The writing life has long captured our collective imagination. What is it about writers, we wonder, that empowers them to work words into shapes and patterns that move us? The most affecting photographs possess that same power to reach out upon first sight, to capture our hearts and minds, to leave us smitten.
Such is the feeling that comes from gazing at the work of Marion Ettlinger, a photographer celebrated for her "literary portrait power" (The Wall Street Journal). Author Photo collects, for the first time in book form, more than two hundred of Ettlinger's most famous photographs. Immortalized in these pages are many of America's greatest writers, including Raymond Carver, Francine Prose, Walter Mosley, Mary Karr, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Cormac McCarthy, Patricia Highsmith, Ken Kesey, Edwidge Danticat, and Jeffrey Eugenides.
According to one of Ettlinger's Pulitzer Prize-winning subjects, "starkness and a sense of shadows" are at the core of her artistic allure. Shot exclusively in natural light and in black-and-white film, each of these images is an intimate artwork, putting the reader closer than ever before to the writers they revere and admire. A photographic paean to the literary spirit, Author Photo opens a rare and revealing window onto the timelessness of creativity.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||8.30(w) x 10.70(h) x 2.30(d)|
About the Author
Marion Ettlinger has been a photographer since 1968. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Author PhotoPortraits, 1983-2002
By Marion Ettlinger
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2003 Marion Ettlinger
All right reserved.
Marion Ettlinger first took my picture twenty years ago this fall. Esquire magazine had given her her first big photo assignment, which was to travel about the United States photographing the author-contributors to the magazine's fiftieth anniversary issue and celebration of itself. There were a lot of writers, almost fifty of us (some very estimable, including Truman Capote, Ken Kesey, Bob Hughes, Elizabeth Hardwick). We lived all over the map, which is where Marion went to take our photographs.
My own residential circumstances at the time were not, for me, atypical. Home was a rented ranch-style house on the outskirts of a town I barely knew, but where my wife had a job, and where I was trying to write a novel. Missoula.
I hadn't had my picture taken much, and never by a tiny, exotic-seeming, dark-eyed, fancy female photographer from a famous magazine, arriving from New York dressed in all-black, with no assistant, no lights, no nothing. A camera and a tripod. I was both nervous and deeply impressed. Impressed with Marion, certainly, who seemed to me a mystery emissary from the fame god; and also with myself, the lucky-duck recipient of that god's gilded attentions. Both of these entwined emotions, a sort of jittery hubris, haunt the picture Marion took of me that pretty fall day -- emotions that sit, in my view, not very comfortably on my then smooth-faced visage of semi-young, overly expectant, writerly manhood. I was thirty-nine.
Not much more is memorable from that day in 1983. Not much except Marion, who is very memorable. Small, as I said, dressed like a Vietcong (as if to camouflage her presence); fastidious, patient, expedient behind her tripod. Amiable, but also intense, emanations I felt each time she looked straight at me, just at the moment she took my picture. It only lasted a heartbeat, that sweet intensity -- its evidence a wondrous-seeming and beguiling smile, which seemed to say, "Oh, my, what an interesting face we have here, so good, so surprising, so various, I've never seen one like it, and I believe I've just captured the look that'll make all its qualities evident forever."
It was very nice to have Marion take my picture that day. The fame god, it seemed, was on his game.
In the years since then, I've had my picture taken other times -- by famous arty types who only magisterially "stepped into" the setup to effect the shutter snap; by gawky men who shrank behind their black cloths, so you never saw their face -- their smile or grimace or mutter; by hotshot photojournalists determined to make me look "interesting" (read "like a moron") and who burned their motordrives like Uzis. And still others so bored with me and my mug, they could as well have been shooting my passport picture. Or my obit shot.
But Marion's over-and-around-the-camera look of notice is by far the most memorable, most fetching of all for being somehow reciprocating. She has referred in interviews to her wish to create an "atmosphere of permission" when she's taking someone's picture. And having shared that atmosphere and liked it, I've always sought to make contact with photographers, eye-to-eye, just at the moment they're performing the semimagical thing they perform -- the thing primitive (but not unsophisticated) peoples are said to fear, and just before my actual face begins its time-bound way onward, and the photograph commences its own timeless one.
What is this moment of connection I seek? What Marion calls permission? Probably it comprises a lot of things. Surrender. Defiance -- the sensation primitive people can't quite master. It's acknowledgment of the queasily personal and unnatural experience of being (along with the film) exposed by another human being. It's nostalgia. It's acceptance. It's vain hope. And most assuredly it's an attempt to strike an intimacy with the photographer -- and the camera -- which will stamp itself on the picture and ultimately overpower it. What I've always thought, when Marion Ettlinger has taken my picture through these succeeding twenty years, is that her face behind the camera registers this entire nuanced exchange of permissions, and confirms that what it seeks is sympathy. The pictures in this book, of course, say I'm right.
