DATE December 12, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Searles discusses having his photograph taken for
the jacket of his first book
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
You can't judge a book by its cover, but let's face it, many of us do look at
the author photo of the dust jacket when we're browsing in a bookstore
deciding whether to buy the book. So imagine the pressure on the author to
look great in the photo. In a few minutes, we'll hear from Marion Ettlinger,
a photographer famous in the book world, for her author photos.
First, we hear some of the misadventures of an author getting photographed for
the jacket of his first book. John Searles is the author of the novel "Boy
Still Missing," which came out in hardcover last year and was published in
paperback this year. It's a coming-of-age story set in 1971. Although this
is Searles' first book, he's an insider in the book world. He's book editor
at Cosmopolitan magazine. If you want to see the photos we're about to talk
about, check out our Web site, freshair.com.
OK, when you started the process of getting a photo for your book jacket, how
much did you care about the picture?
Mr. JOHN SEARLES (Author, "Boy Still Missing"): I mean, I wanted it to look
nice, but I didn't care half as much as HarperCollins did, to tell you the
GROSS: Now why did they care so much?
Mr. SEARLES: They had all this criteria. They wanted me to look inviting and
photogenic and attractive and sexy, and I just wanted to actually smile and
not have my acne scars show up in the photo.
GROSS: Now why do you think it's important to be attractive and sexy, you
know, from your publishing company's point of view if you're a writer?
Mr. SEARLES: Well, they think in today's media-focused, media-obsessed
society it helps get you on TV and in magazines and newspapers because they'll
run your photo. So they want you to look as good as possible.
GROSS: What were your issues when you started to make the rounds of
Mr. SEARLES: Well, my first photographer was my mother, actually. I asked
her to take a photo of me. So, you know, my whole life we've taken our photos
in the front yard by the stone wall with this fir tree. That's where I stood
for my communion, my prom, my graduation. That was the spot where you stood
for special occasions. So, you know, I went and got some film for the Kodak,
and my mom and I stood out front, I stood by the stonewall and she snapped
away. And I--we developed it, and I found what I thought looked good and I
sent it off to my publisher. And I got a call a week later from my publicist,
who said, `About your author's photo, no. No, no, no, no, no.' So she didn't
GROSS: Did she tell you why?
Mr. SEARLES: Yeah, she said I needed something that made me look more
authoritative and, you know, more attractive and something just a little bit
GROSS: So what was the next approach?
Mr. SEARLES: So then they enlisted the help of my friend Stacy(ph), who I had
waited tables with for 12 years, and when I wanted to be a writer, she wanted
to be a photographer. So I thought how fitting that, you know, she'll take my
author's photo. So we set about taking my photo, and we drove around to find
different backdrops. I remember she took me by the sea and she took me by
this barn and by a tree, and we were just all over the place all day. And we
had 12 rolls of film, and we picked a few shots and I set them off to my
publisher, and then they called me and said, `No, they're too long-faced.'
And then I remember her--at my publicist's assistant said, `Think of Sebastian
Junger's photo. You need to look like him,' and I said, `I look nothing like
Sebastian Junger.' I mean, I have--look, you know, he's sort of this dark,
brooding, macho man, and I have, you know, brown hair and blue eyes and light
skin and we just don't look at all alike. But she said, `It's not really
Sebastian Junger so much as the essence of Sebastian Junger.' And I remember
saying, `That sounds like a cologne for sailors.'
GROSS: So what was the next approach?
Mr. SEARLES: So then they sent me--you know, I'm also the books editor at
Cosmopolitan magazine and I thought, `Wait a minute. I work at a magazine. I
have, you know, all these photographers I can enlist to help me.' So I asked
the photo editor to hook me up with a photographer. So they sent me to a
Cosmo photo shoot which was in downtown Manhattan at Chelsea Piers. And I
remember the night before, I got a phone call from the stylist, Clive, who
said--he's just this crazy, kooky, funny guy who said, `OK, what kind of
ensembles do you have?' And I said, `Ensembles?' And he said, `Well, look in
your closet and tell me what you have, 'cause otherwise I can call in some
Dolce & Gabbana for you.' And I said, `It's just an author's photo. I don't
think you need to call in any Dolce & Gabbana clothes for me.' So I looked in
my closet and I told him, you know, `Well, I have some flannel shirts, some
denim shirts.' And he said, `Well, do you have a suit?' And at the time, I
just had one suit. I was a black suit from Country Road, and I told him that
and he seemed disappointed. He said, `Well, throw it in a bag and I'll send a
messenger over and I'll have it steamed for you first thing in the morning.'
