photographs by Nancy Crampton
[224pp, 25, Norton]

Large format, full page black and white photographs of (mainly) US writers, a few of them dead. Quotations about writing on the facing page. I never know who the readers are for book like this. Buyers? That's a different matter: you just might get one given as a Christmas gift.

This copy's lounging around on the coffee table. Visitors love it, flick through it until they find a writer whose work they know: so that's what Lowell looked like; why is Ashbery staring like that; doesn't Saul Bellow look young. (Well, it was taken 30 years ago.) It's that sort of book - really absorbing for a few minutes.

Sooner or later I'm going to have to shelve it, but where? A vaguely introductory section to American literature? For all the quotations from the writers, the text doesn't add up to anything substantial. They're well-chosen though: we're not offered a portrait with a potted bio on its facing page. Instead, here's the writer and something s/he said about writing - a paragraph from Joseph Heller on fiction as manipulation, Dwight MacDonald on hack writing, Iris Murdoch on truth. Some are the pieces you'd expect, like Margaret Atwood on discovering problems in her poems and solving them in novels; others less so: Heaney's paragraph is about working in academia.

I think this copy will end up on a photography shelf, mainly because of it's size. In the portrait section, just along from Richard Avedon's In the American West
. Though it's not that sort of book, a book I read to consider the photographer's style, intention, awareness of his art. If you've got in mind writers' portraits like those in Lumb Bank by Clare McNamee in which she and the writer have worked together (Jo Shapcott with the hair and the chair) on a composed image, no, not like those: think mug shots and book jackets.

Crampton's photographs are taken with a Leica, that quiet, unobtrusive camera Cartier Bresson used. A Leica lens delivers startling clarity, especially in the almost-life-size head and shoulder shots which predominate among her more recent work. A Leica with Tri X film will accommodate itself to dim interiors without much loss. You can study the portraits for detail. They're simple, mainly serious, returns of an open gaze. Crampton doesn't even use a portrait lens. Billy Collins looks like he's seen a ghost. Heaney's got a vague expression. Doris Lessing has a hand to her chin, too much arranged. All these gazes, looking back, presenting themselves. Wanting, for the most part, to be liked.

The whole-body shots can be more posed - cigarettes are brandished (this book has photographs from the seventies onwards): here's Auden mid-drag, Sexton casually flicking ash over her shoulder, Vonnegut and Sontag appearing unaware of what they hold. Pets are rolled out  - George Plimpton and his cat, Wilbur with his dog. The Toms, Wolfe and Stoppard, stylishly self-conscious in their white suits.

There's a lovely quirk for the last page: 12 upper body shots (not a contact sheet, but presented like that) of Studs Terkel in full arm-waving, face-pulling, story-telling flow. You can almost hear him.

I can't help wondering if I handed someone a dozen of these portraits of people they didn't recognise and asked: what have these people in common?, would the answer be 'writing'? I'm not sure. They're all pretty tidy.

Ah, the blurb. Yes. This is a book 'For those of us who care about the literary scene... a gift to treasure.'

                          Jane Routh 2005