Portraits Worth Thousands of Words: Beowulf Sheehan On His Most Memorable Photographs

Portraits Worth Thousands of Words: Beowulf Sheehan On His Most Memorable Photographs

“The best picture,” the photographer Ansel Adams once said, “is around the corner. Like prosperity.”

This quote by Adams, who shot book jacket pictures for extra money, could also apply to author portraits, those inconspicuous photographs often found just around the corner of book covers.

Photographer Beowulf Sheehan has taken hundreds of these photographs. Many accompany the text of writers such as Zadie Smith, Roxane Gay, Toni Morrison, Karl Ove Knausgård and more. Now, some 200 of these portraits have been gathered into a book, aptly titled “Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan.” (A companion exhibition will be on view at Chicago’s Alan Koppel Gallery Dec. 5-Jan. 25.)

When viewed all at once, the project presents a veritable who’s-who of the literary community, complete with a bibliographic index at the back of the book that lists the titles of the works by every author included. And while this assemblage would be impressive on its own (who wouldn’t want to see these writers all in the same space together?), the true strength of Sheehan’s portraiture that emerges from the collective pages is its ability to convey a sense of intimacy with his subjects — a feat that elevates the photographs far beyond slick promotional material.

“My responsibility is to celebrate the story and the creator of that story through that single picture,” said Sheehan in a recent interview with ALL ARTS. To get to this story, Sheehan said that he reads “the work as often as I’ve been permitted to do ahead of those photographic sessions with my subject.”

This preparation allows Sheehan to harness a quality important to his artistic process: empathy. “As with any experience, when you meet someone for the first time, you try to find something that connects you to that other person. In the case of a writer, that writer has already reached out to me, to every reader, by saying ‘this is who I am,’” said Sheehan of his approach to building the bridge between the writer, their story and the photograph presented alongside it. “The greatest thing we can share with each other is empathy. And as much empathy as I can build with that writer, tapping into our experience, the better off we’ll be.”

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“Each and every one of us has a story to share,” Sheehan added. “And we should feel in ourselves a responsibility to listen to each other, to hear those stories because then we all move forward from them. They’re what make the world spin so beautifully.”

On the occasion of the book’s publication, we asked Sheehan to share some of the photographs included in “Author” and to answer the question: What made this portrait memorable for you?

Donna Tartt, New York City, 2013

The writer Donna Tartt (USA), April 11, 2013, New York, New York. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan www.beowulfsheehan.com

“The Goldfinch” concludes its tour de force story with the hero’s poetic reflection on art, life, love and purpose. This picture speaks to so much of Donna Tartt, her spirit and her story. The background, not unlike the dead end that so often threatens to consume her character Theo. Her outfit, telling of the “dandy” nature she sees in herself. Her quiet gaze, revealed by a bit of wind that lifts one end of her hair, seemingly in a moment of reflection as well.

The image first appeared in the U.S. with Stephen King’s review of “The Goldfinch” for The New York Times Book Review. Days later, Lena Dunham reposted the image on her Twitter feed with the comment, “Note to self: When in doubt, look like Donna Tartt.” How could I ever forget that?

Elie Wiesel, New York City, 2008

The Nobel Prize-winning writer Elie Wiesel, photographed New York, New York, December 1, 2008. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan

This was my first of a few encounters, from 2008 to 2009, with Dr. Wiesel, and it was the most striking of them. The image still moves me when I see it today. We all lose. Loved ones pass, relationships end, plans go awry. I’m no different. But seeing into the eyes of a single man, the story of both such great suffering and a gentle, open heart took mine to another place. I was speechless. He taught me why, when we sometimes find ourselves asked to thank those who have given much to us, we do so with a moment of silence.

Neil Gaiman, Upstate New York, 2016

Neil Gaiman by Beowulf Sheehan

In Neil Gaiman’s “Norse Mythology,” for which I photographed him, the legions serving Loki exact his revenge on the gods on the battlefield called Vigrid. Giants and the undead serve Loki in his bloodlust. The leafless trees in the photograph struck me as perhaps the bodies of Loki’s army, their arms outstretched. Neil saw the same. That’s part of his art: Animating the inanimate, painting new worlds from the everyday. He does it time and again in his stories. And he did with me.

DBC Pierre, Melbourne, Australia, 2010

Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan www.beowulfsheehan.com/Melbourne Writers Festival

I met and photographed DBC Pierre in an alley in downtown Melbourne. He had stark features, his jacket a bit big for his frame. It was morning. He was smoking. He also had a drink. He offered me some of it, but I declined. I had just arrived, and the jet lag was strong enough. The graffiti on the wall behind him was a great complement to the T-shirt under his jacket. The editorial image concept was obvious. Our portrait session was quick.

DBC Pierre invited me to his reading at a bar called The Toff that night. I didn’t know his work well. I knew his life took him across Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. His face and manner had told me more of his story, but not of his work. I said I’d be there and made it. Jet-lagged as could be, I hadn’t bothered to break down my camera. I took it off my neck and set it on the bar. Moments later I was passed out on the floor. I heard little of DBC’s reading before my body shut me down. I still want to hear the rest of it.

Maria Dahvana Headley, Queens, New York, 2018

Maria Dahvana Headley by Beowulf Sheehan

I was clearly excited to photograph Maria Dahvana Headley for “The Mere Wife,” her modern-day retelling of the epic poem “Beowulf,” in which the protagonist is not the eponymous character but rather Dana, mother of the “monster” Gren (Grendel in the original). The setting in her tale is a new suburban development. On the other side of its mountainous range live the mother and son. And in the belly of the mountain lies a train tunnel that plays a large role late in the story.

Maria and I shared the idea of working in an older tunnel, and a mutual friend knew where to find one: in Queens, along the East River, when the tide was low. I looked at the tides and timed our studio work to finish in time to get us to the location at low tide. We arrived in time, but my mistake was already made. I had noted the tide for the 59th Street Bridge. The tunnel was a bit north of it, consequently carrying a good foot or more of water when we arrived. We made do, however, with what we had. We looked out on a calm river and a bridge in the distance, a stirring background with which to frame Maria and the dragon shaved into her head. The name of the bridge, we learned, was Hell Gate Bridge, for use only by trains.