GROSS: So how did the Cosmo shoot go?
Mr. SEARLES: So the next day I show up at the studio and they--you know, it
was another photo shoot in progress for Cosmopolitan. So they sit me down
next to this, you know, beautiful, skinny model who's eating strawberries and
smoking cigarettes. And as they, you know, start cutting my hair, she starts
regaling me of tales about her South American bodybuilder, motorcycle-riding
boyfriend and their breakup and their relationship. And so then the
hairdresser comes over and says, `How do you like your hair?' and I said, you
know, `I like my bangs to kind of come down over my forehead.' And she said,
`OK,' and then promptly cut off my bangs that come down over my forehead. And
I was upset, but she said, `Trust me, baby, it'll look fabulous.' So...
GROSS: Did it look fabulous?
Mr. SEARLES: I didn't think so, but they did. It was sort of one of those
Caesar cuts, and I just wasn't used to it. But I think these photographers
and stylists, they're so used to dealing with models and these, you know,
beautiful freaks of nature that they didn't know what to do with an ordinary
person like myself.
And so next up was the makeup, and then the makeup artist found out I was the
books editor at Cosmopolitan as well as a novelist, and she started telling me
about a beauty book that she had an idea for that an editor stole and made
millions of dollars on. So as she was telling me this story, she was getting
more and more angry and was taking it out on my face, putting more and more
layers of foundation and powder on me until I was a brilliant bright shade of
orange and looked like I had just stepped out of a nine-hour session in a
So then Clive said, you know, `Baby, you're on,' and called me over to this
stool which is in front of this all-white backdrop and I remember--you know,
I'm not used to having my photo taken, so I feel self-conscious. I'm not a
model or anything. So I remember the photographer, the photographer's
assistant, the makeup artist, the makeup artist's assistant, the stylist and
the stylist's assistant and the board models all came and stood around as I
was getting my photo taken. And Clive unbuttoned my shirt just about down to
the middle of my stomach almost to my bellybutton, yanked the collars of my
shirt out so I looked like a 747 about to take flight. And I said, you know,
`I just--I don't really feel comfortable.' And he said, `Shush, you. It's
very '70s playboy. Just roll with it.'
So then he spread my legs from east to west and said, `Look into the camera
and show them what you've got.' So I felt very uncomfortable, and finally I
said, you know, `I just don't think this is working for me.' And I remember
the photographer in a last-ditch effort to try to get me to feel comfortable
said, `Just think John Updike. Think John Updike.' And I said, `You know,
John Updike's a great writer, but I don't really think he has the look we're
going for here.'
GROSS: He certainly doesn't.
Mr. SEARLES: So then I pulled my collar in and buttoned up my shirt. And
then I remember one of the models said, `Well, think about that guy. Who's
that guy who wrote the book about the storm?' And someone said, `Oh, that guy
is so hot. I love him.' And so once again, I felt, you know, second to
Sebastian Junger when it came to photography.
GROSS: Now it sounds like this is one of those shoots where you show up and
they have, like, a wardrobe for you and they...
Mr. SEARLES: Exactly.
GROSS: ...dress you, they change your hair, they change your look. And then
you wonder, like--if a reader wants to see you and see what you look like,
they're not going to see who you are at all.
Mr. SEARLES: No.
GROSS: They're going to see who somebody has made you into being temporarily
for this photograph.
Mr. SEARLES: Exactly. I felt like it looked nothing like me. And in the
photo, you know, my sleeves are rolled up, my shirt's buttoned down, my collar
is flared. We didn't end up using this photo, but I just remember it looked
nothing like me, and thankfully my publisher agreed, so we didn't use it. And
then I was sent to my last and final session with another photographer who
finally got the photo they wanted, which actually I don't even love so much.
I think I look like k.d. lang in it, but they like it, so...
GROSS: Let me ask you to describe the actual photo that's on your book.
Mr. SEARLES: OK. I'm wearing a black suit with a black sweater, so it's very
dark. And the photographer thought I looked vaguely like Michael J. Fox, and
so she kept trying to say, `Show me more Michael.' And so I didn't really
know how to do that. And I have one wisp of hair that comes down that--I
always have a cowlick, and so they left this hair because they liked the
effect, but I think that adds to the k.d. effect. But they thought I looked
sincere and attractive and inviting, is what they said.
GROSS: Are you happy with it?
Mr. SEARLES: I'm happy enough. But you know what? Terry, by the time I was
done, I was just so happy that finally they liked something and I could just,
you know, stop this foolishness and go back to writing.
