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Q&A: Marion Ettlinger

The nation's leading photographer of authors releases her first collection, Author Photo and talks to mb about why she likes shooting writers.

- November 21, 2003

Marion Ettlinger has been a photographer for three and a half decades, but she only discovered her specific calling 20 years ago. That's when she started taking portraits of authors, and, since then, she's become probably the nation's leading author photographer. Whenever you buy a new book and find on its back flap a truly striking image of the author, a photo so gorgeous and detailed it seems almost painted, one that seems to capture the essence of this person who wrote the book you're holding, that's most likely an Ettlinger shot. "I think I can always recognize a Marion Ettlinger photograph, read its signature, even downsized to a little porthole window on the back of a paperback, which the author peers through and says, 'Hi,'" writes the novelist Richard Ford in his foreword to Ettlinger's new collection, Author Photo. It's a sumptuous and fascinating collection, 173 pages of endlessly compelling images, photos of the wizened lions and the fledgling newcomers. Ettlinger spoke to from her studio last week, explaining why she likes authors, who was her favorite to shoot, and why she decided to do this book.

So how did you become the author photographer?
I became an author photographer when in 1983 Esquire magazine, which was doing its 50th anniversary issue, commissioned me to photograph 50 writers. I had been a portraitist, and I had been photographing all sorts of very interesting people in all kinds of creative fields. Esquire had hired 50 writers to write about 50 Americans who made a difference, or something like that, and each of these writers had an essay in the issue. There was going to be an index of the writers in the front, with their bios, and they needed a photo to accompany each bio. They gave me the job, and it was really a crash course. I think I photographed 45 of the 50 writers. I was sent all over the country to do the shoots, and it was somewhere in this process, in this immersion in photographing writers, that I felt very strongly that they were my natural subjects.

So you've just been doing it since?
Yeah. I mean, I continue to shoot other people, as well, but I definitely had developed a keen interest in photographing more writers. So I just kind of leaned in that direction.

What is it about writers that drew you to them as a subject?
I guess it's partly because they were being photographed not because of the way they looked or because of the way they moved; they were being photographed because of their inner life and their intellect, which are invisible to the eye. And here I was, dealing with the outside of them, and that juxtaposition of the inside and outside I felt was an interesting challenge, and I wanted to explore that. I also found that, in general, writers are a pretty intelligent group, and, as a result, they usually have a pretty good sense of humor.

So they're just fun to spend time with.
I find them to be great fun. Of course there are exceptions, but to generalize I would say I enjoy them a lot. They're stimulating people.

Do you typically read writers' works before you photograph them?
Oh, yeah.

Do you find a correlation between what you think of their writing and what you think of them as people?
Sometimes you're surprised. There are some writers whose work is quite humorous and then in person they're sort of stern. And vice-versa: some people whose work is very serious and solemn end up being kind of raucous and bawdy.

Why this book now?
I've always wanted to do a book, and I didn't think the time was right until now. Prior to this, I just didn't feel like I had enough. And even when I had enough, I guess I didn't think I had enough good ones. Then there was a certain moment when I thought, "I have enough good ones."

So then this isn't a you've-done-your-work-as-a-photographer-and-now-you're-finished sort of collection?
Oh, no no no. In fact, one of the things that I thought would drive me crazy—I was thinking about the book, and I was thinking about that moment when the book shuts down and you can't put anymore in, and I was thinking, "Well, let's say I do a good photo after that." I thought that would drive me crazy. But it has had the opposite effect because I have done some photos since that gate came down, and, as opposed to it being frustrating in any way, it just makes me feel like there's life after the book. Which is a much healthier way to feel, I think.

What was your process in deciding what photos to include? Was it fun digging through your archives?
It was amazing, because I had never done it before. I had never counted up how many I've done, and so it was all kind of news to me. I found that I had photographed more than 600 writers, and, when I started eliminating, I was able to edit it down to about 350, at first. Eliminations were based on—it was easy because there were photos that I didn't think were good, or good enough, or interesting enough, or something enough. But those 350 I felt very attached to, and I wanted them all to be in my book. But of course that would have been kind of a glut, so that's where my editor came in and edited it down to the 236 that are in there, which is still plenty.

At that point how did you and your editor make that decision? Was it purely artistically, or was it a question of including certain writers?
The main thing at all times was visual. The book is visually driven, as opposed to fame-driven. One thing that was very important to me was that there be the famous writers sitting alongside the first-time novelists, or perhaps someone who had written something a long time ago but hadn't come through with another book yet. I wanted it to be writers people wouldn't particularly be familiar with mixed with the renowned, as well.

Any favorite subjects?
I've had many favorites, but I guess my all-time favorite is Raymond Carver.

It was a combination of things. First, I had been introduced to Carver's work when a guy that I was mad about read aloud a story of his to me. The story was "Gazebo," and this guy could really read. It was this heady way to experience a writer's work, this guy reading this fantastic story to me. I'd never quite heard anything like it. So after that, I went out and I got all of Carver's work that had been published to date, and I just drank it up. I loved it.

I don't remember exactly what the time lapse was, but maybe a year or so later I got a call from the Sunday New York Times magazine to photograph him. So, first of all, I was beyond psyched about this, because of the way I'd come to his work. Then, meeting him, he was just so warm and mischievous and a really great guy. I told him the story of how I was introduced to his work, and he loved, loved, loved it.

I enjoyed working with him so much. As gentle a guy as he was, he knew he could look really menacing, so he was great to photograph in that way. I photographed him again at another time, and he was also extremely encouraging to me about my work.

Are there any images in this book that are particularly your favorites?
Oh, I love all my children equally.

Good answer. What do you think makes authors want to come back to you for their portraits?
Some don't. Some do, and some don't.

What's your technique—and how is it similar to or different from that of other well-known portraitists?
Well, I can't speak to what other portraitists do, because I'm kind of ignorant about what other people do. I kind of try to keep it that way. But what I do, I'm very, very low-tech. I don't use any lights. I use natural, available light, daylight. I'm using the same camera that I started to use in 1968. I use black and white film. I do my own prints, and I don't know what else to tell you about it.

Fair enough. I saw the jacket photo of you in the book, the author photo in Author Photo was shot by you. Did it cross your mind to have someone else do it?
No, never.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of Photographs of Marion Ettlinger, Gordon Parks, and Raymond Carver by Marion Ettlinger. Reprinted from Author Photo with the permission of Simon & Schuster. You can buy Author Photo at

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