This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

30 July 2000 — Maybe you've noticed the most recent trend in the book business: Running from bookstores, screaming.
      That's right, Joyce Carol Oates has a new book out.       It's not the text of her novel, "Blonde," that has people fleeing in horror, however. It's what you see before you even open the book: the author's photo on the back cover.
      Now, I'm not making fun of the way Oates looks. In fact, I've always found her unassuming persona refreshing — the messy perm, the mismatched clothes, the owlish glasses and the demeanor that says ''Nothing is less important to an intellectual than makeup.'' But now she's gone and gotten herself Ettlingered.
      Being Ettlingered goes back to the '80s, when working–class literary hero Raymond Carver had his photo taken by Marion Ettlinger for his book, "Where I'm Calling From."
      Carver died shortly thereafter and the image became one by which a lot of people remember him. That is a shame because it's a really creepy photo. The famously unkempt Carver — reputed to have bought a Mercedes in his slippers — appears in a stylish leather coat, posed with his hands awkwardly crossed on the knee of his ironed chinos. And although the photo is washed in a deadening gray tint, Carver's eyes have an eerie, otherworldly glow.
      Well, creepy or not, it wasn't long before everybody wanted their jacket photo taken by Ettlinger, and she quickly became the Photographer Who Proves You're a Good Writer. Not just a good writer, in fact, but a writers' writer, like Raymond Carver.
      But since then Ettlinger's style has gone from creepy to grotesque. Oates, for example, is made to look like the matron of the Addams family. Her glasses are gone and her perm has been ironed and raked into a part. She's in a stylishly black, too–long–sleeved garment with one arm curved tentatively in front of her while the other reaches around to clamp onto the back of her head. She's wearing high–gloss black lipstick and, in Ettlinger's overexposed gray twilight, her heavily pancaked skin is completely devoid of texture — she's lacking not just wrinkles but pores. And her eyes, like Carver's, are preternaturally white and unseeing.
     It's a mystery why anyone would want to look so ghoulish, but Oates is far from alone.
      Kathryn Davis, on "The Walking Tour," is posed in the same black outfit, her arms also seem unnaturally arranged — entwined uncomfortably before her — and her eyes, too, have that glassy, possessed look of the undead.
      At least Francine Prose, on "Blue Angel," has her eyes closed, although apparently because she's in a lot of pain: she's twisted in a bizarre contortion meant to allow her, it seems, to hold back her hair and show us her ear. She's got that black studio schmatte on, too.
      As do most of Ettlinger's other recent torture victims: Frances Kiernan, on "Seeing Mary Plain," looks like some taut–skinned creature from a sci–fi film praying for help. David Huddle, on "The Story of a Million Years," looks absolutely stunned to be caught making a strange gang symbol with one hand. And Tom Paine, on "Scar Vegas," has one long strand of hair weirdly hanging down from his oddly cranked head; you know they spent an hour arranging that hair, and when you combine it with his white–hot eyes it makes him look completely deranged.
     In short, they all look hideous, not to mention ridiculous. Why would a bunch of intellectuals submit to being represented as the antithesis of intellectualism — i.e., as masochistic fashion victims?
      Is this, perhaps, art photography? I took the photos to a respected art photographer to find out.
     "Jesus!" she screamed. "These are some ugly photos!"
     She pointed out that a lot of Ettlinger's technique, such as the band of light surrounding the bleached–out eyes, represented the kind of things "they tell you not to do when you study photography because it's so obvious."
     Plus, she felt it wasn't good portraiture, because the subjects had been so objectified.
      "They look inhuman," she pointed out. "I mean, people have pores, you know?"
      If a picture is worth a thousand words, I'm not sure what words are behind Marion Ettlinger's photographs, except perhaps "My shoes are too tight." You could say her photos represent yet another discouragement of intellectualism in modern literature.
      Or you could say they just prove the power of faceless storytelling — the story about that emperor who wore no clothes, for example . . . .


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001, 2002, 2003 Dennis Loy Johnson.