Flirty pictures

She made my author photo look cool and tough. The trouble is, I'm still just a writer.

By George Packer
Published August 2, 2000 7:20PM (EDT)

The top of my head has become a sunburn risk. My face is dominated by the broken bridge of my nose. Squint lines are a permanent feature of the landscape, like wadis in a desert. On the verge of 40, I'm an increasingly bad bet for the kind of glamorous repackaging that seems required of an American literary career: rugged Sebastian Junger, demure Susan Minot, Elizabeth Wurtzel on her own book cover as naked and belligerent as Demi Moore. So when my publisher recently hired a top-notch studio professional to take my picture for a book jacket, I was afraid of letting everyone down.

Most writers I know are not beautiful -- nor should they be. In early life the rewards of good looks would have lured them out of the isolation and inwardness that nourish imaginative life. As they age, the constant resentment, anxiety, envy and self-hatred are unlikely to have an improving effect on their physiognomy.

W.H. Auden went from horse-faced boy wonder to a shrunken head of smoker's wrinkles without any decrease in literary stature. Virginia Woolf lost her youthful grace to mental disturbance and kept her place among the great modernists. Her friend E.M. Forster had a negligible chin and a hypertrophic nose. Even some American writers, in the country and century that invented mass media, escaped detection. Do you know what Elizabeth Bishop or John Berryman looked like? Did James Baldwin's frog eyes and Flannery O'Connor's horn-rimmed homeliness give their publishers pause?

One of the exceptions, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was described by his sometime friend Ernest Hemingway as looking "like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty," which proved fatal to Fitzgerald. Before their first encounter in a Paris bar was over, Fitzgerald was well on the way to his crack-up. "His face became a true death's head, or death mask, in front of my eyes," wrote Hemingway. Beauty damned Fitzgerald and his literary talent shattered.

Today an author's image has apparently become such a central element of a book's chances for success that on Renata Adler's recent memoir about the New Yorker, the photo credit is two decades old. Back in 1979, Richard Avedon made her look lithe and attractively strung-out. It's like the old Hollywood studios that never updated the publicity shot for an aging actress from her starlet days.

Publishers have always expected readers to judge a book by its cover. Now they expect a writer to be judged by his face. Given the unlikelihood that good books will be written by beautiful people, publishers can either lower their literary standards or improve their authors' faces. More and more seem to take the second approach.

I've gotten used to picking up a book by someone I know personally and checking the back flap to see what authorship has done to their appearance. Dark background, unusual garment, oblique angle, tilt of head, hair falling forward, chin resting on hand, cool gaze: my nervous-smiling, twisty-nosed, sad-eyed acquaintance has undergone the most startling transformation. I never understood how it was done.

Sometimes I glance at the name of the alchemist responsible. About half a dozen photographers seem to share the franchise on authors. One them of is Sigrid Estrada. I especially feared letting down someone named Sigrid Estrada. On the phone she sounded Nordic and insouciant, and I found myself slipping into a disarming candor so that she would forgive me my defects when we met.

The woman who opened the door of the studio on Broadway matched her name and voice: a tall middle-aged blonde, sheathed from turtleneck to shoes all in black. She looked like a Euro pop icon from the '60s whose glamour had grown warm and kind without fading. As for me, I hadn't slept well the night before, I was sweating, and my most recent haircut had gone badly.

"Ah yes," Sigrid Estrada said. "There you are." My heart sank. The snapshots she'd asked me to send ahead were not particularly flattering -- they made me look more or less like myself. And that was just the problem. For 15 years as a writer I've been plagued by all the usual worries about whether my prose measured up. Now I had to worry about whether my face measured up.

As Sigrid unpacked my bag and inspected the various shirts and jackets that she'd asked me to bring, she kept looking into my face with sympathetic eyes and a slight smile, murmuring to herself, as if she was already casing the finished product.

"Would you like a cup of coffee before we start?" In her kitchenette she ironed my shirts. This is a service few women have ever extended to me. It gave her studio -- a working woman's if there ever was one, with photography equipment and wires and backdrop occupying what should have been the living area -- an odd suggestion of domesticity, even intimacy.

Far from detached and monotonic, Sigrid Estrada was warmly engaging. The last syllable of each sentence rose and sank on her Germanic cadence with a kind of wistful rue. Searching for the right shirt, refilling my coffee cup, applying a touch of cover around my underslept eyes, she kept staring at my face. All these attentions should not have been flattering, any more than the attentions of a dental assistant or a stripper should be flattering. Yet I felt flattered, and a little unnerved.

