From the Archives: The Author Photo

categories: Cocktail Hour


October, 2004: unbeatable

Dave and I are practically supermodels, all the camera time we log.  But leggy beauty aside, for me it’s still a painful exercise trying to get the right author photo.  I knew it was coming–it’s a standard request when you have a new book in the pipeline, but Algonquin’s letter threw me into a panic, a perfectly workaday letter from the very kind publicity assistant down there in North Carolina, one Sarah Rose Nordgren.  “Your author photo,” Sarah wrote (and I know she’s never said this before–this missive was for me alone),  “along with a copy of the attached photo contract, should be sent to me no later than August 3rdIt’s important that we receive your photo by that date so that we can use it for all promotional materials, including our catalog and advance reader’s copies of your book. Your photo should be in color. We prefer a high-resolution digital  file (it must be 300 dpi, 5×7 inches or bigger, and approximately 10  megabytes), but you can send a hard copy instead. Dress for your photo can be casual, but we prefer that you not wear t-shirts. Please use the attached agreement when you contract a photographer to shoot your author photo. The photographer can be a professional or a friend.   Please let me know if you have any questions or if you will have a problem making either of these deadlines. Thank you!”I would have no problems making the deadline.

But then for some reason I waited till the deadline was upon me, like August 4th, and got to work.  I’m an inveterate do-it-yourselfer, also the star of the hit series, “I Used to Play in Bands,” so, out into the backyard with my 14 megapixel Canon PowerShot, the same camera I use for (have I mentioned this recently?) “I Used to Play in Bands.”
And I tried the same approach, holding the camera out in front of myself, maybe a little above, shot after shot.  But in a video, you’re alive.  Your face has the time and space to give off human cues and clues.  If you’re a good guy who’s written a great book, you look like one.  The still shot, it’s like, Where’s the casket?
Digital cameras, though.  You can take 6,500 shots for no extra cost.  And all you need is one good shot.  I danced in the dew, I leaned off the deck, I stood by the stream, I held up a mushroom or two, I took the 6,500 shots.  And they all sucked.
So to the self timer.  Ten shots a pop.  The usual backgrounds.  Tree, like a high school yearbook.  Sitting on some steps, hand on chin like Gore Vidal.  A couple of different stone walls, various seductive leans toward the lens.  Serious, artsy, Jolly-Roger grins, big guffaws, modest nods, the works.  Finally back indoor for the fail-safe BOOKSHELF shot, a classic of the form.  All failed, all in the end pathetically centered on a man with wild hair and an exhausted look in his eye, or demented.
Elysia would save the day.  She took 6,500 more shots, though she kept making fun of my poses.  I mean, what does it even mean to say that a person looks like Chuck the evil sandwich guy?
Her photos were much better than mine, a fond look in my eye, at least, at times a roaring laugh, but the trouble with HD is that it’s obvious when it’s time to shave one’s chin and comb one’s hair, exfoliate, stop down at the Jiffy Lube for some full-body Botox treatments.

always self-effacing


At my studio computer, Elysia used I-photo to touch me up.  Quickly, she grew exasperated. Soon, she’d erased my mustache altogether, gave me Lil Orphan Annie eyes, got rid of the nose: Voldemort.  And then she took out the rest of my face.  And sadly, that shot, once she was done, looked better than any of the other shots we’d gotten.

Juliet tried next.  6,500 more shots.  Finally, as the rain began to come down in earnest, and dusk to settle in, we hit upon the idea of using the flash and got a shot we all liked.  You can see the rain in my eyebrows, and that my shirt’s getting wet.  You can even make out raindrops in the background, like so many falling stars, pretty nice.  The deadline was upon us.  I sent the photo.

Kelly Bowen, the publicity director at Algonquin, sent me the gentlest possible note.  They all liked my shot just fine, she said, but the building in the background would be unreadable in the extreme cropping they’d have to do.  And hey, there’s a nice shot on your website, the one from October 2004.

My author photo had been rejected!

And you can’t use what will be an eight-year-old shot as your author photo.  You just can’t. People picking you up at the airport for readings will quietly slip away when they see what’s become of you.  Worse, former friends will accuse you of vanity.  And taken to court I’d lose on that charge.  I mean just look at all the work I’ve done on that absurd mustache!

