Monday, 5 January 2015

Kathleen Jones' Ordeal by Photograph

Every now and then, if you’re a writer, looms that awful thing - the author photograph.   They’re stuck on the back of your books and are supposed to seduce the reader into believing that you’d be an interesting, friendly, wildly creative, spell-bindingly addictive person to spend time with.  Ageism has crept into publishing, as with everything else, so you’re also expected to look as though you have reasonable mileage still left in the tank. Gone are the times when wrinkles, turkey wattles, fag hanging out of the mouth, professorial spectacles and bad hair were considered a vital part of the creative persona.  Alas.

W H Auden could get away with it!
Some authors cheat - they carry on using a shot that’s decades old.  I recently went to a literature festival to hear an author talking about her books - the photo in the programme showed a dark-haired, slim-line beauty, but on stage was a plump, grey-haired lady I would never have recognised as the same person.

Ageing disgracefully - the glorious Alda Merini
It made me think about my own author photograph, which hadn’t been updated for about five years. Was I cheating?  Perhaps, but e-books aren’t exactly a get-rich quick scheme and paying for professional photographers is out of the question.  Some authors can just get someone to hold up an i-pad and click, producing something wonderful.  But ....... ?

Agatha Christie.  Airbrushed?
But I have a confession to make - I’m not photogenic, not one little bit.  In fact, the reverse.  I can be feeling quite attractive until someone takes my photograph and then this ugly, grimacing woman  - think wicked witch in Snow White - stares back at me and I don’t recognise her.   Over the years it’s made me totally phobic about having my photograph taken and, as I’ve got older, it’s got worse - youth after all has a certain bloom.  I’m either pulling a face, girning, or I have my eyes shut. It’s become so bad that I fall into a catatonic trance of self-consciousness the moment someone so much as points a camera in my direction.
Aldous Huxley, clearly not enjoying himself.
Recently I’ve become involved in an exciting publishing project with a group of other women writers. It’s absolutely top-secret, so I can’t even give you a hint, but the call went out for a photograph.  And it had to be special, a formal pose so that we were all in sync.  I went into panic mode.  Far worse than going to the dentist.  My partner tried, but it was no good - I looked weird even to him.  My grand-daughter tried, but the i-pad shot proved to be too blurred to use (very flattering on the lines though!). The deadline loomed.  I took a deep breath and put out a call on Facebook for friends to recommend a photographer.  And then something magical happened.

Romano Cagnoni in his studio
Romano Cagnoni is Italy’s greatest living photographer - one of the world’s best, up there with Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, Eugene Smith and Bill Brandt.  I’ve been to several of his exhibitions and reviewed a couple of them.  He is a documentary photographer, famous for his war coverage in Vietnam and Cambodia, Bosnia and Croatia - recently in Chechnya.  He definitely doesn’t do snaps for book jackets.  But his wife, who is also a photographer, saw my post on Facebook, contacted me and said that Romano would like to do it for me.  How could I say anything but yes, please!  And then I worried all night about letting him down.

The next day, gathering up my courage, I put on the obligatory black top and some make up and went round to his studio and confessed my photo-phobia.  Romano and Patti work in a very modern studio - all white walls and stainless steel, which has a kind of minimalist beauty.  I sat on a wooden stool in front of one of the walls with strong natural light falling all around me from the skylights above. Two Chechen rebels, more than double life-size, stared down at me from the wall - so gloriously photo-genic with their stainless steel teeth and AK47s I almost went home then and there.

One of Romano's Chechens
But Romano was charming and patient as he prowled round me with the camera while Patti chatted to me as she held the reflectors and their dog Chico danced round and distracted me.  How could I let such a wonderful photographer down, I kept thinking, trying not to look as though I was sitting on hot coals.

Me, trying to be good!
Finally it was over.  ‘I can do something with these,’ Romano said, looking quickly at the thumbnails and filling me with relief.  ‘Just a little post-production.’  He laughed.  ‘How far back do you want me to take you?’
Air-brushing? Suddenly I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to cheat. Surely the point of updating your author shot was honesty?  In the end I left any softening of the image up to his judgement and Patti’s. There isn’t much difference between the raw shot and the finished result. Not a fag in sight, but you can see the wrinkles if you look closely!
Me, through Romano's lens
This is something I never imagined, being snapped by a world-famous photographer.  It’s something that never happens unless you’re a celebrity or a model and I’m neither. It’s something I’ll never forget.  Not so much of an ordeal this time!

