Culture | Genuine exposures

Terence Burns’ portraits aim to capture authors in their natural setting

The author stares through the sepia photograph, hand-to-face in a way that calls to mind Rodin’s “Thinker.” Shelved books surround him in the background, with blurred busts of authors past in the spaces in between; hundreds of years of literary history prop the author into legitimacy. For more romantic types, there’s a haggard-looking man in another photograph leaning his hip against a brick wall – and we get it, we get it, he’s urban with a firm grasp on the vein of common life.

“This pose is 4,000 years old,” says Concordia’s Professor Terence Byrnes. “So many of the photographs are so highly conventionalized that you can almost substitute the letters A-U-T-H-O-R over the photo.” Byrnes recently published a collection of author portraits entitled Closer to Home, a sweeping revision of the field’s monotonous norm.

In Closer to Home, Byrnes took photographs of authors in their intimate dominions, “where they lived, worked, or played.” The portraits show a diversity of approaches to the literary photograph, beginning in part with the pose itself. Byrnes did not guide his subjects on their pose. Any aesthetic distance from the false modesty of the typical author snapshot is welcome in the collection – some authors stare maniacally, many seem entirely disinterested, while others look pleasant and warm or agonizingly conscious of their atmosphere and demeanor.

A previously unseen spectrum of emotion envelops the portraits: senses of weariness, nostalgia, activity, and concern. There is a conscious effort to defy the norm of literary portraiture. The photo of writer Mikhail Iossel is a notable example; he sits on the edge of his bed, looking tranquil, holding a frame of an old portrait of himself in which he stares menacingly, smoking a cigarette with a glossy Hollywood-face, shadows burrowing over his eyelids. The juxtaposition of what Byrnes has designed as the “real” author in his natural setting, with this romanticized snapshot of exaggerated personality, comically engages with the discrepancy in literary photographs between the author as an individual and as a marketing product.

Similarly, we see writer Raymond Filip standing idly in the center of a barren walled room. Paint marks typical of a construction site streak the walls and ceiling, debris litters the floor, and Filip smirks with distinction. There are no signs of authority to support this writer, no arcane tomes or busts of Homer to illustrate that he is endowed to write, that you must listen to him. The environment no longer makes allowances for deficiencies in the individual’s talent. The author is on his own.

“Writers generally have a strange kind of vanity,” Byrnes says. “There is this romantic, anti-intellectual strain in Anglo-American writers’ view of themselves. It says, ‘I’m all about experience, with my roots in the soil, or the asphalt.’ A specific Hemingwayesque rawness.” This strange vanity seeps into most authors, a complicated kind of self-conscious – with consciousness of one’s audience, and the anxiety of the influence of hundreds of years of literature mixed in. Byrnes actively deconstructs this anxiety with a sense of domesticity and intimacy, as the photographs are, eponymously, closer to home. The authors look less like authors (whatever that means), and more like your uncle, aunt, or cousin. Writer Glen Rotchin, bespectacled with his arms hanging down on his side, stands like a child with contained giddiness amongst the mechanical pipes of an empty manufacturing room he knew as a boy. The pipes wrap themselves around the room, dotted with metal valves, while Rotchin stands in the center facing the camera. This no longer seems like a man concerned with literature or the anxious business of art, but a man taking delight in who he was and who he is.

At one photo session, poet Anne Carson told Byrnes, “You can only take one picture of my face.” He began taking photos of everything in her room, the writing desk, the globe, the window, and slowly made his way onto her body, her back, her hair – a strange crescendo incrementally building up to the moment where she looks to her left, leans back in her wooden chair, and stares glumly at the camera, her toes pointed on the ground. She sits there still, transfixed and looming, made whole by the shutter of the camera.