GROSS: If I saw this photo and then ran into you on the street, would I
recognize you from the photo?
Mr. SEARLES: I think you would, yeah. I mean, it doesn't--unlike the one
that I took at the Cosmopolitan shoot, this one does look like me. I'm a
little bit brooding, when in real life I think I'm a little bit, you know,
lighter and happier than this photo. But it does look like me.
GROSS: What are some of the different kinds of places you've seen your author
Mr. SEARLES: Well, I think it was reproduced in People magazine when they did
a review on me. And Time magazine named me a person to watch, and I think
they did the author's photo there. So that was kind of fun seeing it, you
know, in big magazines like that. And it's also sort of jarring at the same
time to open a magazine and there's little old me. In bookstore windows--and
I did a signing at Barnes & Noble. You know, friends would call me all
excited and say, you know, my photo was in the window of the store. And so I
would go down with my boyfriend and he'd force me to stand in front of the
window as he snapped dozens of pictures of me standing in front of a picture
of myself. And that I was so self-conscious about, Terry, because I'm
standing on a crowded New York City street--I think on Sixth Avenue--and so
many people are walking by, and there I am standing in front of a picture of
myself. I felt ridiculous, but he said I would thank him later.
GROSS: Now you're not only an author, but you're the senior books editor at
Mr. SEARLES: Yes.
GROSS: So you have to help decide what books are going to be reviewed.
Mr. SEARLES: Exactly.
GROSS: Do you often look at the dust jacket photo to evaluate whether this
book is worthy of your attention?
Mr. SEARLES: You know, I do look at them, I must admit, right away. And I've
been sent so many funny ones over the years. I remember there was this one--I
get sent everything, even if it's not appropriate for Cosmo. I was sent this
one gay novel and I remember that the author was posed on top of a cannon so
the cannon was coming out from between his legs. And I remember saying to the
person I worked with, `Is he trying to get a date or sell his book? I'm not
GROSS: So in what ways are you influenced by the author photo on the dust
Mr. SEARLES: Well, you know, if somebody looks like they're trying too hard
to be honest, it just kind of bugs me when they're overposed or they just look
like they're just trying too hard. I like a simple photo where someone looks
sincere and interesting. But, you know, for example, Danielle Steel, her
books are sent to me, and it's just funny. In each of her books, she tries to
have a photo done that matches the topic of the book. So if the book is set
in a Western sort of cowboy setting, she's wearing a cowboy hat and standing
by a horse, you know. So she does--each photo matches the topic of the book.
And, you know, I get sent these fitness books. In the fitness books, there's
a woman in a leotard doing a Wonder Woman sort of pose or a guy flexing his
And so it's just funny to note the things that people will do. And I was
recently sent a novel about fishing, and the author was standing in the middle
of stream with waders and holding a fishing pole. And it just--you can't help
GROSS: Yeah. So what are you going to do for your next book? I don't mean
the book. I just mean the photo.
Mr. SEARLES: OK. Clearly, I don't have say in the matter, so I wish I could
tell you they'll probably decide. But I would like to maybe just use the same
photo so I don't have to go through this again. But you know, I'm up for it.
It didn't--really, I laughed at it, and it just became another funny story I
told people about the whole crazy experience of being published. And
honestly, I dreamed of being a writer ever since I was a kid. And so the fact
that people wanted to take my picture for a book--How can I complain about
that? You know, it's better than waiting tables, which I did for 12 years.
GROSS: Now I don't mean to seem very shallow because, you know, we're talking
about your photograph and not the book, but this program is specifically about
Mr. SEARLES: Yeah.
GROSS: Nevertheless, I think you should have a chance to tell our listeners
what your book is about.
Mr. SEARLES: Oh, the book is set in the early '70s, and the main character's
a 15-year-old boy who becomes infatuated with his father's mistress. And they
get into a sexually charged relationship that leads to this grisly accidental
death that he feels responsible for. So it's part coming-of-age story, part
thriller, actually, too, because it's lots of twists and turns and surprises.
And I wanted it to be the kind of compelling novel that kept you turning
pages, and I hope I did that.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SEARLES: Thank you so much. It was a real honor to be on your show,
GROSS: John Searles is the author of "Boy Still Missing," and is book editor
at Cosmopolitan magazine. You can see his photographs on our Web site,
Coming up, Marion Ettlinger, a photographer famous for her portraits of
authors. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Marion Ettlinger discusses her work as a portrait
photographer of authors
TERRY GROSS, host:
Now that we've heard the frustrations of an author getting photographed for
his first book, let's hear from Marion Ettlinger, a photographer who's famous
in the literary world for her author photos. Truman Capote, Joyce Carol
Oates, Raymond Carver, Ann Patchett, Edmund White, Robert Stone, Cormac
McCarthy, Richard Russo, Russell Banks, Sarah Vowell, Andre Dubus III and Bell
Hooks are among the many writers she's photographed, and she swears she's
never told any of them that they should try to look like Sebastian Junger.