Anyone, I think, would agree that author photos constitute a unique subspecies of the photographer's art. Portrait-like, they are not exactly portraits, since the opinions they express are as much the ones approved by the subjects as those approved by the photographer. Indeed, they are collusive, not so much studies as advertisements, averrals that the pictured author of the book you hold in your hand (and who's schoolmarmish enough to resist peeking at the author before reading the book?) is a person handsome, interesting, dramatic, weird, friendly, mysterious, possibly even forbidding enough to have written something you simply won't be able to put down. An author photo is part of a book's package, a part of any book we can, it's hoped, know by its cover. And in making such a photograph, the photographer at the very least lends aspects of her or his independence and proprietary authority to a separate, contestably higher authority -- the author, the publisher, the market. This, I suppose, could be artistically problematic, though only if the essential transaction weren't understood and acknowledged, as it is, say, in fashion photography, or more sublimely in high-school yearbook pix, where the artistic gesture has several components to its complex address. And, of course, if the photographs themselves were not as distinctive as Marion Ettlinger's are.
I think I can always recognize a Marion Ettlinger photograph, read its signature, even downsized to a little porthole window on the back of a paperback, which the author peers through and says, "Hi." Ettlinger's subjects look incandescent (some darkroom alchemy I'm not much interested in). Almost always, they gaze at us, unsmiling, and never completely disregard the viewer. Almost always, faces are posed -- dramatized by their expressions (nothing at ease or informal), by the photograph's high-finish black-and-white particularity (much texture, facial lines, cheekbones, veins, arm hair); and by light (natural, but tending toward the umbral, from which faces -- especially eyes -- blaze out, sometimes gravely.) Some photographs feature self-conscious compositioning -- props, interesting out-of-studio locales, animal companions: Jeffery Eugenides in the subway, Stewart O'Nan in a diner, James Ellroy standing beside his look-alike bull terrier, Bob Hughes with an apparently still-living, but not well-tonsured, parrot on arm.
But stagings aside, most of Ettlinger's photographs feature a confronting sensation of personal nearness to their subjects, nearness which is not so much intimate or interpretive or situating as privileged and admiring. The author-subject is the picture. And what's most interesting or pretty or provocative about each photograph is not what the subject does for a living (they're all writers), but how the subject looks, or at least how he or she looks to Marion Ettlinger -- or better yet: how the subject looks in her hands. In this way the writer is abstracted from the writing, and the presumption is that everyone's the better for it.
Pictures lie all the time, Avedon has said -- a truth which must be balanced against the fact that they also never lie. Away from my mirror, I know how I look; a good picture of me will show it. A bad picture, though -- one I tear up and burn -- confronts me with someone I don't want to get cozy with. Both, alas, are Richard.
Marion Ettlinger has tried over these years to make good pictures of her subjects. Writers, she's told me once, house drama (some clearly more than others). And, trusting her gaze to locate upon writers' faces qualities that interest her -- terrains, structures, humors, uniquenesses, even winning homeliness -- her photographer's vocation has been to enact this drama and ness -- her photographer's vocation has been to enact this drama and make it virtually permanent. If a photograph could be imagined as a moment, Ettlinger seeks to create what she calls iconic moments, when her subjects are most, at least photographically speaking, present and uniquely themselves.
So, when I look at a Marion Ettlinger photograph taken of someone I know well -- my great teacher Stanley Elkin, my friends Edmund White, Elizabeth Rosner, Francisco Goldman -- I always see a face, a look, an expression, a mood, a temper -- a presence -- I'd believed only I knew but, with the photograph in front of me, I realize I must surrender to the rest of the world. It's permission I grant.
I could say more. I could always say more. That's my job. But this is enough. You'll look at these marvelous photographs again and again, I think. They compose an unusual and distinct and intense part of the contemporary literary culture. Close up to these women and men, you will think things about them you hadn't thought before, and look more closely. You might even think about a book you read once. Though, away from the covers of books, Marion Ettlinger's work provokes us, as you'll see, as completely achieved photography, inasmuch as there is something purely frank and unwitholding about these pictures' photographic beauty, frankness we may like, even occasionally not like, but which will make us, after a while, think again about ourselves.
Copyright © 2003 by Richard Ford
Excerpted from Author Photo by Marion Ettlinger Copyright © 2003 by Marion Ettlinger.
Excerpted by permission.
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