When an editor recently asked me for a photographer’s credit for my author photo, I paused. The one I’d been using—a selfie taken amid a wall of vintage license plates in Tinkertown, N.Mex.—had, up until this moment, seemed to suit me fine. It was summer. I was relaxed. Genuinely happy, road-tripping through the country and writing every day, taking pictures of the Rio Grande and the cattle-flanked stretches through Texas, and getting my first taste of chili cherry pie. Blissfully unaware—as we all were—of what 2020 and beyond would bring. Unaware, too, that when I took the photo at the roadside attraction off the Turquoise Trail, this would eventually become my official author photo.
Anticipating the March 2022 publication of Proof of Me & Other Stories, a friend of mine suggested this winter that maybe it was time for an update. She connected me with a wonderful photographer (and colleague of mine), Cheryle St. Onge, and we set it up for the following day. I thought I was ready: I’d just had a haircut. I’d wear my turquoise necklace and find my lipstick from the far reaches of my backpack. On the eve of my big book debut, I believed I was set for my rite-of-passage moment and for getting an honest-to-goodness real Professional Author Photo from an honest-to-goodness real Professional Photographer. What could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was the very thing that Susan Sontag had observed about picture-making in her 1977 book On Photography. Photographs, she wrote, often capture the mortality and vulnerability of their subject, and “do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, a miniature of reality.” And yet, I was hopeful that Cheryle, with her photographic finesse, might help me skip right over the whole mortality and reality part and capture instead just me as a writer. Ah well.
Before our session, Cheryle had suggested I research author photos to find ones I admired, so as to get a feel for my own aesthetic. Looking through dozens of photos of smart, intense faces of other women writers (and musicians—those of Patti Smith and Emmylou Harris were among my favorites) was an absolute gift—each face and setting a story in its own right. It got me thinking about what my own authorial face might say or convey about me and the nature of my work. I didn’t want to look “corporate” or overly polished.
I didn’t want to appear too intense, or vulnerable, or cloyingly pleasant. I wanted my expression to suggest that I was perhaps telling or hearing a joke, and I liked the idea of a textured background—with books or plants or a sense of place.
The conceit of cultivating the conditions to produce a single image that would approximate “Erica as writer” to the wider literary world felt both unnatural and ungainly, and yet there I was in a brightly lit studio, getting my photo taken, lipstick AWOL, borrowing Cheryle’s compact powder to reduce the shine on my forehead, while she endeavored to capture through the lens some version of the writer I sought to be.
As I occupied myself overthinking the impact of my author photo during my photo shoot, Cheryle, to her credit, captured in every frame my mood and energy. Looking through her proofs, I cringed. What did I expect? The “author” who showed up to have her picture taken—in reality, a high school English teacher weathering yet another Covid winter, who’d been hiding behind a literal mask or Zoom screen for two years—is exactly who appears in those photographs. The photos Cheryle took (Susan Sontag was right!) sliced out a moment that revealed as accurate a version of me, frozen in that particular time and place, as I could hope for. And vain as it sounds, it’s a version of me that (for now) I’d rather not share with the world.
For sure, more intense iterations of myself helped to write Proof of Me, but perhaps there’s something in the grinning punster vagabond of a few summers ago that is better suited to the spirit and energy my book brings. And perhaps my old photo isn’t so far off the mark after all—at a recent writers’ conference, I ran across someone I’d known only through social media.
“You’re Erica, right?” she asked.
“Yes! How did you know?” I replied.
“Easy! From your author photo,” she said.
For all my fretting and effort about updating my author photo, perhaps my work in that regard, for now, is done.
Erica Plouffe Lazure is the author of Proof of Me & Other Stories, published in March by New American Press. She has taught English at East Carolina University and Phillips Exeter Academy, as well as at School Year Abroad in Viterbo, Italy.