Right away, I brought my camera to a party and asked everyone there to take a couple of shots of me.  Something would have to come out well.  Some rare thread of compassion in one of the friends assembled there.  Some synergy between camera, subject, photographer, and alcohol.  The pond looked great.  The other people, wonderful.  The best shots of me were in the dark.  No, let’s face it, the best shots were completely dark.


A plain background, that’s all I needed.  I stayed up till all hours (yes, all of them) tripod and self-timer and flash, and got some really crazy, like, Gerhard Richter out-of-focus stuff, pretty cool.  Five in the morning, I finally got a shot I liked using a flashlight, three house lamps, and the camera’s flash setting.  And at 5:30 I emailed the picture off, not noticing that my likeness was biting his lip with anxiety.  Not to mention the skin tone, like a figure from the anxiety wax museum in Rome.

Kelly was very polite.  The deadline was past.  “You have a nice smile in that one,” she said, which I took to mean, “You look 100 years old and worried about life insurance.”  But at least the background was neutral.  I resigned myself.

Then I un-resigned.  You can’t have a bad head shot.  It will appear in newspapers, magazines, catalogs.  People will not buy books by an anxious person who’s that pale.  I told my editor, Kathy Pories, of my unhappiness.
“Who took that photo,” she said.
“I took it,” I told her.
“Well, then, that’s the problem,” she said.


Luckily, and just a few days later, I got into a camera conversation with my ornithologist friend Sarah Sloane (she’s the world authority on bushtits, as it happens).  This at another party.  My birthday party, in fact.  Long story, but it ends with her at my house the next day and me up against a neutral background.  Ten shots or so, just another bird, and she’s confident she’s got me captured.
I am going to pay her two dollars, launch her professional photography career.
The many faces of Billy R:

Novelist or Survivalist?


Buy my book and keep me alive!


At least I have a good-looking kid!




I really don’t see what’s wrong with this one.
Not only younger, but hipper, too

  1. Tommy writes:

    Bill, I loved the picture of just your head bobbing above the water in Temple Creek, on your birthday post last summer – I think cropped, that’d be a great author photo – care to re-share it?

  2. Rachael Hanel writes:

    I was just thinking of author photos yesterday, because I saw one in which the author was looking out into space at some undefined point out of camera range. I’m sorry, but I think those type of photos look hokey and like the author is trying to hide something. I think authors in their photos should always be looking directly at the camera. It makes a connection with the reader. Your photos reflect this.

    I also despise the chin-on-the-hand shot!

  3. Deb Gould writes:

    Oboy, that first photo!

    All I could think of was Billie Holiday singing:
    “They sparkle
    They bubble
    They’re gonna getcha in a whole lot of trouble
    Ohhh, baby….them there eyes!”

  4. Erin writes:

    Oh I feel your pain. I paid a professional photographer and over 350 shots later, I still don’t feel entirely comfortable with my author photo. The good news is that the photographic evidence galvanized me to start running again, and now six months later, I’m about ten pounds lighter.

    And I also read bushtit as bullshit, so that’s where your reader base is.

    • Debora writes:

      I read it as the original. And, girls, I have no idea what that is? I think we should all have a drink together and discuss!

    • Bill writes:

      Were these flu shots? Human growth hormone? The Author’s Guild has banned both!

    • Tommy writes:

      A bushtit in the hand is as good as two bushtits in the brush, as anyone would know.

  5. Susanna writes:

    Hilarious. And oh, how I feel your pain, having agonized quite a lot for a one-time, online publication photo, hopefully never to be committed to print. I need psychotherapy to come to terms with the reality of my photographic image, I’m afraid.

    And also, I read your sentence at first to say that your ornithologist friend is the world authority on bullshit, which would be quite a claim.

  6. Nancey writes:

    I love all of the photos actually. Especially the one of you by the door with the truck and the books. You look great! and you look like you. The best you that you are. That was a very funny read though, thank you.

    • Bill writes:

      My daughter, Elysia, took that one in the door of my studio. It’s a favorite of mine, as well.

    • Tommy writes:

      I like this picture also, especially the come-hither look on the author which made me alternately want to join him in the garden and, run away.