The photographer Laura Wilson is one of those people who it is almost impossible to dislike. She is articulate, smart, and suspiciously convivial—a sophisticate with just a hint of the schoolmarm about her. And, yes, she is Owen, Luke, and Andrew Wilson’s mother—a fact that makes her instantly more interesting to many, but often distracts from the attention her remarkable work as a documentary photographer should be receiving.
Images by Wilson, a one-time assistant to Richard Avedon, have been widely exhibited. Her photographs have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The London Sunday Times Magazine, and The Washington Post Magazine. She has published six books, including Hutterites of Montana, Avedon at Work, and That Day: Pictures in the American West. Her newest book, The Writers: Portraits, has just been published by Yale University Press and released in conjunction with an exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.
THE WRITERS: PORTRAITS
By Laura Wilson
Yale University Press
264 pages, $45
This book, The Writers, was 12 years in the making—which tells you something about Ms. Wilson: she is patient, and she is obsessive. It began in 2009 with a photograph of the English writer Jim Case and concluded in 2022 with a portrait of Paul Theroux at his home in Hawaii. A compendium of 38 photo essays, many reminiscent of those photo essays once found in Life magazine, it gives us a look at the way this carefully curated collection of renowned writers live and work.
Wilson approached the project with the intention of doing something different. “We have all seen the book jackets,” she said. “Writers deserve better.” I could not agree more. In fact, I once wrote a piece on this very subject—the subject of the beleaguered author photo. (This was long before I started taking author photos myself.) I defined the “author photo” as the photograph of a writer with something wrong with it—a paraphrase of Randall Jarrell’s famously droll definition of the “novel.”
What Wilson found wrong with these photographs was their failure to convey character or personality. Her answer to this disturbing deficit was to provide greater context by offering a composed, if informal, portrait buttressed by what she called “photographic reportage,” or a series of snapshots—candid images that capture the subject in situ. She wanted to show writers as people like you and me.
The writers included here were selected in collaboration with the head honchos at the Ransom Center. Wilson’s subjects are Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, Booker Prize winners, etc.—literati with legacies, writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, and Tom Stoppard. “I wanted the best writers,” Wilson said. She sent her requests for sittings using the Ransom Center’s name. “They wouldn’t know me,” she said, “[but] … they all knew the Ransom Center.”
As they should. This research center at the University of Texas in Austin has developed a reputation as Serious Literature’s deep-pocketed sugar daddy. It spends lavishly for author archives. A number of the writers who eventually found their way into Wilson’s book have also, at one time or another, found themselves winners of the Ransom Center Sweepstakes: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, $2.2 million; Ian McEwan, $2 million; J.M. Coetzee, $1.5 million; Tom Stoppard, just within grumbling distance of $1 million. There is nothing quite like a large check to put one in a good mood and engender, in even the most cantankerous, a nascent sense of obligation.
There are more than 200 black-and-white photographs in The Writers. A number are wonderful—like the witchy Margaret Atwood, the tight-lipped Tobias Wolff, and the spectacularly dilapidated Jim Harrison; but, as you might expect when you are offering up snapshots, there are also a number that are headscratchers: photographs that compel one to ask how and/or why has this particular image been included. Embellished by the banal, these images with their mysterious incongruities are intended to flesh out our sense of the honored entity and to make the immensity of his or her reputation palatable. Sometimes, however, a banality is just a banality—Michael Ondaatje in the kitchen, for instance, or Peter Carey at one of his favorite restaurants.
The Mind’s Eye
Wilson’s expressed aim here is as simple as it is grand. “I wanted to make compelling pictures,” she said—pictures “that would stick in the mind’s eye.” Given the nature of the photographic image and the volume of these images that one is exposed to daily, this seems an inordinately ambitious goal. Has she succeeded? Has she produced such an image here? Yes—more than one. The turbaned portrait of an inscrutable Zadie Smith is, I think, particularly sticky. There is a reason it was chosen for the cover of the book. And then there is the great sea-captain, Annie Proulx, in her mac and wellies; the gargoyle Jim Harrison; and Richard Ford—though I should put an asterisk after his name given his preternatural photogenicity. (The test here would have been to take a bad picture of him.)
A Third Way
John Updike once wrote an essay “On Meeting Writers.” The lust to do this, he said, “ranks low … on the roll of holy appetites, but it is an authentic pang.” Still, he essentially advised against it. Having met many writers over the years, he would tell you that these “anthology presences” were almost never what you hoped for or expected—that in the end, they were best met on the page. In Wilson’s book we meet the writer in a different way, a third way—not in person or on the page, but in a set of images that contain their own commentaries, their own set of revelations. It is a meeting that may discombobulate those helpless Luddites who prefer their writers larger-than-life, but one that will excite the grudging realists who are so mortifyingly eager to peek behind the curtain.
Portland photographer and writer K.B. Dixon, a regular contributor to ArtsWatch, has made photographic portrait portfolios of many Oregon writers, visual artists, musicians, and other cultural figures, and has contributed photo essays of his portraiture to ArtsWatch in such series as “The Cultural Landscape,” “The Arists Series,” and “In the Frame.”