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Famous Authors and Really Bad Publicity Photos

March 8, 2021
This pose seems unnatural, but at least the author doesn’t look like a prick.

I first noticed authors’ bad publicity photos in the 1980s when I was reading the book jackets of literary fiction. The author poses were unnatural. Most authors looked pompous. Even back then, I didn’t want to read literature written by pompous authors.

I thought maybe literary authors were meant to look pompous to separate them from the common person who also takes bad pictures. Maybe it was done to keep famous authors in their places: if famous authors took good pictures, their egos would get too huge.

The above Malcolm Gladwell photo is a good example of a bad publicity photo. I don’t want to make fun of Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve read a few of his books. His books were great for the airport back in the days when I actually went to airports. I don’t read his books anymore because I don’t go to airports anymore, but I still respect the guy.

The thing is, Malcolm Gladwell has taken decent pictures. He even looks like a normal guy in most of them. He probably got talked into releasing those bad publicity photos. He was probably told that those bad publicity photos were actually good.

People lie about the quality of photos others take. Years ago, my co-workers tried to convince me that my ID photo was a good picture. We had been standing in line for annual IDs, and when I finally had my picture taken, I asked the photographer if I could see it before I moved on.

My mistake had been that I had smiled when the photographer told me to. My smile is asymmetrical, so I look drunk even though I’m sober. Even so, I still smiled when the photographer asked because I have been programmed to be polite.

The photographer hesitated but agreed to show me the picture. There was a line behind me; he had a deadline and probably wanted to get through as many of us as quickly as possible, but he let me get behind his equipment (I don’t remember enough of it to describe it), and I saw my face with my eyes half-closed and a lopsided smile. Yes, I looked drunk.

“I can’t walk around with this for a year,” I said to the photographer. “Can I do a retake?”

The photographer scanned the crowd behind me. “I really can’t do that,” he said.

“It won’t take long,” I countered. I usually don’t like to impose, but I didn’t want to walk around for a year with a picture of me looking drunk.

The photographer said, “The picture’s fine.”

“Then your standards are too low for you to be a professional photographer.”

Some guy in the line behind me shouted, “What’s the problem, Jimmy?”

“I’m trying to get a retake,” I said in a stage voice. “I took a bad picture.”

“Let me see,” a nosy female co-worker said. Without permission, she walked up behind the photographer’s equipment and checked the picture.

“This is a good picture,” she exclaimed.

“Your vision is bad,” I said.

Some other guy came up and said, “What’s wrong with it?

“I look sober when I’m drunk,” I said. “I mean, drunk when I’m sober.” I get my words mixed up when I’m annoyed.

All of a sudden, there was a crowd around the equipment, and nobody agreed with me about the quality of the picture. Either my co-workers had bad judgement or they disliked me or I always look drunk. The photographer was breathing heavily and turning slightly red.

“You might as well let me do a retake,” I said to him. The photographer shook his head but agreed.

This second time, I kept a frozen serious stare. I didn’t smile. I didn’t speak. I kept my face in a perfectly symmetrical position, and the picture turned out great. My co-workers seemed disappointed.

I don’t know if Malcolm Gladwell knows he takes some bad pictures. I don’t know if he’s surrounded by publicists and peers who lie to him. I don’t know if it bugs him when he takes a bad picture, but if it does, I completely understand. At least my bad ID photos only lasted a year.

If you’re a famous author, your bad picture lasts forever, or at least until people stop reading your books.

*****

What do you think? Why do so many famous authors have bad publicity photos? What do you have to do to take a decent picture?

3 Comments
  1. Maybe your coworkers just didn’t want to wait in line any longer than they had to, so they said your picture was good hoping you’d skip the retake?

  2. I never take a good picture. The only ones that are ever ok are the candid ones, usually of me yelling at someone. Otherwise I seem to grow five more chins, look drunk, have a creepy stare and a mouth full of teeth snarling at you. I don’t smile well on command – it doesn’t go to my eyes. So I look fat, drunk, and angry all at once. So if someone gave me a pose, even a bad one, that didn’t make me look like a drunk, snarling Winston Churchill, I’d slap that baby on every book with my name on it.

    Also, maybe it’s because of the weird close-up vibe they want on the sleeves. Like it’s far enough away so you don’t see nose hair, but WAY closer than any other picture you would normally take. And the idea is to try to make the person look as “natural” as they can when they’re taking a picture that is just minutely far enough away so a bored person in line waiting to buy their book at the airport doesn’t start counting their pores.

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