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Occupy Author Photo: On Elena Ferrante, Privacy, and Women Writers

19 February 2018

From The Millions:

When I was in my 20s, I used to spend hours at the Strand Bookstore in New York, obsessively gazing at book jacket photos of authors. I was trying to discern something — A key to genius? Or the mere fact that this lucky person, in this photo, had managed to get a book out into the world?

The variations were endless: Here was a classic black-and-white, chin resting on fist. Here was a playful one, slightly off-center. Sexy duck face for a middle-grade children’s book…okay. Or, how about this one, gorgeous photo, but one that looked completely different — like witness protection plan different — from the author I saw as I sat in the audience at a crowded Barnes & Noble. Or this one: instead of confined to the inner flap, her face on the entire back of the book, where the blurbs would normally be. Was this good? Did this mean the press thought she was such a great writer they wanted everyone to know her? Or, was it like using a pretty face to sell toothpaste?

Fast forward a few years on, and I’m finally published. My husband is in grad school, but before that, he’d worked at the venerated publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Knowing my obsession, he would often point out the different FSG authors’ pictures, noting how the press often signaled the importance of a book by commissioning one of the well-known author photographers, most famously, Marion Ettlinger, whose black-and-whites portraits are instantly recognizable by the unsmiling, dramatic poses of her subjects, the marmoreal lighting. These could run thousands of dollars for a single image.

. . . .

But after being out of the publishing game for more than a decade, it’s author photo time! But I have come to wonder if, perhaps, for women, author photos are too often a lose-lose situation.

Women are judged — very often wrongly — because of their looks.

. . . .

It’s as if we already give any American (white) man the benefit of the doubt in terms of fitting into any narrative, especially one of heroism or competence, but a woman who breaks through always has to be stopped, something must be wrong.

Women authors, genius aside, must make sure they are not too old, or too young. Not too serious, but also serious enough. They have to be attractive, but not too attractive; for some reason in men it’s dreamy but in women it’s suspicious.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG says if you’re nervous about an author photo, don’t have one. Or, to stand out from the crowd, demand a photo that obscures your face. Here are a few examples:



Or doesn’t show your face at all:


Of course, just like authors regularly use pen names, you could also have a pen photo. Here are some pen photos PG might use.



16 Comments to “Occupy Author Photo: On Elena Ferrante, Privacy, and Women Writers”

  1. I love the last one! Maybe I should use a Victorian photo in place of my face – I’d enjoy it more. 😉

  2. I always use a pen photo – a painting by Peter Paul Rubens. It’s my avatar on every social media. I just didn’t know the term ‘pen photo’.

  3. I love this idea! I’ve been agonizing over the author photo thing, and this is a great solution

  4. I’ve long maintained that I would use Cthulhu as my “pen photo.”

    Or I guess I could use that Mortal Kombat character whose face can’t be seen, lest you go insane upon seeing it…

  5. I’m so camera shy it’s not funny so when I started blogging I used a chibi that The Offspring created. After a year or two though, I had to substitute a face shot to prove I was me and not some annonymous rabble rouser. Still prefer the chibi though. Oh! And the first two pen photos are stunning.

    • At my old job they wanted us to use avatars of our own faces. I started with a cartoon character, but they insisted it had to be a photo. So I closely cropped a photo of myself so that you just saw my eye. When I was moderating comments someone commented on the Eye of Sauron effect of the “avatar”. I’m like my grandma, I just run from cameras.

  6. My author photo is an old pic from one of those picture days at school when I was about 9 or 10.

  7. I use a photo of my favourite carnivale mask. Works a treat. 😀

  8. It’s interesting to hear the various reasons for “pen photos” as PG aptly named it. Similar to how I chose a pen name, because I didn’t want my writing to ever be attributed to me and my day job. So the pen photo I use is a black and white photo of myself, but obscured behind aviators and a beanie (looking quite hipster-ish I’ll admit, but serves the purpose as it’s the opposite of the real me).

  9. Thank you for the photo suggestions and the laugh, PG. I needed that.

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