Sunday, 8 February 2009

Watch the birdie...

Author photos. Tiresome things. I've been thinking about them off and on for a while and then a couple of other posts and articles mentioned them (there was Fiendish being a model, Claire Askew on photos over at One Night Stanzas) and I thought maybe it's time for this subject now after all. There are more important subjects I could be thinking about...financial meltdown, the cruelty of some human beings, why the moon makes the sea look so inviting...but away with those for now...right now it's photos, images, what we look like, how we present ourselves to the world. Mostly (she says, trying not to sound like she's auditioning for 'Grumpy Old Women') what I think is this - if there's one job where people don't really need to see what you look like it's writing, isn't it? Why do we have to have author photos at all? I know...I know...marketing, blah, sales, blah, profile, blah, natural audience nosiness/curiosity...etc. etc. etc. I'm not naïve about this stuff...I'm just fatigued, frustrated, disappointed.

I've been wondering why I feel this way (and it is, of course, just a personal feeling...I won't be passing any laws or anything) and here are a few of the answers I've come up with. Some of these answers may contain more questions than actual answers. Sorry about that.

My first point would be – well, have you ever seen a good author photo? One that isn't clichéd (author surrounded by home library of interesting tomes, perchance, or author in gritty urban landscape looking confused by life's contradictions...)? Or have you seen many that are not one of the following - dull, very uncomfortable-looking or just ridiculously posed? (OK...there probably are a few exceptions...there was a lovely old black and white of Susan Sontag in the paper this weekend for a start...).

But back to fatigue! My second point is that, on a personal level, I have kind of been through all this before (when I was younger and more obviously photogenic). I did the whole what shall I wear, how will I come across, what kind of look am I aiming for when I was a DJ in the 1990s because my partner in vinyl and I got promotional photos done – four times in total. That may seem a bit excessive...but mostly the photographers were friends or friends of friends....and really it was my partner who made all the clothes/looks decisions (she had been to art school, knew something about visuals and fashion...neither of these big subjects with me). We got photos done because we had interviews in magazines, had to pick our favourite records, stuff like that and we needed photos to go with the articles. Here are a few samples of our old press shots. Most of these are from the mid 1990s when I was somewhere between 20 and 30 years of age. And, of course, it's funny...at the time I was never happy with how I looked (we were never the girl DJs known for our looks...some of the others around were real blonde glamour girls, one looked like Pamela Anderson...) but now I look at the photos and think 'bloody hell, we didn't look half bad! I wouldn't mind looking like that again now...' (Women, I ask you, never happy...but more of that later...).




'Daisy & Havoc' by Alexis Hutson. I'm on the right.




'Daisy & Havoc' by Casey Orr. Just to be different I'm on the left this time.
One of the photos from this shoot was in a book by Casey Orr called 'Portraits of Anarchists' but Daisy must have been the anarchist because I don't remember ever being one...not on purpose anyway. Still, a lot happened in the DJ years that I don't remember so who knows!





'Daisy & Havoc' by Jan Wells (I think). Flower power years, obviously. By now you can probably tell which one is me.



Anyway, having done the whole press photo thing to death already I suppose a big part of me doesn't want to get involved in all that again. I just want to do the writing, not the posing this time please (and in fact I never really felt very comfortable doing the posing last time in all honesty). That's why even though now and again I need a good up-to-date photo for a festival brochure or something I still keep using the same one that's on the side of this blog. Someone took it at the folk club a couple of years ago and I didn't know anything about it until he handed a print to me ages afterwards. I'm wearing possibly the least fashionable t-shirt you'll find anywhere on the internet but I don't care (there are women left alive who don't watch 'Sex and the bloody City', you know and look – here's visual proof!). I'm not sure how long I can keep using this photo though because if I use it for too long I will end up being one of those women whose photo is ten years old ('she's much older than that you know'). I can see how that happens now...it isn't that 'those women' are pretending to look young – they just don't want any new photos taken!

