E. Ethelbert Miller asks why there are not many photos of me on the Internet. I'm not sure I can answer that question, but I can say a few things about the sometimes ludicrous subject of author photos.
Monday, June 20, 2011
THE IMAGE KNOWN AS CHARLES JOHNSON
In 1973, as Viking Press was preparing to publish my first novel, Faith and The Good Thing, my editor arranged for me to sit for a photo with Jill Krementz, who (he said) "collected" writers, and was at the time the wife of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I went to the photo shoot in NYC mainly because I was hoping to bump into Vonnegut, but he was off doing something else that day.That photo was a good one, "flattering," as people concerned about superficial, surface things tend to say.
The author photo I generally use these days was taken by renowned Northwest photographer Mary Randlett for Jim McWilliams's collection of my interviews, Passing the Three Gates. University of Washington Press arranged for that one. The picture on the cover of Linda Selzer's work of literary scholarship, Charles Johnson in Context, was taken by a local photographer Brian Smale, who was hired by Smithsonian magazine to do a photo to accompany my article on Seattle for that publication. That shoot took hours and hours over two days, and it explains why I'm posed with the Pike Place Market---one of the city's iconic locations---in the background.
Other photos were taken on the fly for various books by my former students Gary Hawkes and Nicholas O'Connell, and once by my daughter. After the long labor of creating a book, the photo is truly the last thing I think about, and if I had my druthers, I wouldn't think about it at all. Often I'll ask a friend or family member to grab a camera so we can get this obligatory chore out of the way.
Personally, I consider the chore of producing an author photo for every new book to be a royal pain in the posterior.
I'm sure readers have noticed how beginning in the early-to-mid-1970s, around the time People magazine first appeared, a great many pictures of writers became "glamour photos." Or what I'd call vanity photos. Sometimes when you went to hear an author read at a bookstore you were in for a mild shock---he or she didn't look like that photo on the book jacket at all. (See my cartoon on this by going to my author's website at www.oxherdingtale.com and clicking on the portfolio for "Cartoons, 1970 to 2004.) One famous author, who I will not name, used the same author's photo for what seemed like twenty or thirty years. And don't get me started on the number of male writers who pose wearing leather jackets. (Yeah, I did one of those, too, for my second novel when I was in my early 30s, and my agent Anne Borchardt classified it as my "angry, young man photo." But, hey, I was buff and "cut" back then from choy li fut kung-fu and weight-lifting.)
The Buddhist in me can't help but feel sometimes that the use of a vanity/glamour photo is silly and reduces the text to the status of being no more than a trinket or ornament for the writer's ego. (Especially if the text turns out to be abysmal.)Strange as this may sound to say, I just want to see the baby---the book or artwork---more than I do the mid-wife who delivered it. When he passes on to his just reward, that's all we're going to have to work with anyway---the book, and that's only if it embodies the kind of excellence required for it to endure.
For me, when I read an author's work, his (or her) photo is just a minor distraction, and it might prejudice my experience of the text. I'm interested in the quality of his (or her) mind and their literary skill, not the quality of work by their hair stylist, dermatologist, plastic surgeon, make-up artist, tailor or clothier, or the skill the photographer has with lighting and various lenses. I.e., with creating an illusion. In other words, I couldn't give a rat's rear-end about what they look like.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 1:08 AM