Article published on December 14, 2015.
The publicity picture, the mugshot, the head-and-shoulders, the book jacket shot. Call it what you want, it was never not going to be a cringeworthy experience. It’s a rite-of-passage for an author and one I shouldn’t really complain about. After all, it’s a nice problem to have.
Trouble is, these photos often bear scant resemblance to how the people in them actually look. Habitually worn glasses are taken off (or rarely worn ones donned). Tummies are tucked in. Men who have never in their life worn a polo neck sport one haughtily. That’s even before the whole fraught business of what facial expression to wear. “How do you want me to look?” I’ll ask, as the camera points at me. “Natural,” the person brandishing it will inevitably respond. If most author pictures are anything to go by, natural clearly means awkward, constipated or in pain.
When I needed a few, I enlisted the help of a friend who had just bought a new camera. We spent an afternoon wandering around his local town, scouting interesting backdrops, getting rained on and eliciting funny looks from passers-by. I got cold on the beach, I was the subject of a suggestive sexual remark outside a pub, and I got (not unreasonably) asked if I actually had any intention of buying anything in the doorway of a chippy.
One location was leaning against some iron shutters in a T shirt, which I thought suggested “urban chic”. My wife said I could at least have made an effort and smartened myself up. My friend showed great patience, although his instructions were sometimes hard to follow. “Look at the camera,” he said. “Don’t look at the camera,” he said. I ended up doing a lot of staring into the middle distance, like a war veteran.
Ultimately, I settled for a shot in front of a multi-coloured mural, largely on the grounds that it would deflect attention away from me. We must have resembled an odd pair, padding round the streets with bags of clothes. “Bring changes of outfit,” he’d instructed me. “We need a picture for every season.” I asked my friend if the pictures would look any better if they were converted to black-and-white and he said “Mmm, not exactly”. Which I took to mean there’s only so much post-production work you can do.
Basically, he did a fantastic job, given the raw materials. I simply didn’t want to be there. I’d seen too many ridiculous author pictures. It appears the winsome, detached look is particularly popular. Another perennial favourite is the hand-on-chin pose – this season, ideally accompanied by a hipster beard. I’m sure for a few, it can prove a welcome opportunity to showboat in front of an audience, but for most authors, it’s purgatory. After all, we tend not to like being looked at. Our words, yes, but not us. If we did, we would have become actors.
Faced with so many conundrums, I ended up looking nervous and wearing an apprehensive half-smile. I felt embarrassed and self-conscious – traits that I hope will be mistaken for complex and erudite. Since I’ve had the pictures taken, I’ve got a puppy. It’s a shame the dog wasn’t around earlier. Everyone loves a puppy so I could have pushed him to the foreground. He positively adores having his picture taken.
Talk to the author on Twitter @TRRichmondbooks
See also our Author Q&A with T. R. Richmond
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