Tuesday, March 10, 2009

THE ART and AGONY of the Author Photo

The ART and AGONY of the Author Photo
(I usually blog about southern writing here but beggin’ your pardon, can I go off topic just a teeny weeny bit? Thank you.)
Who’s idea was this? This book jacket photo thing? This Press Kit thing? Do you know the agony that I’ve experienced from this? Okay – some of you do and some of you don’t. Let me make this clear. I don’t like having my picture taken as evidence by the fact that my hand is usually covering part of my face - even as a child. As a matter of fact, my mother in all her grown up glory decided when I was about five years old and still an only child prior to sister being born that the thing she needed to do was get dressed up, dress me up, and then both of us sit our dressed up selves down for our professional mother and daughter photograph in a real studio. I remember this moment clear as can be. The big empty room, the big lights, the shadowy man behind the camera that I SWEAR was saying something like, “Look at the birdie!” He squeaked horns, flapped his arms, stood on his head, told funny jokes – all to the no avail to my stone freezy five year old face that was not amused. Which of course caused my mother’s face not to be amused as this event was definitely not turning out as she had planned. And she had to pay for it plenty. She bought the pictures anyway. Maybe she had to. I must say our dresses looked very pretty. And so did we. In a stone freezy kind of face way.
Back to the Author Publicity Photo. First, we are supposed to look what???? WHAT I ASK YOU? Intelligent? Warm? Fuzzy? I look drunk and cock-eyed in most my pictures. Smarts doesn’t play much into it. We are supposed to look aloof like we don’t care - yet approachable. Loveable, and laughable and like we have a great sense of humor and would be somebody’s bestest great friend ever. We are supposed to be skinny, well endowed, muscular, healthy, snappy, snazzy, with it - and yet - above it all and removed from it. Like being on a pedestal with an apron on while baking cakes with the perfect hairdo. Oh wait – that was the 50’s.
I was once sitting behind two women at a book festival while we were all waiting for an author to come on stage and speak. When she did they opened her book to the author picture, gave one another catty looks and one of them said, “Not in a million years.” The other one lifted an eyebrow and nodded her agreement. I swear they did. I wanted to bonk their heads together like something from the stooges. (Sorry – just telling the truth.) Not on my account mind you but for dear women everywhere who are trying their best to take a photo that doesn’t make them look like Ronald McDonald on hormones.
This picture you see of me? Well, a dear, dear lady took it with me complaining, fussing, squinting, and shutting up just long enough for her to snap it. I had the most precious friend with me for moral support who was just behind the camera making smiley faces at me. It was taken three years ago. I kept promising the publisher to get a new picture taken and kept promising and promising and promising until they said – TOO LATE! And Snatched this one up as it was time to go to print. Okay, the the real life part is, I still own that jacket and wear it, and I do stand with my arms crossed a lot but I like to think I am much more approachable in a drunk –looking cockeyed kind of way than the picture suggests. Matter of fact, just me personally, it looks just a tad stand=offish of which I am not. I am shy and introverted believe it or not and on occasion will pull into my shell and slide along the walls of any public gathering trying to practice my invisibility skills.
Now plenty of my author friends have great author photos and great hair and great highlights. Denise Hildreth takes a glorious picture which is why she is in commercials in real life (really) and J.T. Ellison has killer hair just like her writing and Tasha Alexander just makes us all sick cause she’d look good on the 10th day of a 12 day flu if you took her picture wearing sweat pants that had been slept in for six months without seeing the inside of a washer. And Kathy Patrick just glows no matter what she’s wearing. But some of us cry, gag, and drag if we have to get in front of a camera. (I have literally called my mother crying because I had an interview with a reporter that day and they were going to take MY PICTURE AND PUBLISH IT IN THE PAPER.) Some of us really struggle to look relaxed or to look normal of which we are neither. This isn’t just a woman thing either. I have men friends who are authors and always struggling with their author photos, too.
They are supposed to look intelligent but not insane, virile but not viral. One particular man kept fussing over his picture in every book. You could tell it was driving him crazy. He kept saying, “You know you have to give the publisher a great photo but they don’t pay for a photographer or the studio!” Then he’d turn through his author photos and point saying, “Serial Killer. Serial Killer. Serial Killer. Ax Murderer. Serial Killer.” Don’t worry, I tell him. We all look a little dangerous when caught in an unforgiving flash.
So I ask you, dear readers please be gentle with us when you see those photo’s - even if they are backlit and we’ve had our dark circles and bloodshot eyes touched up a bit from all these deadlines and drafts. While you’re in a forgiving spirit, help us to forgive ourselves for being less than ageless, model perfect. And to remember that it’s not the size of the waist, or the bulge of the biceps, that lead a reader to drink in a story but the words we carve out one page at a time.
So, with a deep breath and a sigh of relief, let’s raise a glass, and offer a toast - and a smile!

