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A Look in the Mirror: Your Author Photo


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What makes a good author photo? Beauty? Drama? Clever lighting? Is it the picture that most honestly captures the current appearance of the individual, or the one that mysteriously reveals their true character? Or should it be an image that will draw in more readers and lead to better sales figures? The one most appropriate to the genre or to the target readership?

Romance author Barbara Cartland was almost always dressed in pink, heavily made up, and carefully coiffed. She’d usually have a cute little dog on her lap or lounging nearby. The setting would be the interior of a stately home, perhaps the one she lived in, or a gorgeous English garden. Whatever your opinion of Ms Cartland’s books, which were immensely succcessful in their time, or of the photos, there’s no doubt this romance author had an individual style – these days you’d call it a brand – which undoubtedly boosted her profile in a time when social media as we know it now did not exist. Her portrait would have appeared not only on her book jackets, but in the women’s magazines of the time, and in bricks and mortar bookshops when she had a new title out, which was often. Another portrait that sticks in my mind is a black and white image of horror writer Stephen King, with dramatic lighting emphasising his craggy and intense features. It does help to have a ‘look’ that matches what you write.

We writers are all different. Some thrive on publicity, are happy to be photographed, adore dressing up. Some can put on the required act and look as if they’re enjoying themselves. I’m of another kind. I am happiest in familiar, comfortable clothes, I don’t wear makeup, and I dislike most photos of myself. I’ve had quite a few of the official ones done over the years I’ve been writing, and I know it’s necessary and appropriate to provide a good picture. But I’ve had problems with my body image since I was quite young. Now I’m in the age group considered ‘elderly’, it’s becoming easier to accept my physical self, flaws and all. Hags are powerful creatures, afraid of nothing.

I’ve recently had new author photos taken, and for once I’m happy with them, despite going with a photographer I had not used before. I expected to be nervous and awkward, as usual – the only author photos I previously liked were done as part of a photo shoot for my dogs, as a bonus extra. If I’m holding a dog or close to one it’s far easier for me to look relaxed. Who knows, maybe Barbara Cartland felt the same! This time around I had a professional to do my makeup and hair, which took ages considering I’d requested a low key, natural look. But while the stylist worked her magic she and I chatted about all sorts of things, so that time served a dual purpose – I emerged not only looking better but feeling far more relaxed. The photographer didn’t use flash or any obtrusive studio lighting, just made clever use of screens and natural light flooding in through tall sash windows. It was actually fun, and I’m pleased with the photos, which have character. I look professional but I also look like myself.

The experience got me thinking about how an author portrait can be designed to give a particular message to potential readers. Is the subject in a flourishing garden? By a mysterious lake? Under a street light in a darkened city? Is there a dog or cat or other companion creature in the image? Does the picture look posed or natural? Is the lighting unobtrusive, cosy, dramatic, eerie? What emotion is on the subject’s face as they look out at you? Are they relaxed, friendly, intense, troubled, amused, off in a dream? The companion creature tells its own part of the story. The writer with the snake or parrot is not like the one with the cute cat or dog. Clothing, too, conveys a message, from the tailored suit right through to the comfortable dog walking outfit (no, I didn’t wear that.) The author may dress up in what suits them, or they may choose apparel in keeping with what they write, as Barbara Cartland did.

A portrait tells a story. An author portrait tells the viewer something about you, or something about your writing, or ideally, both. Whether or not you enjoy the process of being photographed, think about what story you want that image to conjure up in the minds of your readers. Ideally, you can do that and stay true to yourself.

I’d love to hear your experiences of the author photo session, from the excellent to the downright awful. What message would your ideal portrait convey to the viewer?

Image credit: ID 16275148© Aldegonde Le Compte|Dreamstime.com

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written twenty-four novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world and have won numerous awards. Juliet recently completed A Song of Flight, the third book in her historical fantasy trilogy, Warrior Bards. A Song of Flight will be published in August/September 2021. Her collection of reimagined fairy tales, Mother Thorn and Other Tales of Courage and Kindness, will have a trade release in May 2021. Mother Thorn is illustrated by Kathleen Jennings and published by Serenity Press. When not writing, Juliet looks after a small crew of rescue dogs.

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