And this brings me to my next point - the whole business of looking at women (very, very complicated subject this one...I'm going to tackle it anyway though). Does anyone really care what a male writer looks like? If he's ugly but the book's good then he's interesting, right? Doesn't quite work like that with women though does it...not completely? Isn't there still a huge tendency for both men and women to judge women unfairly by their looks (plain/ugly woman = look away now)? And if you're a woman writer who is not particularly attractive to look at then isn't it likely your picture won't get used so much in the press (hear the editor's inner voice...'dull, dull, dull...'). And then, on the other hand, if you are a woman writer who IS attractive to look at you can't win either...editors may well use your photo so much that other writers/reviewers (and eventually the public) will bitch that you only get so much publicity because of your looks and that 'really you're not that talented'. How often do you hear/read this phrase (one that really bugs me) – 'she's a great writer/singer/artist and beautiful too'...as in what a bonus...as in eye candy...as in 'let's make it a double page spread for the interview then'. Ask yourself how many times you see photos of women writers and how often those are the more conventionally attractive ones (Plath, Candia McWilliam, Plum Sykes...I haven't read books by the last two but I know I've seen their photos regularly in the press). Pretty females sell papers...that's how editors think (even if some of them don't admit this to themselves...and I'm not for a moment saying that all those editors are men). It's no wonder some women writers keep very low profiles...who wants to get caught up in all the judgement upon women's looks business that goes on in the press on a daily basis. Have you stood in a newsagent's lately and looked at the covers of all the papers and magazines? Have you seen how many STUPID TV shows there are about women and their looks ('10 Years Younger', 'How to look good naked', Trinny and...ugh..I can't even type their heinous names...). If there is a hell (and it really is a horrible environment...as opposed to just somewhere a bit warm and naughty) then the producers and presenters of those shows should have their places at the top of the guest list. STUPID, STUPID, STUPID. Has so much comment ever been made about the body shape and look of so many women (and as I say – men and women equally guilty of continuing it all)?

Maybe you'll disagree with all that last paragraph. I wish I did. I like the idea of feminism becoming redundant...I don't see that though. I just see it getting more complicated.

Perhaps because of this my last area to discuss right now is the business of women's self-image (and this is related to the last point of course). Sometimes I am surprised...shocked even...by how many very intelligent women are unhappy with their own looks (to the point of silliness...and writers are not immune). A male writer may see a photo of themselves looking plump, feel a little regret that the photo looks less like a Greek god than they had hoped...and then just get on with their work. For too many women though it is not this simple. The sight of the plump photo will be followed by self-loathing, self-doubt, maybe even tears...and then, quite possibly, a bout of energetic eating of high calorie foodstuffs. Not all women behave this way...but far too many do. What a waste of time, isn't it? Now in my 40s I'm starting to see photos of myself that are certainly not the image I have of myself...so I start to wonder...will I enter into this ridiculous cycle of bother about photos? Is this one reason the whole subject makes me cringe? I really hope not. I have so many other things I could be doing...

And then this makes me think – maybe I should preempt this dreaded phase by going the other way and getting new photos done on purpose... really unflattering ones, with no soft focus and no sexy faces pulled and no trying to be fancied by anyone ever! Maybe I should eat a plate of doughnuts before they're taken and have as many spare tyres as I can possibly manage. Maybe I should hold my head low to see maximum double chin (not the usual...chin up for the photo shots)...I could wear old maternity clothes...I could not wash my hair for a month! Just using photos like that would be a political act in itself then wouldn't it? Like the Gossip's Beth Ditto parading her large self in lycra for all the world to see...it could be worth doing...couldn't it? Am I woman enough to try it? Oh heck, I'm not sure...

Failing that I suppose there's always this old snap...


Havoc (in hell) by Daisy (maybe).

Let me explain - the promoter of the club we worked in in Leeds was putting on an 'alternative' fashion show in a trendy gay club in Manchester (mid '90s) and I was one of the lucky models (fashion shows are not usually part of my world – it was a once in a lifetime experience). And yes, those are tampons in my hair (clean ones, I should point out). My outfit (not pictured and most definitely NOT model's own) was a mini-dress designed to look like a sanitary towel...and no, I'm not kidding...wish I was. Luckily this is the only photo of this event that I am aware of. So do you dare me to send it off the 'Scottish Review of Books' or 'Poetry Review' (not that either are begging me for photos but you know what I mean)? Do you think it would help my career in serious poetry? (Now I am kidding, I am! I am!).

Your comments, as ever, awaited with interest...your photos too if you're that way inclined (with or without doughnuts).

x

39 comments:

Dominic Rivron said...

There are important gender issues here but, gender apart, isn't it the case that our faces speak volumes about us? It's easy to look at a photo and think I do/don't feel inclined to read something written by the subject. I only have to look at a photo of Barbara Cartland to know I'll probably not want to read one of her efforts: the photos reinforce what little I know about her.

