Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Oh Vanity! Otherwise Known as the Author Photo

Vanity is a tricky thing. You think you have it under control, but then it comes out of nowhere to remind you of its firm grip.

I have been experiencing this first hand in the last few months as I prepare for the preparation of Towers of Gold. I am referring, of course, to that cursed being known as the author photo.

As I thought about that small picture that soon would grace the back cover of my book, I imagined it to contain equal parts glamour and seriousness. I wanted a picture that showed my best qualities, yet signaled that I was a hard-working journalist, someone who spent years in archives researching my subject, Isaias Hellman.

Or did I? Maybe I wanted a photo that showed a fun, freewheeling me –someone who didn’t really exist but who seemed to promise a breezy, uplifting read.

My first attempts at an author photo were amateur. I had my children and some of my friends take my picture. When I went up to Sea Ranch this spring, I forced everyone to stop on a walk and shoot me leaned up against a gnarled and very interesting tree. When my family and I were dining on an outdoor patio in the Louvre in Paris, I had my oldest daughter take some photos with the I.M. Pei glass photo in the background. She shot another one when I was standing on the porch of Hellman's house in Tahoe.

Suffice it to say, these amateur photos looked amateur.

That was why I was so happy when I learned that my friend Mike was coming to the Bay Area to go golfing with my husband and some buddies. I thought that Mike, for sure, would come up with my ideal author photo.

As it turned out, there was too much golf and too little time for anything else. On his way to the airport, Mike took about 15 minutes to take my picture. Unfortunately, the light was crummy. My clothes didn’t look good, anyway.

Then I talked to some author friends whose photos I admired. They all told me they had hired a photographer who came with a stylist. It was expensive they said, but worth it. So I decided to go the fancy route. I hired the photographer who came with the stylist. Alas, it was not to be. The photographer and I fought – well, didn’t get along is a better way of putting it – and the deal collapsed. No stylist for me.

I went into frenzy at that point. A friend of mine told me her son was a budding photographer. I went to their house one evening and he took rolls and rolls of pictures of me. This was not digital photography, but film. I was ecstatic. I was sure this was going to be the photo!

I didn’t count on final exams. Or the whims of a teenager. Months elapsed. No photos. No photos.

In desperation, I called the photographer who shoots the pictures at my kid’s school. We set a date. I did not have a stylist. I tried to be my own stylist. Bad mistake. (Never let a 48-year old woman wear a sleeveless shirt to a photo shoot, no matter how convinced she is that her upper arms are well toned.) But the photographer and I spent a productive afternoon wandering around UC Berkeley. With its old buildings and branching trees, it seemed a perfect spot for an author’s photo for a book about old California.

Finally, after months of trying, I had a small collection of pictures of myself. Now came the moment of reckoning. Which one should I use? The very artsy one made by the teenager? (He finally came through) The soft-focused outdoor shot by the professional? The extreme close-up of my face done by Mike?

Did I happen to mention that vanity is a tricky thing? That no one image ever does one justice, and that it is too hard to decide what the right message is to send out into the world? So I have covered my bases. Here’s the score:

1) The artsy photo is on my (forthcoming) webpage.

2) The soft-focus, outdoorsy one will be at the back of the book.

3) The close-up is the picture on my blog page.

See below.

1 comment:

Ilana said...

Love the artsy one! Are you sure you're a writer living in Berkeley and not a sculptor-poet in some pre-gentrified loft in lower Manhattan?