Beowulf Sheehan is considered one of the preeminent literary portraitists working today. He has photographed more than 800 authors, from Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison to J.K. Rowling and former vice-president Joe Biden. A collection of his work, Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan, was released in October by Black Dog & Leventhal. In a ranging interview with PW, Sheehan discussed his influences, the particulars of workings with authors, and his perspective of the book business. (This interview has been edited for clarity.)
How does one go about the business of becoming a literary photographer?
I think one begins the business by not thinking of it as a business, but rather a labor of love, just as anyone who has a story to tell tells that story not for the sake of a regimen of work or financial gain, but rather an internal need to let that voice and that story be shared with the world. I can't think of a single writer I've ever met in my career who said, "I dove into this because I really have a tremendous financial opportunity in becoming a writer." And likewise I found myself in this community because it's been a part of my life's journey to be in and around books.
How were you able to start making a living shooting authors?
I started photographing for fun, for personal fulfillment, as a freshman in high school. Ultimately, I discovered photography to be my calling. I went to the International Center for Photography after finishing at New York University and getting my master's thesis published. And somebody I had studied with at ICP had been asked to photograph the very first PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, and that person was not available, and that person recommended me. Fourteen years later, I am still the photographer of the PEN World Voices Festival. I am still the photographer for the PEN World Voices Festival. That opened many, many doors to me. It was my introduction to Salman Rushdie, and the great opportunities he's created for me and beyond all of these years since.
You have photographed 800 literary figures. How did you choose who to feature in the book?
My book was initially a proposal and a collection of about 100 to 150 samples photographs that were then presented to a number of publishing houses. From there it was a matter of diving in with my editor and coming to a balance of renowned names and faces against younger and emerging voices in the medium.
Which literary photographers were you inspired by when you first started out?
I remember calling Nancy Crampton. I wanted to tell her something along the lines of how much I had admired her journey and her work. I have not had the chance to meet Marion Ettlinger as of yet. She's the only literary photographer I've ever heard of being used as a verb. I met the author Simon Winchester years ago and he asked me if I'd ever been Ettlingered. And the answer is no.
How do you balance your hopes for a portrait with those of the authors you're photographing, and make those photos stand out?
Every time I have the opportunity to make a portrait of an author, I have a few set rules for myself. One of those is to make a picture that treats that subject with, at the very least, dignity. I also need to make sure that I make everyone involved happy, and everyone involved usually comes down to the writer, an agent who has a voice in the process, the editor, the publisher, the art director, and the creative director. I more than recognize that many a time, a portrait has to be something safe, if you will: between the shoulders, compellingly lit, perhaps an interesting background—sometimes there's a mute background or a gradient of tone, that sort of thing—but that there's something going on that person's face or the way he or she is engaging the camera or not, or engaging the reader, a potential buyer of the work, directly, or not, that is compelling enough to get that person to pick up the book and be that much more curious about that work having looked at the author portrait.
Is there a particular story of a time you photographed and author that you think really represents your engagement with them as an author in addition to an engagement with them as a subject?
Leslie Jamison's The Recovery came out earlier this year, and it is a memoir of her life's battle with alcoholism as much as it is a history of AA and of writers of renown who also struggled with the disease throughout their lives. I'm the son of an alcoholic, so my empathy to her story was immediate, because it was personal. And we'd known each other for some time, so we were already comfortable with each other, but we had this immediate common ground. I could see my father's story through her own story, and therefore, to some degree, my own story. That then led to me coming up with a few small metaphorical concepts for what it is to find a place on the other side of addiction, and to know what it means to have such a part of you in your chemical and physiological makeup, and battling through that and being triumphant, perpetually, against it. That actually helped make for a really beautiful experience, photographing her in studio and on location.
What do you hope for out of each portrait?
I think if the picture can surprise the viewer, that's great. Especially if it's somebody of renown, where we already know that person's face to some degree. If I can see that person in a new way, wow, have I done my job. And if the viewer doesn't already know that person, and sees the image and says, "wow, who the heck is that," then I've done my job. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books being published every week in this country. The battle for winning the heart of the potential reader and buyer, to say, "That's the story I wish to give my attention to right now," is pretty significant.
Sometimes, using a hand in the photograph, seeing the rest of the body in the picture, makes sense, and sometimes it doesn't. I want to make sure I'm keeping everyone happy, and I know that the publisher has certain needs, but I'll keep photographing until we have a sense of being done. Photographing someone for the first time and being photographed for the first time is an unnatural process. But I want the camera to disappear. I want the the lights and the box in my hands to disappear.