However, although the story told by pictures and faces is on one level more complex than one can easily put into words, on another, it's less accurate. Take those wonderful Cartland pics I've just referred to. If I'd been told she was a leading British Surrealist, then those pictures would stimulate my interest.

hope said...

We too often judge the package, then don't stick around to see what lies beneath. :)

Any wonder I'm the photo taker in the family? Even when I was ever so tiny and somewhat cute, I dreaded photos...because like hearing your voice on an answering machine, it never lives up to what we manage to see in the mirror. Denial? Possibly. But most of the time I think instead of seeing the woman I am now, I still see that shy, insecure 16 year old staring back at me. Okay, so the freckles are beginning to wrinkle a little. ;)

How can I not admire and respect a woman who thinks donuts are a photographic image enhancer? :)

SUSAN SONNEN said...

I am only now growing comfortable with the new me. I still feel 17, so to see a 45 year old in the mirror is rather odd. I'm growing to like the old girl, though.

The tampons are hilarious!

As far as author pics go, I am instantly turned off by a plastic face, male or female. I'd much rather see a person who is truly living as opposed to performing. Unmasked, so to speak.

swiss said...

well, i could go on and on but i have breakfast to eat...

of course there are good pictures of male writers or at least there will be as long as people are still taking pictures of me! ; )

Rachel Fox said...

Dominic - good points about how we decide what we think about someone and how that can be so quickly altered with a bit of alternative information.

Hope - I haven't actually done the doughnut photos though have I? Just as insecure as most other women...

Susan...yes I like the old girl more than the young one too. Better late than never.

And Swiss...you'll have to go on and on later!
x

Sorlil said...

I think you're right about feminism becoming more complicated rather than redundant. I love the pics, the top one looks quite Trinny and Suzannah-ish, lol!

I love looking at author photos, not just to see how attractive they are, most writers are quite quirky folks and I love to see how quirky they look in there pics. Plus it's nice to know more about the author, I read half-way through Luke Kennard's collection before I flicked to the back to have a look at his pic and couldn't believe how young he looks!
Women will always be judged far more than men on their appearance, but don't underestimate the vanity of men - swiss, lol!

Sorlil said...

ugh, I meant 'their'.

Liz said...

Rachel, totally dig your DJ photos -especially the peeping-over-the-rim-of-glasses look...that would be great as an author photo ; )

Your post covers a wide spectrum - great food for thought - and it all boils down to society allowing men to age gracefully and women are in turn expected to go down fighting age until the end...(lip-puckering operations and breast-tucking etc)...you know that one of the interesting things about living here is seeing women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond looking really confident and good...it's the whole 'continental'way of carrying themselves or something... I know they go to great trouble to do it but just really like the confidence they exude.

And regarding photos of oneself - I had to go searching for one of me the other day and it was a blow to see the 'ageing'...yet when I resorted to my 'pretend-it-isn't-me' trick, I actually liked some of the photos...I suppose that says it all - we women can be too self-critical...it's a confidence thing.
x

deemikay said...

I'm in work at the moment, so just a quick note.

I'm in full agreement with almost everything you say. I've been meaning to write about "photogenic" people for a week or so now because a friend said "everyone calls me photogenic, but I don't think it has anything to do with the way I look." I said it doesn't - being photogenic is to do with how you act in front of a camera, not how good looking you are. Most writers aren't comfortable in front of a camera, hence whypictures of them are generally mediocre.

I'll write more later... got managers to avoid!

Rachel Fox said...

Sorlil - you say 'Women will always be judged far more than men on their appearance ' and it does seem to be the case. I know men (young men mainly) who would argue forever with that and say 'no women are just as judgmental about the way men look...good looking guys get things easy'...and yet still men seem to be able to get round the looks issue in other ways whereas I don't know if women ever do. Do they?

'Pretend it isn't me', Liz. Maybe that's what the guys do! I never thought of even trying that. Mostly I just don't think about it much and avoid mirrors...this week I thought I'd think about it here with you all for a while.

x

john baker said...

"Writers should be read but neither seen nor heard." Daphne du Maurier.

Rachel Fox said...

Now there's a voice of reason!
x

Art Durkee said...

Annie Liebovitz took several wonderful photos of Susan Sontag. Annie has a tendency towards quirky but iconic portraits; one of the great portrait photographers of our time.

