Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Last Week's Photos

In the good old days, it didn't matter if a writer had a face like the back end of a bus because, with a few exceptions, they were unseen by their public. George Eliot, once described by Henry James as "magnificently ugly" never had to endure the humiliation of the dustjacket author photo.

I wonder how many writers agonise over their official author photos. Even if you're confident about your looks (or past caring), there is the question of what to wear and what pose to adopt. An open smile is obviously out - you're a writer - but will a half-smile make you look approachable or smug? Perhaps it's better to play it straight, but that can end up looking miserable or self-important.

I remember one young American writer who decided to be photographed standing in front of a brick wall, wearing his best Levi's. I think he wanted to look edgy and urban, but he ended up looking stiff and uncomfortable, with one thumb half-heartedly placed inside his righthand pocket. Perhaps I was being more critical because I knew that his wife had taken the picture in leafy Richmond-upon Thames, but still I don't think it worked as an image.

He should have gone for this look:

This is the quintessential author photo. I love the half-closed left eye and faraway look, as if the writer is busy contemplating the contents of his next novel. The pipe, old school tie and neatly-trimmed beard all add to the air of gravitas. Sadly, for the author at least, his books are now out of print.

But there's another profession who must have had an even harder time striking the right pose:

Before the "happy clappy" movement made joy a virtual sacrament, clergymen were supposed to exude an air of intellectual rigour and unworldliness. This gentleman looks as if he'd be happiest debating the finer points of transubstatiation, or which Bach organ sonata is the greatest.

Where did it all go wrong? I blame William Booth.

On the subject of sacraments, is marriage one of them? The Catholic and Orthodox churches say yes; the Protestants say no. Whatever the answer, is there any excuse for these transgressions:

Not only are the bridegrooms breaking several fashion by-laws, but they actually seem happy.

This is really going against the grain. Over the last year or so, I have published of number of amusing wedding photographs in which the bride is clearly up the duff and the bridegroom is approaching the altar with the stoic resignation of a condemned man.

At least this couple seem more traditional, right down to the miserable faces:

The figures in the background are like a Greek chorus.

Oh dear, there's no turning back. At least, not until the first affair with the girl in the typing pool. But this wedding isn't a completely grim affair and some people seem to be enjoying themselves:

I wonder where the honeymoon was? Would it have been somewhere as exotic as this European location:

If you click on the photo, you should be able to see more. I'd love to travel 50 years back in time and join this coach party, although I'd draw the line at sing-songs.

This photo isn't quite as old, but I still find it bizarre that the fastest passenger aircraft in the world made its debut 41 years ago and has now been retired, whilst the lumbering Jumbo Jets still take seven hours to get to New York:

The problem with Concorde is that there weren't enough people who wanted Phil Collins to play two concerts on each side of the Atlantic on the same day.

1969 was a watershed year for many people: Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the first supersonic airliner made its maiden flight and Monty Python made its debut on British television. There was a genuine excitement about every new technological development. People felt that they were on the brink of the Space Age.

Can you imagine crowds of ordinary people turning out to see a new aeroplane these days?

It's strange how the future is now in the past. That's not an entirely bad thing though. I know that postmodernism is a dirty word in some circles, but for every Apollo programme and supersonic airliner, there were dozens of awful, dehumanizing civic building schemes, in which reinforced concrete was ubiquitous.

Before I post these photos, I usually clean them up a little, removing any large distracting smudges and correcting the colour balance (but not too much - I still want them to look old).

However, this image has defeated me:

I suppose that it's beyond repair, but if anyone has any ideas I'd love to know.


MikeP said...

Another fascinating collection! The ginger bridegroom has the same air of barely controlled desperation as Tony (Ange's husband) in Abigail's Party.

I wonder what the story is of the two (?Chinese) women is in the coach party. If the party is French, they might be Vietnamese, I suppose.

Steerforth said...

I wondered exactly the same thing, and you're spot-on about Tony (or "Tone").

on site said...

poor George Eliot. There is an awful lot of judgement about attractiveness going on in this blog. Not everyone takes a good picture: is this important? Do you read a book on the basis of its author's photo? Well, yes. I never take out books of glamourous blonde beauties who live in California and enjoy long walks on the beach with their dogs.
The grim Victorian patriarch: no other information about him other than this unfortunate photograph. Was he kind? perhaps.
Fashion travesties? Is anyone immune to this unless you live under a rock somewhere? This is a case of letting a laugh get in the way of generosity.

Steerforth said...

It's just a bit of fun - done with affection rather than condescension. As my friends will testify, I give the same treatment to my own photo albums.

It's not about belittling people, but how social norms change and the fact that however "cool" we look today, the fact remains that people will find us hilarious in 30 years' time.

As far as author photos are concerned, you're quite right - the writer's perceived attractiveness is completely irrelevant to the book. Do we need to see a photo of an author? Of course not.

Sadly, publishers don't agree and writers have to be pretty stubborn to get away without a jacket photo.

The same thing has happened in classical music, where the front cover of a CD all too often features a photo of the soloist in a "sexy" pose, as if anyone would let that influence their decision to buy.

In short, I agree with you, even if it doesn't seem like it.

Sam Jordison said...

The author with pipe picture is wonderful. Who is he? I wonder if I would write better if I had a pipe to help me.

Steerforth said...

I'm a big fan of pipes - it's a shame that like hats, they've gone out of fashion.

As one of my colleagues said, if you're a pipe smoker and someone asks you a difficult question, instead of going "Erm..." and looking like an idiot, you can puff away thoughtfully and look into the middle distance until you've thought of an answer.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

You can't beat a good old poetic stroking of the chin pose if you are a poet author.

Very funny re the comparison with Abigail's Party re the unknown wedding couple, though strangely enough, they look the most matched in all but happiness.

John Self said...

Author photos: Zadie Smith had her hair straightened and her freckles (if they're still called that when you're black) concealed on the author photo for White Teeth, making her look whiter than she is.

I am used to getting press releases for books where the author is described as "highly promotable." Typically this is a euphemism. "Phwoaar, yeah, I'd give her a right good promoting."

Steerforth said...

I've met Zadie Smith and she's gorgeous. If they're airbrushing her, then what hope does anyone else have?