For and Against Author Photos, Part One


This is the first piece in a two-part series on author photos. Part two, "For Author Photos," will run on Thursday, June 20.

1. Against Author Photos


I used to hate author photos. Sometimes I still do. I felt that way as a reader, before anybody took author photos of me. Now that I’ve had some—and now that I like the results—complaining about such pictures seems churlish, or petty.


A lot of people don’t like being photographed. I used to hate the process because it made me feel awkward, posed, not really “me.” That feeling has something to do with writing poems and essays and books; with wanting to be judged by my words, not my face; and with being a cross-dresser, living as a (rather feminine) man, but feeling most like myself when dressed as a woman, or a girl. But that’s not a problem about author photos; it’s about how you feel when someone takes a picture of you, whether or not you wrote a book (and whether or not you’re transgender in any way). Sometimes the problem isn’t even about photos: it’s about whether and when and how we can learn to like, live with, or feel comfortable with, the way that we look.


There are, though, good reasons to feel uncomfortable about author photos. For one thing, they defeat the purpose of imaginative literature, in general, and of much poetry, in particular, because they invite us to get to know an author by something other than her creations in words. Only the most stubborn literary authors can refuse with impunity (as Anne Carson did, for a while) a publisher’s plea that we match our own books to a face. 


The publishers are usually right: having a face to go with a book probably does make potential readers (as well as book review editors, event planners and other publicity people) more likely to remember the book. There’s something uniquely powerful in a face. We are hard-wired to recognize and react to human faces: our brains have circuits just for it


Once we associate a face with a book, we are more likely to remember that book. But we are also more likely to connect the characteristics we see in the face to the book. Does she have thin lips, or a tiny smile? Maybe her work is cynical or insincere. Does he look serious, grim? Then his work must be, too. Very young? Maybe the work is naïve, or for kids (or perhaps she’s a wunderkind). What about those big eyebrows, those tiny eyes? Is the work vulpine, or piggish? And those ears!


And that’s just the face and facial expressions: don’t get me started (OK, get me started) about author photographs and the author’s body. Feminist comic book fans have the Hawkeye Initiative, in which they create images of the manly hero Hawkeye in the poses and angles given to female superheroes: these poses usually look ridiculous, or at least impractical, which shows how they undercut the sense of power and agency that the super-women and –girls might otherwise project.


Author photos, collectively, aren’t as bad as that, but they, too, testify to depressing bias, often unacknowledged or even unconscious, in the way that book publicity works.  A few months ago I saw the first-time author of a literary novel reviewed in a large-circulation journal alongside a photo of the author, who was posed like an odalisque, that took up as many square inches as the review. Maybe the review came in short and the editor needed to fill up space, or maybe the editor was paying homage to a talented portrait photographer, but the effect was that (as with some pop stars) the novel had received this kind of attention principally because its author was hot. 


The sentence you have just read says nothing about the gender of that author, but if you’ve made an assumption about that author’s gender, you probably got it right; if you made an assumption about that author’s age, within about ten years, you probably got that right, too; and the fact that you did tells you what I dislike most, what makes me angry (rather than just annoyed) about author photos in general, however happy I am with my own.


The mere existence of author photographs—portraits that exist and circulate because the people depicted wrote books—seems to me to violate clear rules about right and wrong. People’s work should not be judged on what lawyers call “immutable characteristics,” on what they cannot normally control—race or gender, jawline or hairline, hot or not. In particular, people’s work should not be judged on their looks, with the partial exception of people whose vocation involves their looks, such as actors and models; and authors should not be asked to be actors or models, unless they already are. Author photos apparently (so the book publicists tell me) make it easier to get attention for an author’s book, but they also make it easier—even inevitable—for readers and critics to judge a book, literally, by its cover.


Nor does this distressing effect stop at new books: when anthologies print a headshot of the raisin-like middle-aged Auden beside “In Praise of Limestone,” it might help you decide to quit smoking, but it won’t help you admire the poem. Even photos that I’d call attractive, photos of well-known poets that accentuate their beauty (Millay) or their charm and eccentricity (Marianne Moore) or their Bohemian seriousness (Robert Lowell) or their chiseled manliness (Thom Gunn) can all make it harder for readers to see beyond a stereotype.


It is, certainly, possible to imagine a world where big photos of obviously unfashionable authors have just as much power to sell books as big photos of well-groomed youth, a world (like that imagined in Thom Gunn’s poems) where big photos of hot guys and big photos of hot women have exactly equal cultural force, a world where what we make of author photos has everything to do with choice (makeup, hairstyle, tie, scarf, black T-shirt, summer dress, tuxedo, facial expression) and nothing to do with immutable characteristics; but we don’t live in that world, and so it seems to me that while imaginative literature often tries to make our world less unfair, author photos often make it more so.


Author photos strip away the mask (Latin “persona”) that poetry in particular constructs. They take away the imaginative body—a substitute for the real author’s physical body—that poetic and fictional forms attempt to build. Author photos are not, in this sense, just a hindrance to the fair reception that imaginative writing deserves; they are the opposite of that writing, a way to undo what imaginative writers try to do. Author photos work as double agents in the thousand-year contest between literature and visual art that Renaissance authors named the paragone, the contest about whether poetry or painting, words or sight, gave better versions of the world. When you are reading imaginative writing, the inward must collaborate with other faculties, such as the ear and the mind; when you contemplate an author photo, what you see is what you get.


Stephen Burt's newest poetry collection is Belmont. He has written two other poetry collections and several critical books, including Close Calls with Nonsense, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.