For and Against Author Photos, Part Two

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This is the second piece in a two-part series on author photos. Part one, "Against Author Photos," ran on Thursday, June 13.

 

2. For Author Photos

 

Last week I explained why I used to hate author photos—why I thought of them as unfair to the authors and to the books they adorn. Here I defend them, and reflect on my own.

 

Author photos can do some good. When I was twelve, after I’d enjoyed five earlier science fiction novels by Samuel R. Delany, I was surprised to see the author photo in his latest book and discover that he was African American. Twelve-year-old me had grown up with the unacknowledged assumption that American writers who do not write about being black or Asian or Native, etc., must be white, which will, alas, remain a common assumption among white people as long as their mental image of “writer” defaults to “white.” Author photos can change that default, just as they can change other default images: the first-time author as hipster, the mid-career female poet as  black-clad poetess, the mid-career male poet as sensitive guy (or as Iron John). Author photos can do this kind of politically helpful work as long as (a) they exist, (b) there are a lot of them, and (c) authors whose appearance confounds stereotypes become visible in conjunction with those who do look as many readers expect.

 

Which brings me to my own author photos for Belmont, taken in December 2012 by the very able Boston– and New Hampshire–based photographer Alex Dakoulas. I like them; I’m glad they exist, and not just because they might help sell books (though the good people at Graywolf say they’ll do that). In the one I use most often, I’m in a black T-shirt and thin black cardigan, looking slightly away from the camera, highlighting my then-new clear plastic glasses: grownup, non-threatening, friendly, perhaps a bit femme. In the one I like most, I’m wearing a ruffly black-and-white Swiss dot top I still think is cute. If you look at that one, you might not focus on the top; you might conclude instead that I was still learning how to use makeup, and that at forty-one I really needed—and, at that time, did not have—a good wig. (I’ve since found one.)

 

How do I use the two sets of photos, the multiple wardrobes in public? When I am doing something that’s all about gender, a poetry reading or a talk with a theme, I show up in girl clothes and use the femme photos. When I am a literary critic giving a talk or an interview about other people’s poetry, I want to direct attention towards other people’s poems, away from my looks, so I show up in guy clothes and use the guy-clothes photos. When I am doing a poetry reading for my own poems, I now use either, or both.

 

That would not have been the case when I started to write the poems that went into Belmont. The process of having new author photos taken and distributed, of writing the newest poems in Belmont, and then of preparing the book to go to press, coincided with my own process of coming out totally, being completely open about cross-dressing, about wanting to appear, and in fact appearing, sometimes as a guy, and sometimes as a girl.  Some poems in the middle of Belmont reflect that process—“Stephanie” and “For Let Am Not” in particular—even though most of the book has more to do with other roles: with being a parent, a teacher, a member of particular social classes, a reader, a husband, a friend.

 

Having these photos taken made me think not so much about the distressing aspects of author photos, as about the way that I had used words—not only literary words—to avoid my own body and face, to avoid thinking about how I wanted to look, and about how I did look. They were a point in my own process, which continues, of learning to think about my body as mine, about myself as not only a source of words, but as somebody who very much , and literally, wants to be seen.

 

They also remind me—though you may not need reminding—that most people do not always want to be seen, as I certainly do not want to be seen, in just one way. I feel like a girl inside, and I want to be pretty. I also want other people to think I am pretty, and sometimes I want them to call me Stephanie. But most days, I am going to continue to live as Stephen, whose books are by Stephen, whose family and students call him Stephen. There was a time when I wasn’t sure, but now I know, and I’ve written about that decision elsewhere, in poetry and in prose.

 

Thanks to photography, though—thanks to Alex and others—I now have easy access, and can give other people that access, to images that correspond roughly to various ways in which I see myself. I don’t have to point to one photo and say, “That’s me,” as if it were all of me, as if it satisfied me, as if I wanted to look that way or act that way all the time. I can now point to one photograph, either one of Alex’s or one that’s on Facebook, and say, “That’s one way to see me,” or “That corresponds to one way I see myself.”

 

Some people see in photographs of themselves their multiple roles, their multiple personae, without trying: you show up in cleats at the soccer field, in a tie for the school picture, in tails for the big dance. Each one turns into a candid photograph that reflects different versions of you. Other people can’t see themselves, or even a side of themselves, in photographs at all; they have a dysphoria (about gender, or size, or age, or something else) that’s triggered by portrait images of themselves.  I used to look at pictures of myself and feel deeply unsatisfied even by the best ones: it’s only now that I can see myself as Stephanie, on Facebook and on the Web and even on paper, or that I can look at a well-made picture of Stephen, like the one on the back of Belmont, clean-shaven with clear glasses, short hair, black shirt, cardigan, and say with clear satisfaction, “That looks like me.”

 

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.