River Jordan is a a storyteller of the southern variety. Jordan’s novel The Messenger of Magnolia Street, (Harper Collins, Harper One) was published in January 2006. Kirkus Reviews describes the novel as “a beautifully written atmospheric tale.” The Messenger of Magnolia Street was applauded as “a tale of wonder” by Southern Living Magazine who chose the novel as their Selects feature for March 2006 and by other reviewers as “a riveting, magical mystery” and “a remarkable book.” Her first novel, The Gin Girl, (Livingston Press, 2003) has garnered such high praise as, "This author writes with a hard bitten confidence comparable to Ernest Hemingway. And yet, in the Southern tradition of William Faulkner, she can knit together sentences that can take your breath." Florida Today Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on ‘The Power of Story,’ around the country and produces and hosts the radio program, River Jordan Radio on 98.9fm Nashville. She has just finished a new work of fiction, Saints In Limbo, on sale May 19th, and lives with her husband in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at www.riverjordan.us


Mindy said...

I totally agree-- sitting for a photo is SO artificial, esp b/c you're supposed to look sincere and genuine, pretending the camera isn't there. One of my favorite author photos is Susan Minot's on the back flap of her novel Evening--she's laughing, looking away, as if the thought of a photo is too ridiculous.

The Pulpwood Queen said...

I know exactly what you mean. It took so long for my book to come out, nobody recognizes me from the author photo. I mean I was blonde then and thinner, now I'm a redhead and well, we just won't go there. I can tell you this. They sent in a photographer to take my photo right in the middle of Mardi Gras the first time. I look like I had Mardi Gras'd big time. So I just had Marla, me fellow hairstylist snap of shot of me one day when I was feeling pretty chipper. It took less than five minutes and it looked like me THEN. I'll probably just do that again next time then photoshop out the wrinkles, fat rolls, etc...
Oh the life of a glamorous author!
Beauty within Queen,
Kathy L. Patrick

Chester Campbell said...

To me you look great. A little enigmatic, maybe. That makes you a bit mysterious. Good for a mystery author. I need a new photo. Mine is about ten years old and was shot by a friend who worked for The Tennessean.

Patti Hill said...

When my picture wasn't included on my first book jacket, my mother protested so loud and so often--"For heaven's sake, they put a picture of the dog but not you!"--that I said something VERY reluctantly to my editor. So, on book two, they used the only professional shot I had available, the one in which I look like the proverbial deer in the headlights! Okay, so these kinds of things can't be rushed. The next go-around, I was much more relaxed because I saw how wonderfully gracious Photoshop can be in the hands of a wizard. My joy at looking 30-something in those photos was short-lived. Recently, I gave one of my business cards with my newer photo on it to a friend I hadn't seen in years. She looked at the business card and looked at me, and asked, "Is this you?" Now, I'm looking for Photoshop in a bottle!

New shots are needed for the next novel. I'm already praying for a perfect hair day, the just-right thing to wear, and, of course, a photographer who knows her way around Photoshop.

River, I LIKE the picture of you on the blog. You do look smart and sophisticated. I don't think I could pull it off.

River Jordan said...

I feel your pain in preparation of that new picture day. I've decided I'm taking my dog with me and including it in my next photo because he is full of love and understanding and will help me relax. The question is - would anyone recognise me unless I push my bangs back, put on that jacket and stand just that way -They'd probably say - wow, is this you? You were certainly having a good day.:)Photoshop in a bottle indeed.

Karen H. said...

I love this post, River. You've perfectly articulated the dread of sitting for a photo - whether for a book cover or not.

Shellie Tomlinson said...

What she said. :)

Okay, seriously, River-- I like this pic of you. You look like you have secrets. Do tell...


Herman said...

I like the photo, and I think it is a good jacket-photo. She's attractive, serious, a deep thinker--a writer. It just doesn't capture the fun-loving friendly, caring person I know. I don't think most of us are ever happy with our pictures.

Tasha Alexander said...

River, you are WAY too kind. But how'd you know it had been that long since I did my laundry? ;-)

Love your new picture---gorgeous!!!!!

Tom Morrisey said...

Were I even one-tenth as photogenic as you, author pix would not be an issue. As it is, I believe I have the record for the oldest author image ever used (not counting those who cheat and use their baby pictures). IN HIGH PLACES was mostly set at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia in 1976, so I use a photo of me shot at Seneca Rocks, West Virginia ... in 1976.