festival-organisers seemed astonished when I turned up, walking.

So I seek out a few professionals and ask them: what makes a good author photograph?

Should I stand in front of my carefully arranged bookshelves (Flaubert’s Madame Bovary just peeping out from behind my cheek) or sit in my leather armchair, exhaling smoke nonchalantly upwards…..if only I was Will Self and could get away with it. Serious or smiling?

The portrait painter Miss La Creevy in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby claims ‘there are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk; and we always use the serious for professional people (except actors sometimes), and the smirk for private ladies and gentlemen who don’t care so much about looking clever.’

Not too much has changed since the 1830s and the smirk is still seen as inferior; photographers have suggested to me in the past that a serious expression is better for an author of literary fiction. Is there a gender divide here? I somehow can’t imagine that if Ian McEwan or Salman Rushdie were photographed on the back of their books smiling, readers would question their intellectual weight. Anyway, I might want to look clever, but when self-conscious, I tend to smile. The uncomfortable experience of being photographed is a less unnerving one for me if I distract myself by chatting to the photographer and periodically breaking into a slightly deranged smile is part of that.

Luckily, I find a photographer, Rob Howarth who has no problem with smiling authors; he says he finds them a relief from the pouting models he works with the rest of the time: ‘The fashion for author portraits has changed. In my father’s day – the photographer David Howarth, working in the late 60s, early 70s – it was all black and white, highly staged, back-lit images with a nod to Hollywood; subjects holding their glasses artfully in their teeth, that kind of thing. I know smiles don’t come to order but if you do manage a relaxed, genuine smile people relate more easily to it. A more natural, warm expression is fine.’

However, some authors still prefer the more stylised, arty shots, perhaps having tired of the charming friendly ones. The author photograph on the first edition of Louise Doughty’s latest novel, Apple Tree Yard, showed her with half her face cut off. ‘The picture was taken in Paris by a photographer from Agence Opale,’ Doughty says. ‘I saw it on their website when they sent me the link. French photographers still seem to do very traditional serious-author type pics, which if you are a British novelist, is very refreshing, as they seem to have a bit more imagination than making you stand in front of your bookshelves. I liked this picture because it was mysterious, and it seemed apposite to Apple Tree Yard for me to have my face partially hidden – it’s a novel about a woman with a lot of secrets. I liked it so much I bought the rights to put it on my website. I have to admit that my agent hated it though, and thought it very pretentious. I suspect that the sort of pictures authors themselves like are always going to seem pretentious to agents and sales people. It wasn’t half as pretentious as Michel Houellbeq, though, whose author pic shows the back of his head.’

Ah pretentiousness – a new peril, hitherto unworried about – now grips me. A quick dip into my bookshelves suggests that Doughty is right, there are many examples of writers who are untroubled by accusations of affectation or vanity. (The green fur-collard robe one mentioned earlier being my own particular testimony to this). But why is vanity – or a rather flattering author photograph – seen as a particular weakness in women writers when we all know men ones who are just as prone to it? After amusing myself trying to date the photograph of a male poet I know who appears on his books looking handsome and Byronic, years after the tousled hair falling over his eyes has actually left his head, I decide I should put such considerations aside and concentrate on getting the background right.

If we’re bored of authors in front of their bookshelves, what else is there? Novelists leaning against trees, perhaps. Or maybe sitting on a bench in front of the drainage museum (as was recently suggested to me)? Here the professional photographer Rob Howarth’s tip is to keep it simple. ‘A beautiful landscape might seem like a good idea but soon becomes distracting; it needs to be ever so slightly out of focus. I do like outdoor shots and these days with portable lights even a bit of drizzle or gloom doesn’t have to be a deterrent. Men look better lit from the sides – more chiselled; women from the front, using a beauty dish….’

I’m distracted again and quiz him about this beauty dish. Rob explains that it gives ‘a lovely little catch-light in the middle of the eyes, highly flattering, as it mimics the effect of eyes in sunlight’. I can’t believe that these catch-lights would have any impact on whether my book will be well reviewed or improve its Amazon rating but it’s a tempting thought. After all writers are usually, by the nature of our profession – lack of exercise and outdoor light – less than photogenic. One of the joys of the job for many of us is the hours we can spend, fruitfully, on our own in a room in our slobbiest clothes without even the need to comb our hair.
What should an author look like anyway, and why do readers need to know? I’ve been told by photographers in the past not to fold my arms (doesn’t look friendly) to tilt my head five degrees (does look friendly) and to stand slightly side-ways on to the camera (more friendly still). It begs the question: why does an author have to look so friendly? Is it again because I’m female, or is it to suggest that the novels themselves will be more accessible and appealing if my face is? I’m not convinced that incongruence between the author portrait and the novel’s contents will trouble the potential book-buyer. Winston Churchill is said to be the first author to have his photograph on his book and start the trend we take for granted today. He was 24 years old in a morning coat with silk lapels, looking every inch the author. Though perhaps not quite the author of a military book entitled: The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War, where the reader might reasonably expect an older chap of military bearing to grace the dust jacket. It didn’t do Churchill any harm and his debut went on to be a best-seller.

But if we have neither his youth nor morning coat with the silk lapels would it perhaps be better to have no photograph at all of the author; maintain an air of mystery? Given the diminishing willingness to pay for this we might please our publishers. Though of course, we’d all like to think this was our choice, a J D Salinger-like enigma we chose to cultivate, not thrust upon us by budget cuts. As novelist Tim Pears remarked, ‘I remember asking my editor if she wanted a photo of me taken for the jacket. She peered at me for a while (too long, really) then said, ‘I think we can do without one, to be honest.’