Poets & Writers

The Art of the Author Photo

I REMEMBER inspecting the cover of Alexander Chee’s debut novel, Edinburgh, the 2016 Mariner Books paperback, turning it over and gazing at his author photo. I was in my junior year of college, seeking out queer fiction for the first time. While reading Chee’s semiautobiographical novel—then seeing a face like mine on the back cover—I felt a deep sense of recognition and gratitude. And even after moving to New York City and attending a few of the author’s readings, that first encounter still feels foundational—it’s not that I can tell you his exact pose or accurately describe the shadows, but I do remember how the photo stood out against the deep blue of the cover and how I felt in the moment of looking. This is just one memory. Each time I pull a book off my shelf, I encounter a different familiar face. I don’t always pause to look, of course, but when I do the repeated exposure must have some effect.

What does it mean, as an author, to give an image of yourself such an outsize life and send it off with your words to live in hundreds or thousands of homes? Not long ago it was common for an author photograph to occupy the entire back cover—take Truman Capote’s famous portrait for Other Voices, Other Rooms, a photograph by Harold Halma in which the young author reclines across the entire backside of the dust jacket, his face slightly downturned, eyes up, staring. I wonder about the lifespan of this image. I’m amazed that, for a writer whose photographs and likeness appeared in so many other forms—in tabloids and newspapers and on television—this will be the image that endures in so many private bookcases, libraries, and memories. Contemporary portraits might be less exaggerated, but they belong to the same dramatic tradition.

Writer and editor T Kira Madden, who is also a talented photographer, describes author portraits as if they are guests arriving at a party: “I love seeing everyone dressed up in their favorite outfits,” she says. “It’s not always such a public career…so it’s a nice way to kind of step into the light and say, ‘This is who I am.’” I like thinking of the images in this way: Each personal library is another manifestation of our community.

Whether the opportunity to step into the light fills you with excitement or dread, prominently features portraits from his youth on the cover and interior). No matter what you decide today, everything—your own views, the reading public’s, the industry’s aesthetic norms—is malleable.

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