Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 30 Jan 2019

Strike a Pose!  Why do we like looking at photographs of writers?

Over the weekend I was determined to try and stay away from my computer keyboard – as a university lecturer I’m in the middle of marking season and I have pretty strict limits on how long I can spend assessing and critiquing undergraduate essays. This isn’t just a question of stamina and stickability, it’s a simple case of protecting my sanity.

At times like this I turn to my art and photography books to provide solace and, on this occasion, I took down Sally Soames’ Writers, a collection of black and white photographs of famous authors. Soames was for many years (and may still be for all I know) a photographer for UK Sunday broadsheet newspapers; providing portraits to accompany articles and reviews was/is her stock in trade. She’s also an artist behind the lens and her photographs, always taken using only available light, are deep and richly textured things of beauty.

Soames isn’t, of course, the only photographer who has made a bit of a speciality of photographing writers, either for newspapers or for the jackets of their books. If you’re interested you might also want to take a look at the prolific output of the wonderful Marion Ettlinger who has been taking these portraits for well over 35 years.

As I was leafing through Soames’ book on an otherwise dull and drizzly Saturday afternoon I couldn’t help but wonder why it was that photographs of writers make such a compelling subject – after all, we don’t, by and large, choose the books we’re going to read based on the way an author looks in a photograph. Or do we?

Authors respond very differently to the prospect of being photographed. There are clearly those who are preeningly pleased with themselves and eager to join the role-call of celebrities. They enjoy having their vanity burnished by having their photograph taken for posterity and presented to others for consumption. But I suspect they are in the minority. Most writers are writers because they want to write not because they want to be models, fashion icons, celebrities or advertising fodder – and I suspect this is just as well because many of them are not, how can I put this kindly, the most photogenic. Like the rest of us mere mortals, in my experience, they look like ordinary folk and their talents lie elsewhere.

However, it is in gift of the talented professional photographer to turn even the most ordinary of us into something interesting, even elemental, through their skill with the camera. It might be impossible to photograph literary brilliance in action in the way you might do with sport, dance or drama but what you can do is turn the person who makes the literature into something dramatic. Or maybe to use light and shade to produce a portrait that is suggestive of a deep, unchartered hinterland out of which a book has been hewn. The very best photographs take you behind the eyes of their subject in a way that makes them both hyper-human and, perversely, inhuman; they become for a moment the symbol, the totem, of their craft. The successful author portrait convinces us that the way the author looks, the way they have been captured by the photographer, is able to give us an insight into the actual content of their output as a writer.

And of course, it’s really all a slight of hand. We know no more about the quality of a writer’s skill or the depth of their thinking from these portraits but we’re prepared to go along with the illusion. We want our authors to be special – the more we love their work, the more special we want them to be – and photography can give us that impossible icon to admire.

So maybe, after all, we can be influenced in what we read by the way an author is presented to us by a skilful photographer. We not only want to buy the book, we want to buy into the image. But, of course, this is a double-edged sword...


Terry Potter

January 2019