What’s the secret behind the best photographs of novelists, asks Jacob Mikanowskiby Jacob Mikanowski / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
William Buroughs in front of his “shotgun paintings.”
What do we want from pictures of writers? More than we’re willing to admit. That, at least, was the conclusion I came to after reading Portrait of the Writer, which gathers some 250 portraits of writers and pairs them with capsule biographies by Goffredo Fofi and six other contributors in the hopes of discovering “something previously unrevealed” about them. But what it mostly provides is either the familiar—what Hemingway looked like, how Camus held a cigarette—or the banal, like the size of Eugenio Montale’s head and the layout of Mario Vargas Llosa’s study.
So what was I looking for? Something beyond the mundane details of authors’ looks and photographers’ conceits. Something to bring me up short. Leafing through Portrait of the Writer, I recalled a story from a book about the early 20th century Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno. The woman who runs the local museum in Makhno’s hometown recounts an incident from her childhood. She had grown up in a village called Hrushevo, lost in the vastness of the Ukrainian steppe. It was a place without electricity, where postmen and salesclerks were revered because their jobs brought them into contact with money and the written word. One day the woman, then a girl, visited her neighbour’s house and saw a portrait of the poet Taras Shevchenko on the wall. Not knowing who it was, she asked, “Is it God?,” to which the owner of the house replied, “No, a prophet.”
We’re supposed to be past this sort of reverence now. For many decades, it has been academic orthodoxy that the author is dead. Since the rise of post-structuralism in the mid-20th century, students have been taught that literary works and their producers are temporary knots in the eternal flow of discourse. But I’m not sure anyone is really able to think about authors like this in a sustained way. Not when books are important to us. Certainly not when, as teenagers, we begin to read seriously. As much as we try to disavow it, literature is still a game of identification. And the more we identify, the more we crave the presence of the body, if only in a picture. We want prophets.