The Scourge of Author Photos

Would you buy a used sonnet from this man?

The portrait above is a historical recreation by the British artist Geoff Tristram, a 2016 effort to capture the best possible “accuracy” of Shakespeare in advance of the 400th anniversary of his death. I don’t know what Shakespeare’s face looked like, but this dude looks like a writer. The slouch, the sweatpants, the baggy eyes and bad shave, graying at the temples… I’m not a fan of the pinky ring, but in all his other schlubby, rumpled glory, this guy’s got writer stamped all over him.

The artist has fallen into the trope of the author photo: “hey, Will, just look like you’re writing, okay?” Posing with his quill nowhere near where he would have been writing, and his sleeve isn’t dragging fresh ink around. He might as well have his chin in one hand…

We’re in a highly visual age. Cameras are trivially available, and every actor and athlete and pop star has to be a model as well. It’s not enough to be good at something, you have to be good at it and cute, too. It’s a burden too far for some of us.

Nobody knew what Shakespeare looked like except for his neighbors, his friends at the pub, and the actors who put on his little shows. His manuscripts didn’t have an author photo on the back. Likewise Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, or pretty much every author until about 1970. We might have seen a photo in the paper, might have seen them on Dick Cavett, but the fact of an author photo actually attached to the book is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that I think should never happen again.

They say in the law that if the facts are on your side, argue the facts; if the law is on your side, argue the law; and if neither are on your side, bang on the table. So the author photo is definitely not on my side, though I hope that the language might be. And I’ve got a decent voice (“a face made for radio,” as the old joke has it), so maybe those two out of the three will work.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!