Author Photos: A Taxonomy
What to Choose: Prominent Hands or the Bend and Clasp?
There are as many different author photos as there are authors (naturally), but if you look at a lot of them, as I do in my line of work, you begin to notice some trends. Some are good. Some are perplexing. Some are straightforward, while others are more mysterious. Here, I attempt to create a taxonomy of some of the most common versions. It is, of course, incomplete—infinite variations, etc.—so feel free to add on in the comment section.
NB: I did my best to use only actual author photos (i.e. used on their books or in other official capacities) and not just photos of authors (i.e. taken by journalists or their moms), but I may have been tricked here and there. Sometimes moms are really great photographers.
NB II: Trends in author photos change year by year, and the same author may participate in many author photo trends over the course of their career. So none of the photos here should be considered as definitive photos of any particular author.
NB III: I did not include a category for what I like to call “normal” author photos, which are just pictures of the authors. You know what those look like, and they are fine, but not very interesting.
1. Prominent Hands
Sometimes it is that the weight of the head (read: massive writer brain) is simply too much to be held by the neck alone, and so the hands must help. Sometimes it is that the hands are merely near the head, just in case. In rare cases, a hand can be used as a hat.
Sometimes the look is irreverent.
Sometimes the look is austere. (Roth is balancing on a backwards chair here, which could be its own category.)
Sometimes it looks awkward.
Sometimes it looks cool.
Sometimes it is this photograph of Jeffrey Eugenides.
Self-hugging is usually known as “crossed arms,” but we know what it’s really all about. I mean, it’s hard out there for authors, and sometimes they need a little bit of comfort, even if the only person comforting them . . . is . . . themselves. The hug can be loose or tight, the face happy or terrified. While we’re here, I’ll direct you to this very outdated but perfect and unforgettable piece of journalism, which regards the 2014 World Cup. If anyone can recreate it for me with authors, that would be great.
Ursula K. Le Guin nails that “I’m just sitting here casually on my front porch being the best writer of speculative fiction who has ever lived” self-hug.
Current Donna Tartt self-hugs . . .
. . . but as you can see, Donna Tartt has been self-hugging for some time. Maybe we should all follow suit.
Tommy Orange’s loose pose is sort of between a self-hug and a bend and clasp (see below).
Someone please go pick up Jesse Ball. School let out like an hour ago!
3. The Bend & Clasp
This is a very professional and reasonable pose for mostly professional and reasonable authors (and Barry Hannah). The author sits somewhere, on a step or a chair, leans over, puts their elbows on their knees, and loosely clasps their hands in front. It sounds more complicated than it is.
The bracelets draw attention to the clasp.
Stairs have the perfect angles for this kind of shot.
That said, Hannah appears to be sitting on either nothing or a huge stack of manuscripts, and it still works.
4. Accompanied by Animals
The appeal of this one is obvious.
I mean, Jim Shepard knows how good his author photo is.
Will Self also appears fairly confident.
A less conventional choice, but a memorable one.
5. Looking Mysteriously Away
By far the most popular. It suggests inspiration, or preoccupation, or drama, or at the very least being way too full of interesting writerly thoughts to possibly look at the camera. I will present a random sampling without comment:
In which the author stares down the camera like it’s done something to them.
It really seems as though the photographer has done something to Jim Harrison.
A famously frightening author photo—especially for the back of what is ostensibly a children’s book.
Here’s a more modern example, in which Kwon looks straight at the camera, but the effect is not angry or terrifying but confident and powerful.
7. Full Length and Living Life
It’s relatively unusual to se a full-length author photo, but when they’re done well, they can be glorious.
Great sock tan.
Eugenides again, this time in the rain, with an umbrella, and a bridge, and some bicycles. Is that Paris? It might as well be Paris. [Ed. note: Amsterdam or London?]
I definitely want to be friends with her.
8. Passport Photo
Head-on, mild expression, neutral background. The everyman of the author photo—inoffensive, gets the job done, but not particularly memorable.
A very handsome, totally normal photograph of David Mitchell, whose books are the opposite of normal.
Ditto Sandra Newman—maybe this is really a trend for photographs of authors whose books have exciting creative formal elements?
9. Just Oozing Luxurious Mystery
This would be the polar opposite of the Passport Photo style. Warning: should only be attempted by the coolest of writers.
This photo, from the jacket of The Angel of History, is unbeatable. The opulence! The eyewear! The nail polish. Chef’s. Kiss. Emoji.
Almost any photograph of Lucie Brock-Broido has a magical quality on account of her unbeatable fairy princess hair, but the chair in this one is really giving her locks their due (and appropriate era).
Ah, the infamous vest, most luxurious of all literary clothing items (sorry to Colum McCann’s skinny scarves). We all knew we’d end up here. Honestly, I could have used a photograph of Jeffrey Eugenides for almost every category. There are many, and they really run the gamut, and yet somehow they’re all memorable. To his publicity team: congrats.