Marginalia

23 Nov
Writers by  Goffredo Fofi

Writers by Goffredo Fofi

Oddly, when I come across a book of author portraits, I feel conflicted about its value. On the one hand, I do find any portraiture compelling and occasionally surprising. On the (other)limb, I wonder why a grouping of people who occupy themselves with the increasingly marginal profession of writing, would make for an interesting collection (to other than the vanishing American reader ) of pictures.

Writers: Literary Lives in Focus(Contrasto) edited by Italian cultural scholar Goffredo Fofi was originally published under another title (Portrait of the Writer: Literary Lives in Focus )(Thames & Hudson) with a different cover.The new iteration’s cover is adorned with a portrait of Truman Capote—an odd choice methinks (more on that below)This thick as a brick book includes 250 likenesses, out of the pantheon of literature to more currently celebrated writers— Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett to Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan.Rendered by equally masterful artistic titans—WH Auden by Richard Avedon, de Simone deBeauvoir by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marguarette Duras by Robert Doisneau, Marcel Proust by Man Ray, Aldous Huxley by Phillipe Halsman, Guillaume Apollinaire by Pablo Picasso, Arundhati Roy by Raghu Rai, Raymond Carver by Bob Adelman, and Zadie Smith by Eamonn McCabe. Each photo is accompanied by a concise and useful biography.

Sample  layout from Writers

Sample layout from Writers

It would seem that in the USA book publishers were not especially concerned with the aesthetics of author portraiture —mostly they were simply looking for serviceable dust jacket snap shots (for years a niche monopolized by photographer Jerry Bauer). And then for no reason that I could discern, I began to notice something different about writers’s portrayals. And when I examined the photo credit of those something different pictures, I found the name Marion Ettlinger.

Author Photo  by Marion Ettlinger

Author Photo by Marion Ettlinger

And to get directly to the point, I didn’t like what I saw. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one lacking in appreciation of the Ettlinger style. Dennis Loy Johnson said it well his July of 2000 Moby Lives column

…Being Ettlingered goes back to the ’80s, when working–class literary hero Raymond Carver had his photo taken by Marion Ettlinger for his book, “Where I’m Calling From.”
Carver died shortly thereafter and the image became one by which a lot of people remember him. That is a shame because it’s a really creepy photo. The famously unkempt Carver — reputed to have bought a Mercedes in his slippers — appears in a stylish leather coat, posed with his hands awkwardly crossed on the knee of his ironed chinos. And although the photo is washed in a deadening gray tint, Carver’s eyes have an eerie, otherworldly glow.
Well, creepy or not, it wasn’t long before everybody wanted their jacket photo taken by Ettlinger, and she quickly became the Photographer Who Proves You’re a Good Writer. Not just a good writer, in fact, but a writers’ writer, like Raymond Carver.
But since then Ettlinger’s style has gone from creepy to grotesque… It’s a mystery why anyone would want to look so ghoulish… In short, they all look hideous, not to mention ridiculous. Why would a bunch of intellectuals submit to being represented as the antithesis of intellectualism — i.e., as masochistic fashion victims?

Nonetheless, you may want to know that Author Photo, her anthology includes about 200 photographs with her famous Raymond Carver portrait and Francine Prose, Walter Mosley, Mary Karr, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Cormac McCarthy, Patricia Highsmith, Ken Kesey, Edwidge Danticat, and Jeffrey Eugenides. And if you can believe book’s publisher Author Photo is, “…A photographic paean to the literary spirit, …opens a rare and revealing window onto the timelessness of creativity.”

Truman Capote by Irving Penn

Truman Capote by Irving Penn

It seems to be something of a coincidence that Truman Capote’s image adorns the covers of these two collections, not withstanding that a review of Capote’s history brings one to Irving Penn’s evocative representation.

The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz

The Writer’s Desk by Jill Krementz

In addition to a fascination with with the visages of the barely acknowledged writing wretches of the world some photographers have found the homes and work areas of literary scribes of interest. Jill Krementz (who happened to be Kurt Vonnegut’s spouse) selected 58 black and white images running the gamut from Eudora Welty,Tennessee Williams Amy Tan, Stephen King, and Joyce Carol Oates to Archibald MacLeish, Dorothy West, John Updike and Ralph Ellison. A nice feature of the this collection is that each entry includes a short description by the subject telling about their creative process.

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