She's known for her brooding, introspective portraits. Ettlinger will have a
book of her author photos published next fall. In the meantime, you can see a
few of her pictures on our Web site at freshair.com.
Ettlinger started photographing authors in 1983 when she was hired by Esquire
magazine to do portraits of 45 authors and journalists who had contributed to
the magazine's 50th anniversary issue. I asked her why she likes to
Ms. MARION ETTLINGER (Photographer): I remember when I was kid, I had a card
game called the Author's Card Game. And it displayed on each card a different
portrait of a writer like Tennyson and Longfellow and Thackeray and Oliver
Wendell Holmes. And they just looked so biblical and fabulous to me right
away, right off the card. And I guess that sensation that I had when I saw
these images stayed with me. And later as I became someone who liked to read,
as well, it all just kind of jelled. And I have done portraits of many sorts
of wonderful and creative people, but when I started to photograph writers, I
did feel this great sort of satisfaction and click about that these were my
GROSS: Do you think of your author photos as having a certain look?
Ms. ETTLINGER: Mmm, I suppose that that's true. I am told that that is true.
And I think that, you know, early on when I saw a bunch of my photographs
displayed somewhere side by side, I took a step back and I did think they had
a kind of cohesive look to them. And that actually is when it dawned on me
that, `Well, maybe I could these published or something.' It was the fact
that they did have something that glued them together in a look.
GROSS: And what was that?
Ms. ETTLINGER: Well, the most important aspect that I strive for in a
portrait is that the person is present in the portrait, that they are there.
And it's extremely interesting when I review my contact sheets at various
times and there are 30 images in a row that are virtually identical in terms
of the pose and the setup and everything. And the variations really might
come from the most subtle expressions in the face of the person. And in one
frame, they're there; they're utterly present. And the next frame, they're
kind of not. They've drifted. And that's not to say that drifting can also
be something that is lovely and that you want to use, but that sense of
presence is really key to me.
And also, especially with authors, I like to bring out the effect and to make
them look smart and soulful and maybe sexy.
Ms. ETTLINGER: And often, the first two might just, you know, make the third
one a certainty.
GROSS: Why sexy? Why does a writer need to look sexy?
Ms. ETTLINGER: They don't need to look sexy, but I guess if you're in the
camp that you find smart and soulful sexy, then they just will.
GROSS: Now a lot of your photos of writers, the writers look very kind
of--the men look hard-boiled; there's a certain drama about the women. What
if a writer shows up and they're really just kind of shlumpy, you know? And
to really capture the essence of this person would be a photograph of a
Ms. ETTLINGER: Yeah.
GROSS: What are you going to do? Are you going to go for the shlumpy, or are
you going to, like, rework it so that you've got that drama or the
hard-boiled? Do you know what I mean?
Ms. ETTLINGER: Well, maybe I can't go from shlumpy to hard-boiled, but I
think even the shlumpiest of us have our better moments, and that's what I'm
GROSS: And I mean, how do you find it?
Ms. ETTLINGER: You know, you just look for it. You just--as I said, you just
be with that person, you try to create an atmosphere of permission, I'd say.
And if you wait around long enough, you might see something go by you that is
a kind of transformative, but yet still true to the person aspect. And you
either try to, you know, get it as it's happening or re-create it. Like, you
know, some people in their prephoto nervous state might say, `Oh, you know,
I'm really not photogenic. Trust me,' and, you know, want me to know that.
And I understand that because, you know, I think there is such a thing as that
photogenic, and I think a few people have that. But I think most people don't
have that. In other words, what I'm trying to say is that being photogenic is
not required because I think everybody can be photographed well or not so
well. And if you're photogenic, well, that's just like gravy. But you know,
anybody can be photographed, the best version of themselves. Even a shlumpy
person has a range.