I agree with every single point you make in your long paragraph on why women are still regarded differently, and come under different kinds of regard. I also think that when nobody cares anymore, when none of it is any Big Deal, that's when feminist advocacy will no longer be necessary; but we're not there yet. (The same is true for gay rights.)

My default photo on my blog, the one that shows up here next to my comments, is an older photo, but it's an iconic one for me. In it, I'm in a nightclub playing Chapman Stick with one of my bands at that time; it was taken in Madison, WI, and now I live back in that region, having been away for a long time; it was a photo taken by my almost-boyfriend at the time, using my camera; and it represents the photo and musical sides of my creative life. So, a lot of associations.

I believe that author portraits are best when they're artistic and iconic, and also a little sideways. Nothing's more cliche, I agree, than the formal portrait in the library, or the demented waif on the gritty mean city streets. So I look for author photos that are a bit off-target, or evocative. I suppose I do look at them with a graphic designer's eye, having worked in that field. Of the four photos you posted here, I do like that first one a lot; it really communicates without being at all glamorous.

Photos DO tell stories, especially posed portraits. It's important to be conscious of the image you're trying to project as a writer. Beyond that, it's hard to control how people will receive it.

Rachel Fox said...

Some great comments on this one and yours, Art, as fine as any. Thanks for them all especially as I am having the shittiest of shit days! Nothing to do with the mirror this time...nothing that simple...
Anyway, tomorrow, tomorrow, the sun will come out tomorrow...or not.
x

Art Durkee said...

There's a great portrait of George Mackay Brown, poet from Orkney, sitting by the standing stones at Brodgar, reading a book of poems, wind blowing through his unkempt hair.

A poet from your neck of the woods, one of my favorites.

The photo is on this page:

http://www.georgemackaybrown.co.uk/PhotoGallery/PGgmb1.htm

Crafty Green Poet said...

I like the history of you through press photos, interesting post....

I think deemikay makes a very good point about being photogenic. When I was young I hated having my photo toaken and there are no good photos of me in my teens. Now I'm much happier with it and the photos are better.

I generally have a very happy relationship with the way i look (apart from my knees!). I think it has something to do with never looking at women's fashion magazines or image obsessed reality shows though having said that i love clothes.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, Art, some great shots of GMB. Particularly excellent use of wild hair. It is very windy in Orkney too...even windier than round here (and it can be pretty lively here).

And Juliet...yes, I agree that keeping away from certain media is good for the self-image. Sometimes as I wait in the papershop in the morning I am just amazed by the rows of magazines with front page stories about x's tummy tucks and y's diets. How can that be interesting week after week after week? And in so many different magazines! I suppose some people would feel the same about articles about poetry and art... week after week after week...but my goodness...front page stories?

I don't have a bad relationship with my own looks. I know I'm OK to look at ...I have my better points and my...not so impressive features (bit like my character...that's true for all of us, I think). I could easily get some new photos done...I'm just thinking about all that's involved I suppose. I don't think I've ever seen a photo of you online have I Juliet? Let's see those knees!
x

M. L. Kiner said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rachel Fox said...

That was spam that was. Funny because I was just saying the other day that I haven't had any spam on here!
x

deemikay said...

Now, where was I? I don't care about author photos. There is, of course, a slight nosiness about what a writer looks like. But it is slight. A person's face is no more important to the words they write than the hands they write them with, but we don't have hand portraits on books.

The problem I see with author photos is that most writers (like most people) aren't comfortable in front of cameras, so they appear stiff, serious, intense - they aren't photogenic, despite any attractiveness. (I both hate having my picture taken and am ugly as sin, that rules me out on two counts!)

When I'm photographing people, I prefer that they're not aware that I do so. This creates good shots. As does phtotgraphing people mid-conversation. However, I also like photographing people for whom being photographed is no big deal - this is what being photogenic is. Hence why children are great to shoot - they don't care about their hair, their clothes, who'll see the photo, who'll criticise the photo... Adults who retain this attitude are photogenic. Even if they're ugly as sin.

Some examples by me here.

***

And you're right that there is a difference between how women and men are perceived visually. The only proof I need is when I see older, ugly male reporters on the ten o'clock news and wonder why we never see older, ugly female reporters. Are younger, good-looking women automatically better journalists? And whose fault is it?

Art Durkee said...

The point about being comfortable in front of the camera is an interesting one.

