I have no idea where the hours went. For a good portion of the time, I’m sure I was in a deep chair in my study at home, the soft summer yellows of a Minnesota twilight coming in through the window, with a new photobook titled Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan in my lap. Yet, if I were completely honest, I would also say a good portion of that time was out-of-body, in some other time, in some other dimension. You know that moment when you’re reading, and you suddenly realize it’s 3:30 a.m., and you have no idea where 2:00 a.m. went? That’s where I was. This new book is that good.
Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan is, as you might guess, a collection of author portraits. There are studio headshots as well as field shots. There are close-ups, profiles, shots from some distance, silhouettes, a subtle use of shadow and light. But these are no ordinary writers, and these are no ordinary photographs.
There are at least three Nobel laureates in the book, a handful of National Book Award winners and finalists, and who knows how many other prize recipients. But that’s not the point. According to the book’s press release, Author contains more than 200 writers, historians, journalists, playwrights and poets from 35 different countries. These are the contemporary men and women who are telling the stories we find essential. Their faces are important.
Why do we want to see an artist’s face? Does it matter what Wole Soyinka looks like? For that matter, does it matter what Tchaikovsky or Picasso or Baryshnikov look like? Yes, of course it does. We want to have an image in our heads, something onto which we can hang our impressions. But, more than that, we love the portrait because we can examine it, interrogate it, peruse it for evidence.
The best photobooks are transporting as well as transformative. They take us to new places as well as new insights. The very best photobooks also open up something in our own heart and memory and soul. This is the grace of Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan. So often I would come upon a picture of an author I admire and pause. Yes, I would look at the picture, study the picture, not just for technical photographic excellence—though that is certainly there on every page—but to try and find in that face the stories I know. Then I would lean my head back, close my eyes and smile.
I have seen a thousand pictures of Joan Didion, whose prose has always had a direct lightning bolt path to where my head and heart meet, and Beowulf’s portrait brings that familiar face to me anew once more. And my God, I thought. I have not seen John Irving for decades. I remember Garp. I remember The Cider House Rules. I was in graduate school, trying to find anything close to an interesting voice as a writer myself, and those books were beacons.
Author is graced with something I believe may be disappearing from contemporary photobooks—an eloquent, detailed, insightful and compelling text. Salman Rushdie’s “Forward” offers the expected praise, but also points out the challenge of photographing a set of people who understand that a photograph is an implication and a metaphor. It may be obvious to point out that writers, like photographers, are storytellers. A sense of character and narrative does not rest behind every moment; it rests in front of it, like a filter. Both photographers and writers know this, so many writers resist or at least question the limits of the frozen single moment.
“Writers are not the easiest of subjects for a photographer,” Rushdie writes. “Many of us are uneasy in front of a camera lens, seeing ourselves as observers, not the observed. Many of us, used to looking inward, don’t find it natural to project ourselves outward. Some of us are stiff, or secretive, or unwilling to smile, or excessively, awkwardly smiley. Writers often dislike seeing themselves in photographs or on TV. But writers can also be as vain as anyone else, as anxious to put our best side forward. We can be a distrustful bunch.”
Beowulf’s “Introduction” is a mini autobiography, the story of how he came to love reading and then photography itself. It begins with being bitten by an alligator. One job leads to another, and one contact introduces another. A colleague is asked to photograph the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature and cannot make it, so she recommends Beowulf.
Beowulf writes: “PEN (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists, the U.S. and world’s largest and oldest champion for freedom of expression, literature, and human rights) invited me back for its second festival, and I was also invited to photograph backstage. It was there that I finally met Salman and, with each passing year, more and more literary luminaries from around the world. I was introduced to advocates, agents, editors, educators, publishers, and publicists in the literary community. My world was growing again. The world of my childhood interests was turning into the world of my adult passions.”
The text contains vignettes of meeting and photographing luminaries such as Umberto Eco, Nadine Gordimer, and Salman Rushdie. More importantly, it gives voice to the history and passion he brings to photographing writers.
The oldest photograph in the book is of Nadine Gordimer from 2007. The newest is Sandeep Jauhar from February of this year. The list of those included contains household names like Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Tom Wolfe and Edward Albe. The list also includes a number of writers any one of us will have missed, so the publication also contains a brief literary biography of each author in its back pages.
Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan is a distracting book. I mean that in the very best sense. You open it, look at an author’s face, and the world around your chair dissolves just a little bit. Somewhere in that face is a story you have loved.
Perhaps the best way to explain Author is to say that I am thankful for this book - deeply and personally grateful. These are pictures of people and their faces, yes. These are also pictures of the men and women who bring us stories that challenge and change every one of us, and somehow Beowulf has caught that spark.
There is an added benefit to purchasing Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan, too. A portion of the proceeds will go to BookUp, a program of the National Book Foundation—presenters of the National Book Awards—to inspire reading by students in underserved communities across the United States.