GROSS: Photographer Marion Ettlinger will talk more about her pictures of
writers in the second half of our show. A book of her author photos will be
published next fall. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, shooting Truman Capote and Sarah Vowell. We continue our
conversation with photographer Marion Ettlinger. She specializes in portraits
And classical music critic and poet Lloyd Schwartz reads a poem by Elizabeth
Bishop that he saved from obscurity. It will be published next week in The
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back in Marion Ettlinger, a
photographer famous in the book world for her portraits of authors, authors
like Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Russo, Ann Patchett, Bell Hooks
and Sarah Vowell. She has a book of her author photos that will be published
next fall. In the meantime, you can see some of her pictures on our Web site,
Let's look at some of the photos that you've taken. You have a photo of
Truman Capote in which he's in profile and looking up. It's a very odd angle,
and his mouth is kind of turned down into a frown. Talk about that pose.
Ms. ETTLINGER: He--it was a shoot for a magazine, and he consented to do the
shoot with the request that the office of the magazine, which was Esquire, by
the way, would inform him three days before the shoot and remind him that this
was happening, two days before the shoot and remind him, the day before and on
the day. And so they did that. I was on the road, and they kept up with me
and telling me that he was with the program except for the day of the shoot
where they couldn't get hold of him. But they said, `Go ahead, go anyway.'
And I went there and knocked on the door and there was nobody home.
And I went away for a while, and when I came back, I was driving up the
driveway and the car was coming out of the driveway. And we stopped and
rolled down the windows and a friend of his--I believe it was Jack
Dunphy--said, `Hello.' And I said, `Hi, I'm here to photograph Mr. Capote.'
And he said, `Good luck,' and he rolled up the window and drove away. So I
went, `Hmm, that doesn't bode well.'
and I drove up to the house--and this was early on in my work life, as I might
have mentioned. And as I was getting out of the car, Truman came running and
screaming out of the house, waving his fists in the air like--it was very
cartoon style--and screaming about this was the wrong day and he can't be
bothered with this and Esquire, you know, why'd they send him such an amateur
and, you know, pretty much terrorizing me. And then he said to me, `You know,
I've been photographed by all the greatest photographers in the world.' Then
I said, `Oh, yes, Mr. Capote. I've seen those photos and they're just
And he continued in that mode until he said, `Well, OK, let's get it over with
since you're here.' And so I said, `OK. Well, let's go into your house and
I'll look around.' And he said, `Well, I'm not going to let you in my house.
What, do you think I'm crazy? Why would I let you in my house?' I said,
`Well, OK, perhaps you would like to change shirts or what you're wearing,'
because he was wearing kind of a grubby sweatshirt, I believe, that said
something on it, like, I don't know, Sagoponic(ph) or something. And he said,
`I'm not going to change. This is what I'm wearing.' And I said, `OK.' I
said, `Well, perhaps we can go over there on the veranda. I see there's some
nice little chairs up there.' And he went, `I'm not going up there. It's
really dirty up there and I'm going to get all dirty. What do you think?
I'm'--and it was at that point that I realized that he was just going to deny
me everything, and I had tears of rage creeping up my throat. And I was
thinking, `He's going to ruin this for me. He's going to make me fail. I'm
going to look really bad and it's going to be his fault, but it won't matter
because I will just have failed.'
And then as I was quivering, he said, `Start now or get out of here,'
basically. So I went, `OK.' And standing there, I just started to photograph
him. And the first frames are him just glaring at me. So maybe to relieve
myself from that gaze, I asked him to turn in profile. And he turned in
profile. And as he did that, he started to do this extraordinary thing where
he just started to lift his head and raise his chin, and he started to look
truly magnificent. And I suppose I murmured some words of encouragement, and
he continued to do that and held that. And I took the rest of them that way.
And when he heard the last shot being made, he said, `That's it. Goodbye,'
and walked back into the house.
And the great art lesson that he taught me was that--well, prior to him--well,
basically, I know what kind of photo I would have taken of him if I had my way
and it would have been fine, hopefully. But prior to him, I had only known
courtesy, cooperation and all kinds of nice stuff. And I just assumed that
those things were crucial in order to get a good result. And he taught me
that that's not necessarily true and that if you go with what's happening,
something much more interesting and more beautiful might happen as a result of
that. So I've always--I mean, I kind of respected and loved him before I met
him, and him--even with my little trauma in the middle, I just kind of loved
him more for it all in the end.
GROSS: Now as you mentioned, too, that this photo is in black and white.
Ms. ETTLINGER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: It's a pretty tight close-up of his face, though you see some of his
neck and some of his shoulder, and he's wearing that T-shirt, though you...
Ms. ETTLINGER: Yeah.
GROSS: ...can't see what's written on it because...
Ms. ETTLINGER: Right. Right.
GROSS: ...the shot doesn't go down that far.
Ms. ETTLINGER: Right.
