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