Here’s a task for you: get five or so hardback books and look at the author photographs in the back. How many writers are smiling? How many look pensive? Which of them would influence what you think about the book?
A little while ago I was on a panel at a book event, where I and the other panellist had to read three books from a prize shortlist and discuss them in front of the audience. My fellow panellist said she always looks at the author photograph – if there is one – before she starts to read a book. She admitted that the photograph for one of the shortlisted books was so self-consciously posed that it influenced what she thought about the book before she started reading it.
I’m not from the selfie generation. I am on Instagram, but you’ll find only a few pictures of me and those are usually at an event or signing books. My husband, Tim often takes these, and he knows that he needs to take many photos for me to find one that I can live with. Being okay with seeing pictures of myself has got easier over the years, but dealing with the author photograph is not something I enjoy.
Contemplative and Moody, or Smiling and Approachable?
My agent was the first person who asked me for a photograph, one that she could send to publishers when she was trying to sell my first novel. (I know, I know – why should publishers need to know what a prospective author looks like, shouldn’t it be about the book?) Tim and I looked through scores of author photographs in the books we own. Most of the male authors were contemplative and moody, while the female authors were smiling and approachable. I thought I preferred the former. My first photography session involved a whole day of Tim taking my picture – in the garden, on the stairs, in front of this door, or beside that door, until I was happy with just one. (He’s a patient husband.) I showed it to my Mum: ‘Why aren’t you smiling?’ she said.
For other female authors the moody look definitely works. “I spent a couple of hours in Granchester
Meadow one March morning last year posing for a former local newspaper photographer [Philip Mynott],” says Sarah Vaughan. “This shot was taken 13 snaps in, and my family – used to me smiling – are not sure it looks entirely like me. It’s certainly a serious version, even more so in black and white. But then, the issue at the heart of Anatomy of a Scandal – my next novel – is serious. It’s a photo that fits the narrative.”
I don’t want to have to worry about what I look like, I feel it shouldn’t matter, but I also realised very early on that any pictures that are sent out by me, or on my behalf have the ability to hang around for years and to pop up anywhere, including national papers.
When my first book, Our Endless Numbered Days, was bought by Penguin, the team there arranged for some of their authors to come into their offices and have head-shots taken by a professional and well-respected photographer. I felt awkward and embarrassed, which was perhaps why, when I was sent a selection of the pictures, I nearly cried and I knew I couldn’t have any of them on a book jacket. Perhaps my editor at Penguin agreed because there was no picture on the hardback edition of Our Endless Numbered Days, for which I’m very grateful.
Other writers, like Karin Salvalaggio, author of Bone Dust White, feel similar about photography
sessions. “I don’t particularly enjoy having my photo taken. My first author photo looks rather severe but this wasn’t by design. The session was difficult and humourless. It was in this session that I discovered that I had to work hard to make myself look approachable. Anyway, the result was pleasing enough but the number of takes it took to get a few good photos was ridiculous. The second photo shoot was at my home with a local photographer, [http://matsmithphotography.com] make-up artist, and a much trusted girlfriend. It was a far more relaxed session, which at times, bordered on the absurd. The photographer made me pretend to be laughing at something while he took pictures. This wasn’t difficult as my girlfriend was sitting on the floor with a hairdryer aimed upwards to provide my hair with a nice bit of movement. Anyway, it all paid off. The photos were so much better.”
Our Endless Numbered Days was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize (and went on to win), and the trustees organised a party at Foyles bookshop in London. There were the inevitable photographs, which when I saw them taught me that I must stand up straighter and not turn out my toes.
Still, I needed an official author photo – it’s not really possible to do any events without one. The organisers always want one, along with a picture of the book cover. So I booked a friend of mine, Adrian Harvey (www.adrianharvey.co.uk) a professional photographer, to come to my house and take some pictures. I gave him his brief: take one hundred so I can choose one. And I was as happy as I could be (he’s a very good photographer; I’m just hard to please). A couple of years later when I’d decided to grow out my red hair dye and be happy with going grey, I got Adrian round again. I put on my red dress and some make up, and he took lots more pictures including some of me with Alan the cat. Even with someone I know I find it hard to relax in front of the camera, to be natural. At the end of the session I sat on the sofa chatting to Adrian while he packed up his equipment. I was cold, I’d put my cardigan on over my dress. ‘Sit right there,’ he said, and took one more picture – and of course that’s the one I use.
Louise Beech author of The Mountain in my Shoe, is also self-conscious. “I love mine, and I think that’s because I know the photographer, so he really put me at ease. I think it would be very difficult if I hadn’t. My daughter is doing A level Photography, so she’s going to take my next lot, so I have a feeling I might like them, if she’s kind. [http://jerome.photoshelter.com]
Of course, a little photo manipulation can help. My face often looks red in photographs – or maybe
that’s the embarrassment of having them taken, and I will often adjust the colour to compensate. Emma Curtis author of One Little Mistake says, “My best friend is a fashion photographer. Unfortunately, her instinct is to airbrush my lines out. It becomes a battle of wills with me shrieking about how awkward it can be when people meet me in the flesh and I look ten years older than my photo!
Before I was published I had no idea that such angst went into author photographs, but I have to admit that like my fellow panellist I have always looked at the writer’s picture before I start to read.
Let me know in the comments how important author photographs are to you as a reader. Do they influence your thoughts about the book? Do you look at them first? And which do you prefer – moody and contemplative, or smiling and approachable?
(Apologies for the gaps in the text in this piece – I had no idea that working with author photographs would be so difficult…)