Recently, I was asked to supply an author photo for Particle and Wave, a request which I thought would be a cinch to fulfill: my wife is a thorough photo-documentarian of our lives and knows how to anticipate all of our best angles. However, as I began to sift through jpgs and survey the backs of various poetry collections in my possession for ideas, I began to feel intimidated. As it turns out, there are a surprising number of pitfalls to be avoided in selecting an author photo, as was recently underscored for me in this photo highlighting what looks to be the late Seamus Heaney heading to the dentist for treatment of an abscessed tooth.
Here are some of the author photo types I’ve thought it best to avoid:
“Phases of the Moon”:
Here, the author is dressed in dark attire and poses against a dark background. The face is brilliantly stage-lit. Rather than convey intimacy, the effect is unnerving and makes the reader feel compelled to look over her shoulder for intruders and/or consult a tide chart.
“The Muse Touched Me Here”
The Heaney author photo I’ve mentioned above is a perfect example of this one. Variations on “The Muse Touched Me Here” include “The Vogue,” “Did You Just Slap Me?” and “God, Make the Voices Stop.” Authors should know that in touching their faces with open hands, they instill concern in the readership for the author’s physical or mental wellbeing.
“The Full Body”
Authors spend so much time in their heads that the full body shot can seem like a nice alternative to the confines of the head shot. However, authors who choose this option should be aware that “The Full Body” introduces a whole new and dangerous variable to the author photo called “fashion sense.” Clothes should be modern and innocuous, as the author will want to avoid strong reader reactions such as, “Oh, he’s bringing disco pants back all by himself?” or “Looks like someone had a fine time at the Renaissance fair.” “The Full Body” also introduces problems of perspective. Authors choosing this option should not be pictured near children’s bikes, Shetland ponies or the Statue of Liberty.
One of the least generous options, authors who choose “Witness Protection” disguise themselves by looking away from the camera, wearing sunglasses or standing at an excessive remove from the camera. This indicates to a reader that the author is perhaps 1) paranoid about becoming superfamous and being stalked by paparazzi while on vacation (i.e., delusional), 2) being strong-armed by his or her publisher into providing a photograph or 3) actually in the witness protection program, in which case I really want to read that poetry collection. The “Witness Protection” author seems to be saying, “Hey, look at me looking at the Alps! Better yet, just look at the Alps. Aren’t they beaauuutiful?,” To which the reader responds, “You know, I’ve never really noticed how beautiful the Alps are before. Gosh, I hope this is a book about the Alps, because if not, I am now going to be seriously disappointed.”
“The Time Machine”
This one is more of the note-to-self variety. Authors who insist on using a photo taken fifteen or more years ago are attempting “The Time Machine.” To which any reasonable person would say, “Knock it off.” Author, know that your readership wants to see the care lines that a life of books has etched on your face.
There are surely other author photo scenarios that should be avoided at all cost—and I likely committed one of these when I selected my own. Which did I choose? The answer may or may not surprise you…but you’ll have to pick up a copy of my book to find out.