GROSS: But it's a very high-focus shot. I mean, you know, you see every
wrinkle on his face. You see the pores on his skin. And why did you go for
that type of real, you know, high focus?
Ms. ETTLINGER: Hmm. I don't think I consciously said, `I'm going to do
that,' but that's how it came out. And I was with that result because it's
such a close-up of his head, and it's a side view so there's a lot of cheek
and neck and space in it. And the fact that it's populated by a bristle of
beard and a line I think just gives it this wonderful sense of who he is. And
I personally don't find it to be an exploitation of his age or condition at
all. I think he looks very much like, I guess, a Roman senator, or some
people have said he kind of looked like Marlon Brando in that photo.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now Sarah Vowell, you took her author photo.
Ms. ETTLINGER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And this is a very tight close-up of her face. She's kind of like
surrounded by darkness, but her face is illuminated. And it's a very kind of
sober, almost grave expression on her face. And whereas her writing is very
funny and her writing is so much about being, like, neurotic and nerdy, and
her look is so different in this photo than her sound or, I think, than her
image in person.
Ms. ETTLINGER: I had never seen her before she entered--oh, actually, I
think I had asked her to send me a photo before I met her. So I was really
struck by--I'm sure this is part of radio world that people's expectations of
what you look like and what the person actually looks like are either right on
or totally no relationship. And I had a very specific image of her in my mind
which was not what she looked like at all. just even in terms of being fair
or dark and all that. I have always detected a dark side to Sarah's work...
Ms. ETTLINGER: ...despite her incredible wit and her offbeat take on things.
And in person, I found her a very serious person.
GROSS: So that's why you wanted to go for that more serious look?
Ms. ETTLINGER: Well, I think, in general, my work has a somber quality to it.
And it's true. And in the case of somebody who's written, you know, a
hilarious novel, then I try to get that twinkle or levity in the eye, but it
didn't quite happen with the photo of her.
GROSS: Now you specialize in author photos.
Ms. ETTLINGER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: There are so many writers who are kind of loners. You know, they work
all day alone at home, and some writers aren't the most social people; many of
them are kind of eccentric; and a lot of them are self-conscious and not that
comfortable being photographed.
Ms. ETTLINGER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And then as you're being photographed, you know a lot is at stake
because it's gonna be in your book. This photo's going to live longer than
you are. So I'm sure a lot of writers are very uncomfortable about getting
their picture taken. Are there things that you'll say to a writer early on to
try to reassure them or put them at ease?
Ms. ETTLINGER: Well, I try--often we speak before we meet, and I try to
communicate just that we're going to try to do something good and I'm on
their side, basically. But what you were saying before about writers being
solitary people, it is so true that so often when they come to me, either
they're at that moment where they are at some finishing point of their book
and they are truly coming out of the cave and kind of blinking in the light
and, boom, all of a sudden, they have to do this exterior work that is really
not about what they do at all. And I definitely want it to be a gentle
transition or not as bad as they think it's going to be. And actually, one of
my most favorite things to hear, that I hear frequently, is that when we're
taking leave of each other, a writer might say to me, `That wasn't as bad as I
thought it was going to be.'
Ms. ETTLINGER: So that fills my heart with joy. I'm always happy to hear
GROSS: My guest is photographer Marion Ettlinger. She specializes in
portraits of writers. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Marion Ettlinger, a photographer famous in the literary
world for her portraits of authors.
Now when you photograph a writer, do you work with a stylist? Do you or does
someone you're working with show up with stylish clothes for them to wear in
case their clothes don't, like, look good enough for the shoot?
Ms. ETTLINGER: No. No, I work alone. I don't have an assistant. I don't
even use lights, by the way. Some people, some writers, request some of these
things, and then I'm happy to oblige.
Ms. ETTLINGER: But it's certainly not something that I need to happen. I
don't have any costumes or anything lying around. I might have a few staples,
like a black T-shirt or a black skirt that's kind of all-purpose just in case
we want to get some, you know, like, somebody only has, like, a pair of, I
don't know, plaid pants or something.
Ms. ETTLINGER: You might want to, like, quiet down that part for certain
photos and then I might have something for those emergencies. But I don't
have outfits at all, and, you know, the writer's own clothes are the clothes
that I want to use.
GROSS: Now nearly everybody is pretty self-conscious about their face, and
everybody has parts of their face that they think are their real weak parts,
whether it's a, you know, blemish or a receding hairline, a big nose,
wrinkles, you know, whatever, big ears. So if somebody's self-conscious about
that part of their face, do they mention it to you usually? Like, `Can you
make my nose look small?'--that kind of thing?
