- Closer to Home: The Author and the Author Portrait
The 'special case of portraiture' that Terence Byrnes calls 'the literary portrait,' and that his book title registers as 'the author portrait,' belongs to a very large and unruly category of visual representation covering all manner of creative personalities in the arts. Or should I say 'uncovering'? Because the point of these images is to give cultural consumers greater insight into the producer of those works, into the real persons behind the fictional or poetic constructions that have caught their attention. The author portrait on a dust jacket or the poster for a reading is advertising, or, more prettily stated, an invitation to the experience. A form of cultural profiling, such an image can be used to measure one's affinity with the writer, ticking off characteristics such as gender, age, nationality, race, and vanity - things that can be read quickly while standing up in the bookstore or racing by the bulletin board in a café.
Byrnes's portraits have not been taken to sell books, but to participate photographically in the writer's world with the aim of spinning off a secondary product: a collection of portraits. This collection is contained [End Page 445] within a set of rules that establish the photographer as not merely a fan or a human recorder but a creator in his own right. Every subject must be a published author - that is a given. Then there are rules about setting, which can be home, workplace, or playground. The subject author chooses the place of the pose and the photographer enters this Goffmanesque stage. While the actors (the photographer and his subject) might collude in the fiction that something private is being revealed, anyone with the background to be interested in such a collection knows, or should know, better.
Byrnes introduces his photographs with an essay that interleaves his own photographic life experience with the history of the medium and offers considerable backstory to the literary portrait in all its forms: sculpture, painting, drawing, and engraving. 'Millennia of tradition' are glossed without footnotes, until Byrnes reaches his own recent past and gets into the process of choosing and working with his subjects. He explains at length the relative ease of working with male writers, as opposed to female writers who have been burdened with their own rulebook for self-presentation to the camera. Some women writers, unnamed, apparently refused to release their portraits because they were insufficiently flattering to themselves or their domestic environments. Byrnes finds this disheartening, and his emphasis on it - a kind of alibi for the demographics of the collection - is no less so. There are other factors at play in his selection. All of the writers live in Quebec, most in and around the city of Montreal, and most are anglophones, Byrnes having decided that the style of conversation needed to harvest both a portrait and an anecdote could not be achieved in his second language.
What is achieved by this formulaic approach to portraiture applied with apologies to a narrowly defined group of literary creators? First, a recording of a moment in writers' lives, delivered in both the picture and the sketch of how they dealt with the photographer's attentions. Second, the collection is a kind of census: we learn how these gifted writers think visually, how they think they should be perceived and recorded. There are visible degrees of wilfulness and indifference as they shape their images for posterity, and many signs of their own photographic experience. This is Byrnes's book, of course, but his approach is consensual, and one is led to stress the subject's role by his own accounts of their behaviour during the session and by the variety of photographic styles that he has applied. There are environmental portraits, reminiscent of the work of Montreal photographer Sam Tata; there are social documentary portraits that remind us of the early work of Gabor Szilasi; and John Reeves haunts the frame whenever there are mirrors or overt framing devices, creating pictures within pictures...