Kathleen Jones is a poet, novelist and biographer, currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow in the Creative Writing department at Lancaster University.  You can find her blog at 'A Writer's Life'
She has a website at
This is her Amazon Author page
You can find her on Pinterest
and on Twitter at @kathyferber


Chris Longmuir said...

It's a beautiful photo, Kathleen. I think it will make us all take a critical look at our own author's photo and give a huge sigh. My own was taken in 2009 when I won the Dundee Book Prize and was part of the photoshoot for that, so it's not too horrendous, but like you I'm apt to grimace into the camera, so I don't think I'll be updating that one anytime soon. Not unless I can get Romano to work his magic on me as well!

Kathleen Jones said...

I think you look lovely in your shot, Chris - friendly and approachable, which is what it's all about. x

Lydia Bennet said...

you look great Kathleen, what a lovely picture, and I see no reason not to use that for the rest of your days! It's not like people have some kind of right to see exactly what a writer looks like that very day - many successful novelists look heavily 'post-production' if not actually botoxed and filled! I'm quite used to authors seen live at festivals looking madly different to their cover photos and I think the public would be very naive to be surprised. I look awful on photos, I"m naturally pale and sort of white out, and somehow just look awful - my daughter's generation are expert at putting on a photo face at a moment's notice and they all look fabulous - I just can't seem to get it right and like you, actually look worse when posing - most of my best photos were taken by people when i didn't know they were doing it! I use some nice ones of me on our local beach taken in 2009, the only ones' I've really liked, and a few quirky ones for crime novel use, and I'm not keen on updating them because the process is so horrible.

Lydia Bennet said...

And Chris, yours is a lovely photo too and looks just like you!

Bill Kirton said...

You've described such a familiar feeling, Kathleen - that uncomfortable, unnatural self-awareness when staring into a lens. But I hope the lovely result of the shoot persuades you that you're not the wicked witch lookalike that other snaps have suggested. It looks terrific and I'd love to understand how these professional photographers manage to relax their subjects enough to produce genuine portraits of who they really are.

Mari Biella said...

It's a really lovely photo, Kathleen - and it's wonderful that you found such a talented and well-known photographer to work with you! Like you, I hate having my photograph taken, and find it impossible to relax and look natural. For me, looking into a camera lens is not unlike looking into the barrel of a loaded gun...

Kathleen Jones said...

I'm so glad that so many of you feel the same -even Bill, which surprised me as men are usually much more confident - love your analogy Mari - yes it is like staring down the barrel of a loaded gun!
Val - I like your photos - they look so natural.
It's true about the younger generation - I watch them posing their selfies on their iphones and getting some lovely results. I wish .....

Alice said...

I think your photo looks wonderful. All your kindness shows up on your face. It just makes you look like an attractive, intelligent person. I do understand the photo angst .... I'm still using one from more than 10 years ago. But I think everyone does. Very exciting to hear you've got new projects in the air. Very best wishes for 2015.

Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks Alice! I'll keep everyone posted on the new project. Blog scheduled for 5th March!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

That's such a lovely picture, Kathleen. I hate having my photo taken as well - always think the camera hates me. My husband took the one I use now - took about a dozen shots on the digital camera and we picked the best. But I remember about ten years ago a magazine sending a photographer who took the best pic I've ever had - he spent ages just chatting, making me laugh, got me to relax. I think that was the trick.

Kathleen Jones said...

They seem to know just how to do it Catherine - well worth it if you can afford it. My pic is Romano's Christmas present to me - and I'm very, very grateful!
It'a an odd feeling - can understand first nation people thinking that your soul was being stolen. That dark lens seems to see inside you - I just don't want to be seen, obviously!!

Debbie Bennett said...

I always look fat, old and drunk in photos. Usually because I have to be drunk to allow it. But mine is a crop from a proper photo shoot too.

Kathleen Jones said...

Your photo's great Debbie! Looks totally natural.

Sue Purkiss said...

It's a lovely picture, Kathleen - and I always feel exactly the same!