Ms. ETTLINGER: Oh, yes. I've been asked to perform all sorts of miraculous
acts, and, you know, most are beyond my powers. But I like to be aware of it
because certainly in photography you can do things that bring out good and/or
bad things, and I'd rather bring out the good things. I mean, I feel like one
of the mandates--I'm not sure that's the right word--of my work is to isolate
and perhaps exaggerate the uniqueness of the subject, not necessarily their
uniquely bad feature, but the uniqueness of what is the best in them, what is
the thing that is striking and makes them look uniquely like themselves. And
I like to try to turn things in that direction.
GROSS: And going for that isn't necessarily going to be making them look more
handsome or more pretty, right? I mean...
Ms. ETTLINGER: Not thoroughly.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, like having a face have a lot of face character but not
necessarily having it be prettier, right?
Ms. ETTLINGER: Right. It can mean, like, making the--bringing out this
incredible sculpture event that's happening on their face, like the cut of a
bone that's--wow--and when you turn this way, there it is, you know, and it's
totally amazing. Yeah, and that adds a sense of--I believe it adds rather
than beauty or handsomeness, like, it might bring some drama and some
sculptural event to the photo.
GROSS: I think one of the most difficult things for somebody who's getting
photographed by a professional photographer for a publicity shot, for a book
or whatever other reason, is that it's almost like a fashion shoot in the
sense that you're almost like a professional model. You have to be there
posing sometimes for hours.
Ms. ETTLINGER: Right.
GROSS: Off and on for hours. And if you're not a professional model, that's
really quite a strain to be under the gaze of a camera for that extended
amount of time and to have any sense of focus or affect after that.
Ms. ETTLINGER: Are you speaking from personal experience?
GROSS: Well, I am, actually. I've had to take--not for a book, but I've had
publicity shots and...
Ms. ETTLINGER: Right.
GROSS: ...I just find it exhausting and trying. And I'm not good at smiling
on demand, so a photographer says, `OK, smile.' I mean...
Ms. ETTLINGER: Well...
GROSS: ...sure, I can make those lips move, you know, in the imitation of a
smile, but it's really not going to be very convincing.
Ms. ETTLINGER: Well, I don't permit smiling. So that--let's get that
GROSS: Oh, you don't even permit it. Tell me about that.
Ms. ETTLINGER: Well, I guess I don't--although, you know, when I look at my
contact sheets, eventually something will have happened during the shoot that
makes a person laugh or smile, and it's a thing of beauty, of course. But
what I'm going for--see, I feel like that is a lovely thing and perhaps has
more of a place in the history of the person and more of a personal photo.
But I think for something, like, kind of going for a more, I suppose, iconic
moment or image, I feel like a grin kind of, in the best sense of the word,
distorts the face and distracts a little bit from the structure that I'm so
Now that's not to say that--I'm trying to save the photos from grimness most
of the time. I do like them to be serious. But that doesn't mean that I
don't welcome, like, levity and wit and all those good things to come through
the face, but I think they can come through just fine short of a big grin. I
think they can come through the musculature of the face and--it's corny to
say--but through the eyes and just in the expression. And that will happen,
hopefully, during the course of the shoot when somebody feels slightly amused
or something. And if it's not there, I might add for a drop of it if I need
it for a certain thing. But I never say, `Smile.'
GROSS: You shoot in black and white. Why not color?
Ms. ETTLINGER: Because I find--first of all, I do respond to color in many
people's work. But I can pretty much say that I don't respond to color in
portraiture, and I find black and white a riveting medium. It's my medium.
That's why I work in it. To me, color is another medium. It has nothing to
do with what I do, and I don't want to see it. I like the way black and white
breaks things down, and I love the whole chiaroscuro of it. And, you know,
it's a question I've been trying to think of the answer to for a really long
time and--like, `Why? What is it about black and white?'
And, I mean, like, you know, love black-and-white movies, old ones, new ones.
And what is it? Why? What is it about it? And I'm embarrassed that I've
never been able to really put my finger on it and articulate what it is. And
I'm sure somebody can or is and hopefully I will be able, too, at the end of
my life, know what that thing was. But it's just what I see and respond to.
It turns me on.
GROSS: You're going to have your own book coming out in 2003, a book of your
author photographs. I assume you're going to have a photograph of yourself on
the cover of the book. Who's going to take your picture?
Ms. ETTLINGER: I took it.
GROSS: Oh, you took it already?
