Sunday, June 22, 2008

Miriam Berkley, literary photographer



Miriam Berkley's photo of Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time.

Away back in the Dark Ages of newspapering -- the 1970s and 1980s, when dailies were flush and had fat editorial budgets -- I'd often travel to the coasts to interview authors. On many of those trips a friend of mine, a young New Yorker named Miriam Berkley, would come along, bringing her camera.

She was the daughter of a colleague of mine on the Chicago Daily News, the dance critic Dorothy Samachson, and had been writing for me for some time. I asked her to accompany me as an impromptu "interpreter" while I spoke with East Coast authors as diverse as Bernard Malamud, William Styron, Joseph Heller, Emlyn Williams, Michael Arlen, Mary Gordon and Maurice Sendak.

I am deaf and a lipreader, and I often had a tough time deciphering the speech of authors I'd never before met. In those cases I'd often have to put my entire trust in a taped transcript of the interview, and I'd miss subtle inflections unless the transcriber was skilled enough to provide them.

On at least one occasion -- the interview with Williams -- she saved my skin. Williams spoke with a heavy Welsh accent that I just couldn't decipher. When I blindly asked a question Williams had already answered, Miriam gently stepped in to tell me so, averting a worse faux pas.

At his rural Connecticut home, William Styron showed us a huge willow tree in his back yard and proudly said he'd planted it a quarter of a century earlier. My attention was elsewhere and I missed the statement -- but Miriam clued me in quickly. The detail was important for the published interview, for it suggested that Styron, a Southerner, literally had sunk deep roots into his Northern home.

During my meeting with the novelist Bernard Malamud in his Manhattan apartment, she tipped me off that the exquisite framed drawings on his wall were Helen Frankenthaler originals -- also a good detail for the printed profile, for it helped reveal the intellectual breadth of Malamud, a widely cultured man.

At this time Miriam, who was then a writer and critic, was not yet into author photography. Later, when she did become a pro, I often wished I had used more of her photographs than I did, but by then the papers' budgets had grown tight. I was ordered not to buy photos but use wire-service stuff if the publishers couldn't provide stock shots obtained from free-lancers such as Miriam. (Some of her photos can be seen here.)

One of the photos I did use is the familiar shot of Stephen Hawking above, which graced many reviews of his 1988 classic A Brief History of Time as well as the jackets of foreign editions of his books.

Now Miriam has become prominent and is in demand for her literary photographs, especially of lions such as Margaret Atwood, Susanna Clarke, Ha Jin, Doris Lessing, David Malouf, Grace Paley and Orhan Pamuk. (That's Miriam in the photo at right.)

This week she gets her due in an excellent profile on Eric Forbes's Book Addicts' Guide to Good Books.

It's a revealing and enlightening piece. Among its insights:

"There are several senses in which an author’s photograph may be important or not. In principle one might say it is not important, it is what’s on the page that matters, not what the book’s author looks like. But human beings are wired in such a way that looks do matter—studies with babies have indicated that attraction to beauty is instinctive—and we want to know what an author looks like and may buy a book based upon whether or not we like the way he or she appears in the photograph. When we read a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, we often turn to the author photo to compare the face we see with the voice we hear. We often feel cheated if there is no photograph. Years after reading a book we can often visualise the jacket photo."

4 comments:

  1. >>We often feel cheated if there is no photograph.


    I usedta think it was just me!

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  2. Funny thing, there have been no author photos on the jackets of my mystery novels. I have no idea why.

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  3. This was lovely, Henry. I hope you shared it with her. I was almost afraid that it was going to be an appreciation piece... I was holding my breath towards the end because I was almost sure the last line was going to be that she'd recently passed away. What is it about the piece that made me feel that way, do you think?

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  4. Maybe it was because you read an elegiac tone into the post? I didn't intend it that way!

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