To Celebrate What’s Wonderful: Beowulf Sheehan Interviewed by Maria Dahvana Headley

The portrait photographer on how he captures the spirit and power of a writer’s work.

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A handful of months ago, I met a very jet-lagged Beowulf Sheehan at a dinner party. It came up that he took portraits of authors, and had just gotten in from a book festival. Normally, this knowledge would have sent me sprinting, as, author that I am, I live in terror of being photographed. I hate being captured and frozen. I have the kind of face that wants to move, and let’s just say that I’ve seen some photographs of me that look like I’m a wolf in a cage, biting at the bars. When I met Sheehan, I was deep in the throes of finishing The Mere Wife, a novel based on the old English epic poem Beowulf, and I needed a portrait, stat. I’m not one to ignore fate. The last set of author portraits I’d had done were great, but they were friendly. This book wasn’t friendly. It was ferocious. Reader, I hired him. The resultant session and photos ended up being an extraordinary experience, and when Sheehan’s Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan (Black Dog & Leventhal) came out, I took the opportunity to dive into the images of the faces that housed the brains. Sheehan is a soul-shooter, and his work makes author’s imaginations merge with their externalities. The book is extraordinary—packed solid with portraits of people who’ve been reinventing the world of poetry and prose for years, and all of them look glorious.

—Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley I was struck by the artistic journey made visible throughout the book. It isn’t arranged in chronological order, but I could feel you changing as a photographer throughout. How did it feel to revisit those old images?

Beowulf Sheehan I think the oldest one is that of Nadine Gordimer, made in 2007, and it’s a very quick backstage picture. I’m fortunate that it is as good as it is, but I can certainly look at certain images, and see that they were a quick “Hello,” “May I?” and “Thank you.” Then there are others where I have read their work, and had a dialogue with the author, asked how he or she wishes to be seen, what ideas we can come up with together. And then made them come true. That’s, of course, what you and I did.

MDH My experience with you was based on what my book is. I hope I look somewhat like that photo every day—but it’s a photo of the most ferocious writer version of me. I wondered how many of your portrait subjects come to you with concepts of their own about what they want. Or do they just say ‘Help!’?

BS I would say that relatively few come with ideas of their own. Reading their work helps me form an opinion, and then I ask that writer if I’m right or wrong in what I’ve come to think of the person through the work. I want to make sure that I’m being true to both the subject and to the story in making that picture. As I wrote in my book, Donna Tartt has her own persona, one which she was very adept at showing me, and she did just that. I didn’t have to be as much of an art director, as a recipient of her energy.

The other person who comes to mind is our friend Neil Gaiman. I was really amazed when we worked together in 2016 for Norse Mythology. I only had an hour with him to make seven different pictures. An hour for seven different looks: lighting, props, and everything, is no small task. I remember at the end of the shoot saying, “Neil, I’m amazed at how fluid, how strong, how bold, how varied you are from look to look with me. I don’t know that I saw that Neil when I made your picture in 2007.” He said something to the effect of, “Well, don’t forget, I’m married to a musician who’s really, really about image. So, I learned a thing or two from her, and I’m running with that in this case.” And yet the images struck me as very “Neil.”

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Photo of Neil Gaiman by Beowulf Sheehan.

MDH He looks like he came out of a tree, and he has all those stories already bursting from him. There’s another photo in your book that’s like that. The one of John Irving with leaves falling around him. It has that kind of whimsical, autumnal look which his work always has.

BS That’s always been the setting of his work in the northern United States. Fall. Leaves changing; seasons changing; the colors moving with it. But there’s also this force of nature within him. He was a wrestler; he has coached it; his sons wrestled. Before I found my place in the world of portrait photography, I had done some sports photography. I worked with different Olympic teams, including the Olympic Wrestling Team. I told him that and then he grabbed my head, pulled it around, and gave my ear a pull. I thought, okay, that just happened. It’s the first wrestling move that’s ever been performed on me in my photographic career.

MDH The portrait looks like a wrestling coach with some magic fluttering down around him. 

BS You’re very close to hitting the nail on the head. As we walked to the first location and he made that move, I thought, there’s that type of strength that I’d love to speak to in a picture. If I had him moving about, such an image would make sense in a certain context, but I didn’t feel the context was right. What if I had something moving around him to hint at his strength? So, I thought of making him the center of the storm. To celebrate his power. With those leaves in the air all around him, we’re seeing just that. He is the eye of the hurricane.

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Photo of John Irving by Beowulf Sheehan.

MDHIt was like looking at an image of Prospero, but a Prospero that is really grounded. I wondered if these leaves were falling or if they were being flung. I wondered which way they were traveling.