Ms ETTLINGER: Yeah. Actually, I took it a few years ago before I knew I
was going to have a book just because I realized I was pretty photographically
absent from the Earth and I spent my life recording others. And I thought,
`All right. I'd better get this done.' And so I, with dread, with the same
dread that my subjects approach me, I made a date in my appointment book for
about three weeks hence. And on that day, I got all dolled up and I went to
my studio and I met myself and put myself in that other position. And, you
know, I have very simple, old-fashioned equipment, and so I don't have like
any kind of sophisticated way of taking my photo without, like, jumping up and
down between every frame and hitting a self-timer. So it turned out to be
kind of an athletic and strenuous activity. Actually, the next day, I felt
like I'd been horseback riding or skiing or something. Every bone--new
bones--in my body hurt that I hadn't realized were there.
And it was an incredible experience because at first, it was like utterly
confusing, like, A, `Who am I? Who am I looking at?' It took me--I was
baffled and confused. And what--of course, and I couldn't see myself, which
is what I'm used to doing is seeing my subject. And so I was just shooting
myself blind. And then I feel like at a certain moment the accumulative
visual history and information of watching my own subjects before my own
camera suddenly kicked in and informed me about who I was and who was I
looking at; and all those questions suddenly fell away and I was able to be
present in that odd situation. And what I can say about the results of that
day is that I got a number of photos that I can certainly live with, but the
thing that really made me happy is that the photograph--I feel like the
photograph of myself looks just like the photos I take of other people.
There's not a jarring--and then she photographed herself, like--it just seemed
in my view--others can tell me whether they agree--but it looks like one of my
photos. So got that over with.
GROSS: Photographer Marion Ettlinger. A book of her portraits of writers
will be published next fall. You can see some of her photos on our Web site
Coming up, classical music critic and poet Lloyd Schwartz reads the Elizabeth
Bishop poem which he rescued from obscurity. It will be published next week
in The New Yorker. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Rescuing a long-lost poem by Elizabeth Bishop
TERRY GROSS, host:
Music critic Lloyd Schwartz is also a poet and has written extensively about
the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who died in 1979. Lloyd tells us the
story of how he got to know her and how he happened to have the only known
copy of one of her poems. That poem will be published for the first time next
week in The New Yorker.
I first got to know Elizabeth Bishop when she moved to Cambridge in the early
1970s after living in Brazil for nearly 20 years. I admired her small output
of poems and I was thrilled to meet her. But she was very shy about
discussing her work, and I didn't think I had anything else to talk to her
about. Eventually, the barriers began to come down. I was floored by the new
poems she was writing and it got to be easier to tell her that.
We got to be friends under circumstances unfortunate for her, but lucky for
me. She'd had an accident during Christmas vacation. Her friends were away,
but she remembered my complaining that I'd be stuck in town. For a week, I
spent every day with her at the hospital, stopping off at her apartment to
pick up her mail and any other odds and ends she requested.
Suddenly, we found it easier to talk about movies and records--she loved
Mozart and Billie Holiday--and some more personal things. I even got to see a
new poem she working on called "Breakfast Song." It was a short love poem.
But more than that, it was a poem about facing her own mortality or her
reluctance to face her mortality. I thought it was amazing and courageously
open about her feelings of love and fear of death. I wanted to read it over
and over. And when she was out of the room for some medical procedure, I
copied the poem without telling her.
I think maybe I was also worried that it was a poem she might decide was too
personal to publish, that she might even destroy it. She never published it
during her lifetime. After she died, I hoped that someone would find it among
her papers. But although numerous unfinished or unpublished poems have come
to light since her death, "Breakfast Song" was not of them.
A couple of years ago, when I heard that her publishers, Farrar, Straus &
Giroux, were planning to publish a volume of her uncollected poems, I thought
it was time to confess my guilty secret. I still feel slightly queasy about
what I had done, but I couldn't bear not being able to read this poem.
"Breakfast Song." (Reading) My love, my saving grace, your eyes are awfully
blue. I kiss your funny face, your coffee-flavored mouth. Last night, I
slept with you. Today, I love you so. How can I bear to go as soon I must, I
know, to bed with ugly Death in that cold, filthy place to sleep there without
you, without the easy breath and nightlong, limb-long warmth I've grown
accustomed to? Nobody wants to die. Tell me it is a lie. But no, I know
it's true. It's just the common case. There's nothing one can do. My love,
my saving grace, your eyes are awfully blue, early and instant blue.'
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is editor of "Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art" and
classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. His reading of "Breakfast Song"
was recorded for FRESH AIR in 1998. The poem will be published for the first
time in the Christmas issue of The New Yorker.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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