Author photographs are a well-known for clichés – the hand under the chin; at a desk; front of books, holding a pen (geddit?).
A few years back, Chris Scott devoted a college assignment to taking interesting photos of writers. This has blossomed into what is now an extraordinary and ever-growing collection of writer portraits and photos documenting the lively literary scene here in Edinburgh.
In fact, if you’ve seen beautiful photos of Book Week Scotland's mysterious book sculptures, chances are you’ve been looking at one of Chris’ photos. While his work is not exclusively literary, he covers events for Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature trust, the West Port Book Festival, the Scottish Book Trust, the Scottish Poetry Library, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Taverse 50 – and is now a fixture on the literary scene.
As Peggy Hughes from Edinburgh City of Literature says:‘Chris captures the beautiful bookish people and places of Edinburgh. His wonderful images provide a snapshot for those who couldn’t be there, and capture memories for those who could. We always look forward to re-visiting events through his lens.’
When Chris & I meet at Looking Glass Books, Chris is quick to point out that although there are lots of genuinely terrible photos of writers out there, it’s not necessarily the writer’s fault, it's probably due to poor direction from the photographer. He feels that many photographers don’t care enough about their subject and that it shows in the results: people looking anxious or unrelaxed or just unlike themselves.
A lot of people are photo phobic, absolutely terrified of getting their photo taken, says Chris and remarks that the people he has worked with have needed to be coaxed through the process. A good portrait should capture something of that person, says Chris, and that in order for that to happen, there needs to be a sense of trust between the photographer and the subject. Chris feels that photographers need to consider how the subject will feel about the photo, about how they are reacting to the photo shoot itself.
I ask Chris what works best in terms of clothing and he says ‘I've had people all dressed up – such as Tracey Rosenberg, Sara Sheridan - and people in whatever they were wearing when I caught them such as Ken MacLeod. While it's probably preferable to make some sort of effort, unless it's a fancy posey studio shoot I think overdressed is, well, overdressed. What you wear shouldn't matter; it's about you but it's also about the moment.' While Chris wants his subjects to look good, he doesn't go in to for heavy-duty digital enhancements, or, as he puts it 'lying about how people look.' So his rule of thumb is to remove a spot but not a mole. And we should stop smoothing everything out, says Chris – lines are character!
Explore Chris’ photos - gorgeous photos, real people and not a bookcase in sight.
Chris’ advice for choosing a photographer:
- Ask friends, people you trust. Ideally, stalk them online - see what they do.
- If they're barely online that's not a good sign these days.
- Get in touch and trust your gut, if they wind you up by phone/email you won't feel good when they're pointing a camera at you.
Chris on author photographs for the cash-strapped:
- For a start, you should see anything you do in that situation as a temporary solution.
- If you have a friend with a half decent camera who has a track record of taking good portraits then it's worth a shot.
- Avoid direct sunlight and dappled light through trees; no matter how appealing they are to the eye, the camera hates them and it can be a lot of work to make them look as good as you think they should.
- Early dusk is nice light; if you catch the 'golden hour', the last part of the day before the sun sets, it can be beautiful for portraits and landscapes which is ideal.
- Avoid any built in flash because it almost never flatters.
Examples of what not to do (all in the name of research, of course):
Articles on author portraiture:
New York Times Haul Out the Old Cliches, It's Time to Shoot an Author Photo
Salt Publishing's 10 ways to take a bad author photograph
Huffington Post's Where's my body double when I need her?
The Guardian Facing the Facts
About Cat: works on all things digital at Canongate, avid reader & scone aficionado.