I have a small subspecialty in photography in taking candid photos of people when they don't know I'm taking their photos. I've had more than one friend say to me that I got the best of them ever taken. That's because they're relaxed and natural, not stiffening up and self-conscious as when they know the camera's on them. They're more spontaneous. I call it stealth photography, and I've gotten pretty good at it; some of my best photos were taken that way. One trick is to learn to shoot without raising the camera to your eye and making it obvious to everyone around you that you're taking a picture. I shoot from the hip a lot, with good results.

I'm pretty comfortable in front of the camera, although I don't think I'm remotely photogenic. That's a different kettle of corn. I'm comfortable because I've become comfortable onstage, as a performer, after doing it for many years. Being in front of the camera is just another performance. If you view having your portrait taken as acting, as role-playing, as projecting an image or mask, it can help you relax and not take it so seriously.

Rachel Fox said...

David - amazing gallery of photos. Maybe you'll have to follow me around for a while and then I'll get a decent up-to-date picture! I promise not to wear tampons in my hair.

And Art seems to have similar technique...stealth photography steals the day. See you in the undergrowth.

x

Colin Will said...

I'm off to get some author photos taken this morning. The photographer's a good friend, and a fellow poet, and I trust her, so I'm already sure the results are going to be (a) good, (b) original, and (c) interesting. The setting is definitely 'me' anyway - a garden with buildings.

Rachel Fox said...

Kilt or no kilt today Colin?
x

Colin Will said...

No kilt Rachel, but I did wear my black fedora for some of the shots. I worried about it being too Terry Pratchett, but I've been wearing mine for years, so why not?

Back to judging 200 childrens' poems. No rest etc.

Rachel Fox said...

The judging never ends...
x

hope said...

Yep, stealth is the answer.

Once a lens is spied, some evil little instinct creeps in to whisper, "Sit up straight. Smile. No, not like you're going to the electric chair. Like you won the lottery. No, that's more like you just won a straight jacket and a year's stay in a padded room. Be natural. What? Well when people glance your way you don't freak out or think they're checking to see if you're on a Most Wanter list. Why let a camera do that to you? Because it's permanent you say. No, there's always tomorrow. Now pass the donuts."

Okay, should I be worried that my word below is "copicat"? ;)

hope said...

Sigh. "Most Wanted".

Rachel Fox said...

Ah the padded room...few camera there...
x

Rachel Fox said...

Typos are obviously infectious.
x

Jim Murdoch said...

As I just said on Claire's blog, I think that author photos come under the don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover umbrella. I don't have a photo of me smiling since the age of about ten. If you look at them you'd think me a dour bugger and really I have a very good sense of humour - I just don't smile that much. I never put a photo on my book as you know.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes and I almost look glamorous on some of these photos...and I assure you I am anything but!
x

deemikay said...

Damn... a reply disappeared into the blogether. :o|

I said that I'd never intentionally take photos as a voyeur. But then I realised that that was a lie. ;)

I also repeated the offer that I made at Rob McKenzie's blog - if anyone wants their author photo taken by me, then I'd be more than happy to volunteer my services. And I'd do it for free.

:)

Rachel Fox said...

Well you can either come up to Angus and follow me about for a day (hey, come and do that anyway..I'll make you a cake or something) or come to StAnza and get a whole load of people in one go. Who knows they might make your photos into an exhibition for next year. And the more friendly faces at StAnza the better for me. I go every year and I always feel...extremely uncomfortable. Hints of that de Souza poem you posted I think.
x

swiss said...

i think we're at stanza for saturday

anyway, i could go on and on...
but i;ve been wasting my morning with the following. see if anything is vaguely familiar. it made me laugh
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyQWLuMXOUI&feature=related

Rachel Fox said...

Watched the clip, Swiss. Made me smile. 'I love the law!' and 'I can't feel my spinal fluid but I think it's there'.
I have a poem with the lines 'We hugged everybody/even the bouncers'. Along similar lines. Rave on, brother.
x

deemikay said...

Offers of cakes are always welcome... :)

As for Stanza - I don't *do* things like that. Me's much happier in the hermitage. Perhaps for the same reasons you feel uncomfortable (and I've just remembered that I haven't replied to your de Souza commnet...)

McGuire said...

Love those pictures. Very 80's. Very much the 'party monster' - have you seen that film?

As for feminism, hmm, it's a thorny issue. Both genders suffer but that one suffers 'more' I find hard to quantify.

An interesting insight into your history rachel. I'll be re-reading.

Rachel Fox said...

No I haven't seen that film McGuire - is it any good? I have seen a lot of club/rave films...probably too many!
x