The author photo is a maligned and poorly used art form. Considered a false distraction from the purity of the words within (especially when the author is a hottie) or consigned to a tiny thumbnail afterthought on an inner book flap (if it appears at all), it's often thought a piece of vain and trashy commerce, best left to be exploited by 25-year-old flavors of the month and aging, airbrushed blockbuster franchises.
But treating the author photo as a bit of pro forma fluff ignores the theatrical possibilities--and even requirements--of authorship. Think of how hard it is to separate our 20th-century literary greats (even more so than the commercial hacks--who remembers what Arthur Hailey looked like?) from their iconic images: Baldwin's giant, weary eyes, Beckett's hawklike brow and crest, Djuna Barnes's boyishly dolled-up profile. They (or their promoters) hardly neglected the importance of constructing such a public image, and their art hasn't suffered from its propagation.
Most author photos, though, seem infected by reluctance and (false) modesty, so here I'd like to celebrate some author images that are as memorable as the books they help present--or that, better yet, help make those books more memorable. I stuck as best I could to true author photos, from book flaps or back covers, and ignored photos that were used as front covers, an entirely different genre of art. It's an idiosyncratic selection, limited by my own taste like all Firmaments, but also by my book collection (most of which are paperbacks with no author photo, further limiting the field). I spent an hour or two skimming through every shelf in my house to cull my nominees, but it turned out the ones that made this list were already memorable enough for me that, except for a few I was pleased to be reminded of, they were the ones in my head before I started my more systematic search.
I've led with John Hodgman's photo above not as one of the official top ten--his new book, That Is All, has only been in my house a few days, not long enough to become a "favorite"--but more as a patron saint of the author photo, since That Is All includes not one but three exquisite portraits of Mr. Hodgman in character as The Deranged Millionaire, including the one above, hidden on the inside of the book jacket despite being the best of the three.
Here are my favorites:
1. Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, from The Smartest Guys in the Room. My favorite photo on the list is also the smallest, just a little two-shot above the author bio on the back flap of their book, the definitive account of the Enron collapse by journalists who helped make it happen. (McLean, reporting in Fortune, was one of the first to publicly question its finances.) Even in these few pixels you get a sense of their partnership, with McLean elbowing her way into a majority of the photo and Elkind not appearing to mind at all. And the look on McLean's face says what every investigative reporter dreams of saying: "Yup, I gotcha." And she did.
2. Amy Sedaris, from I Like You. Probably the greatest back cover in modern publishing (except maybe the late Tim Hetherington's incredible photo on the back of War). I've sung its praises before, but I am still unable to look at this picture, from one artist to another of course--right back atcha, Amy--without collapsing in the laughter of love and admiration for her sheer commitment to character. If Cindy Sherman's on the walls of MoMA, Amy Sedaris should be right next to her.
3. Ian Frazier, from Dating Your Mom. Right behind Sedaris in the ranks of deadpan greatness is "Sandy" Frazier. His author photos have become more earnest over the years, but time cannot eclipse this early brilliance, from his first collection of New Yorker casuals (which I just discovered Frazier modeled after his friend George Trow's snapshot poses [for more on Trow see below]). Side note: his almost goofily solemn back-flap photo for Great Plains (see right) is particularly special to my sister, an even bigger Frazier fan than I, if that's possible. After summer spent in Tucumcari, New Mexico, many years ago, perhaps the most exciting news she had to report was that she had seen the photo studio where the Great Plains author shot was taken!
4. Fernanda Eberstadt, from When the Sons of Heaven Meet the Daughters of the Earth. I swear, the reason this novel is always first on my list for great recent fiction nobody knows about is that it's a wonderfully brainy, dramatic, and character-filled story of New York, art, and money, not because the photo of young Ms. Eberstadt on the cover of my UK paperback edition has mesmerized me with her ravishingly glassy gaze and that little off-center gap between her lips. No, no, not that at all.
Side note: I almost made a prideful announcement in the introduction that this list would not include any photos by Marion Ettlinger, whose silvered poses of folks like Cormac McCarthy and Raymond Carver became such an author-photo cliche in the '80s and '90s, but this is indeed a Marion Ettlinger photograph as well, and so I apologize to Marion Ettlinger for any complaint I might have made in the past about her work or her ubiquity. All is forgiven.
Second side note: Some authors stick with the same photo for years and years. Others don't. Here are Eberstadt's transformations over a quarter-century, from left to right: Low Tide (1985), When the Sons of Heaven (hardcover, 1996), The Furies (2003), Little Money Street (2006), Rat (2010):
5. Steven Millhauser, from Martin Dressler. What a perfect match of subject and style. Millhauser, whose tales are elegant, melancholy put-ons about the intersection between our imagined and real lives, is captured here as a ghostly emanation, leaning in shyly from the corner of the frame and looking so much like a high school student made up to play the grandfather in the school play that I went and checked if this is what he really looks like. Apparently, it is.
6. Mark Blaug, Economic Theory in Retrospect. I tried to make my way through this book in grad school (for American literature, for goodness sake! I was trying to be multidisciplinary), but didn't have much success. But every time I'd lose heart I'd look at the back of the book at Professor Blaug, looking back at me with such authority, and think "You smug jerk--what, are you on the phone to Keynes? I'm going to figure this book out just to spite you!" Ever since, this has stood for me as the acme of the "I'm too busy to have my picture taken! Oh, okay..." subgenre of author photos.
7. Norman Ollestad Sr., from Inside the FBI. I tracked down this copy after reading Crazy for the Storm, the superb memoir by his son, Norman Jr., about the plane crash that killed his father (and which he survived). Norman Sr. is such a fascinatingly charismatic figure in that book--FBI agent and federal prosecutor turned hippie dad who drove his son to frightening athletic feats in the surf and snow--that when I found out he had written an insider's expose of the FBI in the '60s I had to check it out myself. The great photo above (which is the back cover of the book) only gains in awesomeness when you compare it to the classic '70s family photos (this one, for example) on display on the Amazon page for his son's book.
8. Susan Minot, from Monkeys. Yes, I'll fess up: I bought this book just because of the author photo. And I'd do it again.
9. Geoff Dyer, from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. How fitting that a someone who has written so well and so joyfully about photography could be captured in such a lovely and evocative way: off-center, casually stylish, floating with a kind of curious, unconcerned calm against an indistinct but detailed background that would no doubt reward his sort of close, meandering attention.
10. George W.S. Trow, from My Pilgrim's Progress. There is really not much exceptional about this photo on the surface--I'm sure what I love about it is the meaning I've poured into it. I've been a great admirer of Trow's over the past 15 years or so since I rediscovered the great, one-of-a-kind screed Within the Context of No Context, and I've become interested in his life and its sad end, which leads me to weight this photograph with context that may not be otherwise apparent. By the time My Pilgrim's Progress, his tardy follow-up to Within the Context, came out in 1999, Trow had left The New Yorker, cut ties with most of his friends, and taken up an increasingly mad and transient life from Alaska to Naples, where he died in 2006. The one way he said he could get this last book written was to speak it into a recorder. You might think, then, that it would be a crazy book, but it's not (or no more so than its predecessor)--it's brilliant and insightful and coherent and a worthy extension of Within the Context, and the photo (which looks nothing like the more youthful photos of him I've seen, like this one from the '70s jackets for Bullies and The City in the Mist or very different ones of him bearded and slim) I now see as a man working to hold it together and, for a time, succeeding.