10 Ways to Take a Bad Author Photo

by Chris Emery

A guide for authors

1. Firstly, let us prepare our general attitude towards portraiture. Remember that how you appear to your readers is fundamentally unimportant and has no impact on sales or your profile. Serious writers don’t do portraits. Those great photos of Angelou, Atwood, Auster, Beckett, Carver, Lessing, Woolf, well, those great photos did nothing to help us remember these writers, nothing at all. Put them in a gallery and we’d be lost. ‘Who are all these people?’ we’d say. ‘They sure don’t look like famous writers.’ So let’s not worry about getting any decent photos, unless our publisher forces us to do it. Then we can always moan loads about how facile it is. Or talk about commodification. It’s plainly a capitalist conspiracy focusing on face time. Readers just don’t respond to images of authors. We all know this.

2. Okay, okay, just for a moment, think about all the readers, booksellers, publicists, literary agents, radio presenters and news anchors, editors, journalists, teachers, librarians, festival directors, activists, students, translators, Web designers, pamphlet and catalogue designers, arts administrators, writing school programme managers, power-broking residency managers in Santa Fe, the academics, think about them and realise how unimportant your image is to them. It’s all about the writing, isn’t it? Good books shine through, after all. Just look how easy it is to sell them everywhere.

3. If you absolutely have to use an author photo, it’s best to start with a passport photo. The ones you had done for Mexico City in 1983. The ones where you really do look like an iguana from that angle. Alternatively, choose the ones with the black shadow from the flash on the kitchen tiles. The ones where your eye hangs down like that. The ones where the low October sun is reflecting off your sweating forehead, enough to bleach out your remaining features and make you look like a polyp or giant gland.

4. Do remember, whilst pulling together your photos, to make sure you include those you especially don’t want your publisher to use. That way, when they do select them, you can object and have them do the work all over again. Doing the same job twice always brings twice the pleasure.

5. If the passport photos are unavailable, wedding snaps make great author photos, especially where you feature in the background in a crowd of revellers dancing the conga. Or shots at an office party, where Gwen had her jacquard tights on and you have your arm around her thighs. That photo of you doing a reading is a good one, the one where we can see a slither of your face peeping around the head of that Goth in the foreground. Try and get a blurred shot if you can. Or one where the camera is focussed on the trout and bananas on the trestle table, and you’re bending down eating blancmange. Groups shots are always best, ones over dinner where the turkey is sagging in its house of bones and we can see you tipped sideways on the sofa beneath the decorations and someone’s arm stretched out obscuring your mouth.

6. If you have photos in dramatic places, always grab the ones where you are visible as a speck beside a tree, shaded before a mighty gorge. Or where the dustbowl is coughing up a lake of sand by that bus and you are in that bus, looking out of the back window, smiling between two satchels. External shots where the sun casts shadows so perfect your face looks like a ligature stood behind that lamppost with those 43 other hill walkers, that one is a killer. Find the ones of you pointing to something in the middle distance, like a boat trip up some lake of mud where everything is obscured except your sombrero. Shots by the pool with a rubber ring where you look cool in shades under the brolly, those ones are excellent. All family photos are generally good.

7. If none of the photos you keep in your dressing table or use as coasters for mugs of coffee are of any use, then it’s time to consider getting some shots taken. Bother. First off, ask the kids. Get your digital camera, or mobile phone, whichever has the lowest megapixel rate, and take some snaps under the stairs, or in the wood shed. Grin in a few of them. Don’t brush your hair or assess your appearance in any way (this can distract you from getting the right feel). Wear the sleeveless cardigan you’ve kept since 1972. Try to look forlorn, or cross, or let your mouth hang open as if you have had a severe accident whilst cooking the potatoes. Take lots of images that are all the same so as to provide absolutely no choice when sending the images through to your publisher. Above all, don’t plan the shots or get any professional help or advice. Given the length of time it has taken you to write the book and find a publisher, don’t spend longer than 5 minutes of creative time considering this task. Do your writing no favours at all. Take note that spontaneous photos by the gladioli or stood by the airing cupboard nearly always give rise to truly memorable images of lasting historical value. We’ll all be studying them in 2090. 

8. Then spend a little more time thinking about what kind of images your publisher asked for. If they need high resolution images, make sure you send them 72 dpi thumbnails, these always render well when used at full page height for that article on your latest volume in the New York Review of Books, in fact, even though the pixilation makes it look like your head is made from Duplo, this oddly adds to the impression that you are a new central figure of the literary establishment. Let’s get down to some more nitty gritty.

9. The Salt guidelines in their author questionnaire say take some landscape as opposed to portrait format images for their Web site. Don’t bother to check what other writers have done and try to better them, in fact, don’t pay any attention to ‘landscape format’ —instructions are for people who are just over serious about all this marketing stuff. Instead take photos of yourself in an actual landscape, leaves and trees, make sure you’re in the centre of the image, cut off below the waist with leagues and leagues of sky and foliage above you. If you’re in the foreground, make sure that the camera is focused on the far distance, that fencepost for example, or that heifer drinking from the water butt. If you are in the background, behind the taxi rank on Dermot St, make sure that the camera is focused on the pretzel stand over here on the left. Make sure you’re always in the centre. Don’t use depth of field to add drama. Remember to avoid any composition in the photographs, stand as still as a cadaver and look tired and drained; readers will respond to these images well. Keep the black scarf up around your mouth. Pull the hat down around your ears. Hide all features except for your nose and finger tips. Don’t look out to the reader, as we all hate eye contact with people we’re trying to engage with.

10. If you are up against a deadline, draw things out and take your time. Make this the last thing you do. Make sure all marketing activity is the last thing you do. When you eventually come to do it, be hasty and indifferent in equal measure — run in to the garden before dinner and get some shots under the pear tree or behind a hedge. Try and make sure that the image has no visual interest and lacks any tension. Photography is all about light, so avoid directional lighting which may create a strong visual impression, choose harsh general lighting. Choose bare backgrounds, or something shockingly busy and distracting like a wall of bright gentlemen’s ties or socks. Don’t stand to the side, stand square on and in the middle of the shot. Wince. Pout. Slump. These are the main objectives. When you’ve done as much disservice to your writing life as you can find time for, select the shots which don’t fit the publisher’s Web site and send those through first. Send lots, they’ve asked for six but send at least twenty. Don’t consider them, and tell the publisher that you hate being photographed, this will reinforce why they chose your book to lose money on. Try to give a broadly negative impression of helping to create those right conditions to sell the book or promote yourself. Follow these ten steps and you’ll find everyone in sympathy with you and the entire book industry will fall into place and sell thousands of your title. You can always find people to back up your views on this visual stuff. If only you could remember what they looked like?