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Snap decisions: elevating author photos to a work of art

In the July/August issue of Q&Q, writer Leah Sandals spoke to publicists and photographers about why an author’s promotional headshot may be more important than ever

Michael Ondaatje, 1970 (Photo: Shelly Grimson)

Michael Ondaatje in recline, shirt unbuttoned and eyes smouldering. Margaret Atwood in a garden, dewy-skinned with floral dress in bloom. George Bowering in bell bottoms, shaggy hair framing his grinning face.

These louche, bohemian photos of now established authors, all taken around 1970, were part of Shelly Grimson’s Toronto exhibition this spring, How Beautiful We All Were: Portraits of 16 Canadian Poets. The popular gallery show drew attention to what is often perceived as a perfunctory part of the publishing business: the author photograph.

A lot of times if you go to a reading, people waiting to see or hear the writer have no idea what they look like, says B.C. photographer Barry Peterson. Most book covers I’ve seen usually use one photograph, and it might be 20 years old.

Peterson hopes his upcoming book, 111 West Coast Literary Portraits, co-authored by Blaise Enright and due out this fall from Mother Tongue Publishing, will help remedy the situation. An accompanying exhibition was hosted in May at The Writers’ Union of Canada AGM in Vancouver, and more shows are scheduled to tour Burnaby, Salt Spring Island, and Nanaimo this fall.

The book features such non-traditional images as Métis author Greg Scofield six-packed and wrapped in a towel, Victoria poet Patrick Lane gesticulating while sitting cross-legged in front of a neatly stacked woodpile, and Haida Gwaii writer Susan Musgrave making faces with her daughters.

Peterson says that when he first started shooting authors as a studio photographer in the 1980s, he mistakenly wound up trying to control the situation. Now, he says, the way I work is totally the opposite, meeting authors in their homes to collaborate on setting, pose, and final shot, a process that results in a more intimate effect.

Though Canadian publishers tend not to use shots as arty or unconventional as Grimson or Peterson’s, experts in the publishing industry agree that a strong author photo is important “ now more than ever.

A good author photo is one that is compelling and invites a reader to connect a human being with the written word, says Emiko Morita, marketing director at Douglas & McIntyre. Having a shot that has some atmosphere or background is useful, but the priority is to have a good headshot “ in part because when you’re dealing with online promotion, you need the close-up for it to read well.

Dany Laferrière (Photo: Lincoln Clarkes)

I think a good author photo should encapsulate something of the character of the person, but maybe also something of the character of the book it’s representing, says Corey Redekop, who heads publicity and promotion at Goose Lane Editions, and has a new novel, Husk, on the way from ECW Press this fall. If you’re putting a photo in, you’re selling yourself as a commodity along with the book, and that can make a difference.

Naturally, the advent of digital photography has also brought major changes to the field. It’s much easier to produce and manage author photos today. Digital files and delivery save time, space, and money, says Morita, recalling the days when cabinets and binders were filled with printed copies of author photos, at considerable expense.

With digital cameras, you can take thousands of pictures, so you can try new things, says Redekop, who observes that authors of fiction and poetry take more chances with their photos than non-fiction writers.

Still, despite their insistence on the importance of good author photos, Morita and Redekop admit that few publishers are willing to pay for them. One notable exception is a 2009 campaign commissioned by D&M from well-known Vancouver photographer Lincoln Clarkes, who shot authors Ian Weir and Dany Laferrière (among others).

We encourage authors to get professional shots, says Morita. Definitely more than half [our author photos] are professional.

Redekop sees another trend, with many Goose Lane writers having family members do their shots. It’s preferable, Redekop quips, to what he considers the absolute no-go for author photos: If you had it taken at Sears, it’s not a good idea.

On Oct. 11, 111 West Coast Literary Portraits launches at Heritage Hall in Vancouver.