by Marion Ettlinger
Published by Simon & Schuster
176 pages, 2003
More Than Just a Book-Flap Peephole
Reviewed by David Abrams
Marion Ettlinger is the Ansel Adams of author photographs. With a careful recipe of light and shadow, she transforms these faces -- so pale from the windowless rooms where their owners sit hunched over keyboards day after day -- into landscapes as beautiful as anything found in Yosemite.
Chances are if you're a reader who picked up a new book in the last 20 years, you've seen her work: those postage-stamp-size portraits on the back flap of the dust jacket. Now, you can get an even more generous eyeful of Ettlinger in Author Photo, which collects hundreds of writers captured by her camera lens since 1983.
I fell in love with Marion Ettlinger's work the day I first saw Raymond Carver staring at me from the cover of Where I'm Calling From. He's seated at a table, one arm slung over his chair, the other on the table, forming an L, one-half of a frame which immediately takes you up to his face. His eyes are like cigarettes burning holes in your brain. Carver stares directly at the camera --through the camera -- as if to say, "Sit down and let me tell you a story. It may not be pretty, but it will be real."
Ettlinger's photos are always pretty and they're constantly real -- no foggy glamourshots to turn the wart-faced authoress into a princess. It's the eyes which beckon you into an Ettlinger photograph. Take Carver's unwavering steely gaze, for instance; or, more recently, Jhumpa Lahiri, whose ocular orbs are like cannonballs shooting off the page.
In his introduction to Author Photo, Richard Ford writes "[She's] fastidious, patient, expedient behind her tripod." Ettlinger has said she tries to create "an atmosphere of permission" when collaborating with an author on his/her photograph, recognizing that most writers are painfully allergic to the unflattering eye of a camera. She does her best to put them at ease during the sitting -- Ford recalls how she flashed him a look of "sweet intensity" in the instant before she clicked the shutter for his portrait in 1983.
The result, found in the pages of Author Photo, is a gallery of grim stoicism. Many of the authors are unsmiling, sober as judges, begging you to take them seriously as you debate whether or not to buy their book.
What's the purpose, really, for having an author's photo on the book jacket? After all, it's not like word-scribblers are part of that golden circle of celebrity that shines, halo-like, around Hollywood's young, beautiful and siliconed. If I were to walk down a sidewalk crowded with writers, I'd probably recognize only a few of them -- John Updike, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford and Stephen King (possibly the most famous Author Face alive today). But that's only because I pay attention to the goings-on in the literary world. Your average used car salesman wouldn't know Erica Jong if she came up and bit him on the ass.
So what good are author photos? To a large degree, they satisfy the vanity of the writer; those small peephole portraits are a way for them to claim ownership, to make their long struggle at the keyboard valid (they also provide a good ID when writing a check at the bookstore). Photos are a publicity tool, of course. Something for publishers to enlarge to poster size -- depending on the author's degree of beauty -- when promoting book signings at the local bookstore (a process that would have hindered, not helped, George Eliot back in the day).
But in Marion Ettlinger's hands, the author photo becomes more than a dust-jacket decoration; it is a work of art.
It's not by chance that the first photograph in the book is of Cormac McCarthy, a portrait where the notoriously reclusive author looks ready to leap through the lens and into the reader's lap. Here he is, dressed in dungarees and denim shirt rolled to his elbows, perched in a chair, one hand gripping the edge of a rough-hewn wooden table -- much like Carver's pose. McCarthy's hand, it seems, is holding him back from his flight. You can see every vein on that hand, running like alluvial tributaries from the landscape of his knuckles. That's the kind of detail Ettlinger etches into her photographs.
Run your fingers over the John Irving portrait and you can practically hear the whispery scrape of his beard stubble
Ettlinger's work often reminds me of the famed George Hurrell whose movie-star portraits of the early 1900s turned people like Jean Harlow and Gary Cooper into silvery gods and goddesses. Looking again at Ettlinger's photo of Ana Castillo -- one elbow resting on a clay wall, the other hand on top of her skyward-looking head -- makes me think of the tortured bliss of Greta Garbo.
Granted, many of Ettlinger's subjects aren't movie-star quality (author Mary Karr has said, "You go to the National Book Awards, and it's not a pretty sight"), but Ettlinger brings out the inner beauty, all those lovely words roiling about inside brought to the surface, so that their skin practically glows. And yet, they're so sharply focused you can count John Irving's whiskers.
Ettlinger's portraits usually make you think about the writer, they force you to go deeper behind the face. What, for instance, is Francine Prose pondering as she gazes down at the floor, her hand softly tucked against her neck? Is Alice Munro's impish smile indicative of what she really thinks about her characters' adulteries? When William Styron stares out that window awash in bright daylight is he ruminating over his depression, described in his memoir Darkness Visible?
Most of the portraits are taken in the studio, using only natural light; but Ettlinger occasionally takes her writers out into their element. So, we get Stewart O'Nan sitting at the counter of a diner, Pete Dexter in a gym, Rick Bragg in the middle of Alabama farmland, Jeffrey Eugenides riding the New York City subway, and Tess Gallagher standing on the shore of Washington's Lake Crescent with the morning mist still clinging to the mountain behind her.
Some are taken with appropriate props in the background: Elizabeth Wurtzel and a mirror, George Plimpton and the taxidermied head of a gazelle, Robert Hughes and a parrot that may or may not be alive (if it's dead, then that could explain the grin about to break across the writer's face).
Interestingly, none of the photos include a typewriter, computer or even so much as a pen. Me, if I were ever to be "Ettlingered," I'd want to be surrounded by my bookshelves, as a tribute to all the words which got me to the point of having an author photo.
My biggest disappointment with Author Photo is the lack of text. Yes, it's a coffee-table display book, but some anecdotes from Ettlinger would have deepened our pleasure. I, for one, would like to know why Jonathan Ames is ridiculously striking a fencing pose with the blade aimed straight at the camera; or, I'd love to be privy to anything Patricia Highsmith said during her sitting.
Quibbles aside, it's nice to finally see Ettlinger's portraits bound in one volume, each one of them worth at least a thousand words from the pen of the author staring up from the page. | February 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.