BSThere are so many people whose faces have become icons of our culture, such that the story can be just that eye, or it can be the hair, and we know right away who that person is. To be in front of Toni Morrison, for example, is to bear witness to her grace and her centeredness in a way that’s certainly different from that of John, because she speaks for people whose voices have been, to such a large degree, silenced—and efforts are continuing to silence those voices.

MDHDo you feel daunted when you photograph some of these writers?

BSNo. The portrait of Toni Morrison is actually an event photograph. I was backstage with her. Having been around her enough, I learned certain nuances.

MDHI mistook that for a studio portrait. It’s so beautifully lit. 

Toni Morrison

Photo of Toni Morrison by Beowulf Sheehan.

BS There are, in each of us, points at which we reveal ourselves. I photographed Dave Eggers a number of years ago, and he had told me straight up, “When I’m being photographed I just naturally look aggressive, and it’s not you, it’s just how I am with photography.” And he was right. So, I said, “Let’s do this then. Allow me to just document you, and if I can disappear that will be great. Just put your attention on anything else, and I’ll wait, and there will be a moment.” The picture is in the book. 

MDH It must be interesting and difficult to unpick what an author says about themselves. Something like, “I don’t look good in photos,” or “this isn’t going to work,” from what you can see in the face of the person, what you see as an artist. Sometimes we also don’t like our own work, so it’s a combination of uncertainties about how to present oneself to the world.

BS We are all, on some level, insecure people. My responsibility as a portrait photographer is to make every publicly released image have, at the very base of it, dignity. By and large, I’m here to celebrate what’s wonderful about people. I’m not opposed to revealing that my portrait of Tom Wolfe, for example, was made on his 80th birthday. And the picture that you see of him in the book is actually a composite. I had a bit of time with him that day, and we made a series of photographs, but his spine was already in decline. He wasn’t in such bad shape that he needed canes back when I made this picture, but he was hunched to the point that I wanted to straighten his spine. That required a few photographs.

Tom Wolfe

Photo of Tom Wolfe by Beowulf Sheehan.

MDH So you took photos of him bending in different ways, or of him from different angles–

BS It’s my responsibility to keep my subject comfortable, so I bent around him. Five photographs put together. Thank you, technology.

MDH The old version of this would be scissors and glue, and, some careful shifting. Those sorts of revisions are all over the history of portraiture.

BS Yes, retouching existed long before Photoshop ever blew up. 

MDH I watched you the day that we shot. You were very careful with the light the whole time, and I could see it instantly in the images you were shooting. We did some retouching, but it didn’t change the nature of the photograph. The photograph already had the lines on my face, it had the shadows.

BS I haven’t always had the luxury of having light that I can control at my disposal. The principle story of my work, of course, is the face. So, I need a little time to study how light falls best on that person. Reading the work gives me a lot; having a little talk ahead of the work teaches me that much more. But then, when I place you before my camera, that’s when I need time to go to school.

MDH How long have you been shooting digitally?

BS As digital photography’s gotten better and better, it’s become easier and easier to pull information out of it. There is only one film image in the entire book. I did shoot a great deal of film when I started working with authors. Film works; film’s beautiful. If you use it properly it’s gorgeous. Why change? Well, because our culture wants things instantaneously. And there are efficiencies to working digitally that we don’t have with film.

MDH Which image in the book is film?

BS It is a Polaroid photograph of the writer Francisco Cantú, holding his father’s bolo above his shirt, and he’s wearing his beloved leather jacket. 

MDH I wondered actually. There is a different density to that image. It has a very painterly quality.

Sometimes, when I looked at books as a little kid, I’d find a book on which the whole back cover would be an author’s photo, and I’d stare at it for hours. I remember being very small and seeing a portrait of Madeleine L’Engle. I had no idea that there were living female authors. I thought everyone was dead. To see a portrait of a living woman who made up the stories that to me felt like mythology was a very powerful experience, to imagine myself then going forward as a writer. I think that the work you do enables the imaginations of all kinds of people, because of the diversity of the images you make and the different ways in which you portray the authors.

BS How wonderful if you see that image to inform your impression and get you all the more excited to dive into that person’s work. One remarkable thing about a book is that it doesn’t paint the entire picture.  The writer invites us to participate in that creativity and complete that picture in the mind’s eye.

MDH The same is true of your art in taking these portraits. You curate what we see, but leave some shadows and portals for the viewer to walk into, as well.

BS Absolutely. You see one end of the story, and then I have a small contribution, an invitation for you to start working on the rest of the story. The reader will finish it from there. How beautiful.

Maria Dahvana Headley

Photo of Maria Dahvana Headley by Beowulf Sheehan.

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