Sigrid picked out a shirt. She asked me to put on my leather jacket over it and we went to work.

She had me lean on a gray pedestal before a gray drop cloth. Lower my head, look away from the camera, look back again, lay one hand on the other. None of this came naturally, but as Sigrid kept giving instructions, asking about my book, telling me about her parents, I began to worry less about the position of my hands. She took a few Polaroid snapshots, and we went over to her work table and waited for them to develop.

On the wall were dozens of her pictures. Jamaica Kincaid, long legs wrapped around a chair back. Robert Pinsky, poet laureate, whose mobile face never rested in one expression for more than a 60th of a second. Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize winner, sitting in profile and looking regally irritated.

In general, according to Sigrid, the better known the writer, the less pleasant the session. "You will come back in a couple of years and not be so nice," she told me. Authors, unused to taking instruction and holding still, were not easy subjects, but Sigrid found them more interesting than the fashion models she used to shoot when she first came to New York from Berlin. She had a number of her subjects' books on her shelves. One of them had inscribed his: "To Sigrid, who made me look good."

She ripped the backing off the first Polaroid.

When you receive the first copy of a book you've written, there's a gratifying shock of recognition at seeing your private thoughts made into a 6-by-9-inch object. You know the work to be yours, yet its reification has a magical property that gives it an existence in the world apart from you. Sigrid's Polaroid gave me a different kind of shock, for it had much less to do with me. The face emerging out of blackness hadn't gotten a bad night's sleep. It wasn't hyperaware of the angle of the head. The white light articulated a bone structure that my face doesn't have. The clasped hands were veinier, stronger. The expression was cool, steady -- tough!

My prose style was riveted into place, my career was poking along at 20 mph, but Sigrid Estrada had made me into someone else. This was how it was done.

"You're a genius," I told her.

We went back to the set newly energized and Sigrid took more pictures. Roll after roll, black and white and color, red and green light, head shots, left angle, right angle, straight on, different shirt, different stance, different mood. For almost three hours Sigrid Estrada got on and off her stepladder and took pictures, and the whole time she was keeping me engaged. "No, too serious. Look away and back. Not straight on, your nose isn't right. Ah, you blinked. Yes, that's good! Sort of Yves Montand. Sort of a French rock star nose. The smile doesn't look like you mean it. Think of something nice. Yes, like that! That haunted look!"

"Let's try for Matt Damon," Sigrid finally suggested. Damon was on the cover of that week's New York Times Magazine. In an earlier life I had built kitchen shelves for his mother. A boyish blond teenager sat on the counter while I worked, idly picking up my tools to play air drums while making percussive hip-hop noises with his mouth. Now, age 39, I obediently put on a black sweater under my jacket and tried for Matt Damon. Sigrid liked it.

At some point during the session I realized that no one had ever paid such sustained and intense attention to me in my life. It was exhilarating and exhausting.

Sigrid had discovered early in her career that having feelings for the subject could compromise the work. A good picture required emotional detachment. Yet it also seemed that in order for the project -- my transformation by her camera -- to succeed, we both had to heighten the atmosphere, to create an artificial excitement. She had to iron my shirts. I had to try for Matt Damon. The session in her studio apartment, a few hours together in the middle of the day, the city 16 floors below forgotten, the ending inevitable and coming soon, had to acquire the self-deceiving mood of a tryst.

When it was over, I packed up my clothes and Sigrid walked me to her door.

"It's sad, this job," she said. "We become friends for a few hours and then I never hear from them again."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

A few weeks later an envelope arrived from my publisher. It contained two color prints and a note asking which one I preferred.

I stared at the pictures in bewilderment. Something had gone wrong. There was no Yves Montand nose, no haunted look. My eyes were red-rimmed. I looked as though I hadn't slept well and was doing my best to smile. What had happened to all those great pictures Sigrid had taken? Technically these color photos were fine, but I had mysteriously, unmistakably, become myself again.

I wrote an urgent e-mail to the publicist. "The B&W Polaroids Sigrid showed me looked better."

Half an hour later the reply came flying back. "These are the best photos of the lot," it said. "The black and white shots were completely inappropriate for our purposes -- you look like a leather-clad biker guy who might have written a badass on-the-road type drug-sodden memoir." I was "a writer of serious nonfiction," and the book needed a suitable jacket photo.

I called the editor.

"The others made you look like a rock star," he explained.

Embarrassed and more disappointed than I could understand, I tried for a tone of knowing self-mockery. "And what's wrong with that?"

He laughed. "You're not a rock star."

George Packer

George Packer's fourth book, "Blood of the Liberals," will be published in August.

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