New publication: Sandra Oster: Das Autorenfoto in Buch und Buchwerbung. Autorinszenierung und Kanonisierung mit Bildern. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter 2014 (Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens – Studien. 11).

Published in October 2014. ISBN 978-3-11-034632-9. 310 pp. Available in print and e-book (€99.95 each or €149.95 for a combination of print and e-book).

Review by Corinna Norrick-Rühl, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

In a humorous 2015 blog post about Frankfurt Book Fair events titled “Denkerfaust in Sepia, oder: Autorenfotos aus der Hölle”, Andrea Diener (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) wrote about a workshop she attended at the world’s largest book event. The workshop dealt with photographs of authors, and one of the tips Diener shared for up-and-coming authors was, “No, please do not stand in front of your bookshelf so that everyone can see you are capable of reading. That is a no-brainer. Choose a neutral background.” With ironic remarks and her own examples of bad author’s photos, Diener discussed a topic which has not received much attention in book historical research as yet. One of the few exceptions to this observation is Sandra Oster’s monograph Das Autorenfoto in Buch und Buchwerbung (2014), which marks a milestone in research on photography of authors and its use in book design and book marketing activities.


Book cover.

Sandra Oster begins her monograph, which grew out of her dissertation, with a personal reflection on a poster distributed by the German publisher Suhrkamp. The poster has hung over her desk for years and is an image of the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard on his bicycle. (A solid choice, Diener would probably say!) This is the first of many interesting examples of photographs of authors; Oster uses the Bernhard poster to introduce us to the manifold issues that surround the topic. Her two points of departure are that a photograph of an author 1) always relates to his or her work in some way, and 2) must be considered as the result of a process of staging. These lead her to two steps of analysis: firstly, author’s photographs are considered as editorial paratexts (in the terminology put forward by Genette) in the course of the monograph; secondly, she looks at “classic” authors and their staging through photographs in a number of case studies. In her introduction (chapter 1), she also discusses the “iconic turn” in relation to Book Studies/Book History before giving an overview of previous research and her sources.

The first part of chapter 2 deals with theories of (staging) authorship through paratexts as well as recapitulating Bourdieu’s theories regarding the role of authors in the literary field. The second part is an in-depth attempt to provide a theory of author photography. As Oster argues, there are a number of reasons for the publication of author’s images. The image is a sort of confirmation that the author exists. It decreases the distance between the reader and the author and is the prerequisite for a staging of the author. Building on theoretical works about photography, such as Roland Barthes’ “Die Fotografie als Botschaft” (“The Photographic Message”), Oster suggests a three-step process towards reading and understanding the staging of authors(hip) through photography. On the first level, she explains, we must take the photographer and the author into account, since they both bring different expectations to the photo session. The second level deals with the “rhetorics of photography” – the photograph’s view, pose, and object(s). The third and final level, continues Oster, is the context-related level. The photograph of the author is variable at will and can be used in endless different contexts: “The same photograph can be used in the dust jacket, as an illustration in the feuilleton, in a scholarly work on literary history or on a poster. Further usage is possible in non-print contexts, such as audiovisual or digital media or in museums” (p. 46, translation CNR). Each context is determined by surrounding text. For instance, without the additional information that an author’s name offers, hardly any author will be recognizable to his or her readers. In the third part of this fundamental chapter, Oster differentiates between explicit and implicit photographs of authors. An explicit author’s photograph is created for the purpose of representation; an implicit one is candid, that is, not taken in a performative context. Nonetheless, an originally implicit author’s photograph can take on the character of an explicit photograph if, for instance, a candid photograph shot while the author was on vacation with her family is circulated on the cover of a new book or in a brochure about her work.

Chapter 3 is extremely rich. Chapter 3.1 offers a broad historical overview of the developments in the area of author photography. It discusses the conventions of author depiction prior to the invention of photography, beginning with medieval author’s portraits. As Oster convincingly shows, the desire to see what a beloved author looked like did not grow out of the invention of photography, though it may have been perpetuated by it. And even centuries before photography was widely available, authors and their publishers used staging strategies when choosing portraits for marketing purposes. In chapter 3.2, Oster continues the historical overview with a brief history of portrait photography and its pervasiveness among the (upper-)middle classes in the second half of the nineteenth century.


Karl May as Old Shatterhand (1896)

Oster’s previous findings and observations come together in 3.3 as the groundwork for a discussion of the author’s photograph as a private and public paratext. Interestingly, even in the early years of photography, photos were signed by hand and exchanged as gifts and collectibles – the earliest autograph cards. As Oster indicates, autograph cards signed by authors are particularly fascinating, because the handwriting points to the genesis of the literary text, originally written by hand before it was printed and distributed. Karl May, the famous German author of Wild West fiction, is a fascinating example of an author staging his public image. He often dressed up as “Old Shatterhand”, one of his favorite protagonists, for author’s portraits, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. Concluding chapter 3, Oster analyzes the emergence of illustrated print media for a mass readership and thus the increasing tendency toward the ubiquity of photographic images from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards (3.4). Within this context, the public interest in images of prominent personalities increased; authors could now be staged as celebrities in magazines.

After laying a solid theoretical and historical foundation in chapters 1 to 3, Oster comes back to the two steps of analysis she proposed in her introduction. Chapter 4 considers authors’ photographs as editorial paratexts, chapter 5 asks how photographs contribute to the canonization of authors. In chapter 4, Oster first explains that publishers in the early twentieth century felt torn between the goal to sell their product and the conception that books, as cultural objects, should not be marketed aggressively. In 1897, S. Fischer became the first German publisher to include an author’s photograph on a dust jacket of a literary work. In general, however, until 1945, only about four percent of all dust jackets used photographs at all (between 1945 and 1960, this quota rose to eleven percent; by 1988, 22 percent of dust jackets used photographs in their design, cf. p. 133). Author’s portraits on the back cover or in the flaps of dust jackets became widespread after 1950. More typically, the author’s portrait was used as a frontispiece, much like non-photographic portraits in early decades. Oster also observes that certain genres lend themselves in particular to having the author’s image on the cover, such as biographies or editions of letters and correspondence. She also discusses the different marketing contexts in which photographs come into use: advertisements, publisher’s catalogs and almanachs, magazines, posters and today, increasingly, the Internet. Numerous photos illustrate this chapter, supporting and visualizing Oster’s arguments. “Photographic staging and canonization” is the title of Oster’s fifth chapter. How can photographs contribute to the understanding of an author and his or her work as being (or becoming) a “classic”? By way of an introduction, she analyzes the role that publishers play in the process of literary canonization (5.1), followed by examples of photographic biographies (Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka; 5.2) and by observations on other paratextual elements that influence our perception of “classic” works of fiction.

In her concluding chapter, Oster summarizes her wide-ranging results and emphasizes that being photographed and communicating with readers through one’s photographic image are important and practically non-negotiable elements of authorship. Authors can merely choose how active they want to be in this process. As she says, even a conscious choice not to be photographed, such as Thomas Pynchon’s, can be understood in this way. In closing, Oster directs our attention back to Thomas Bernhard’s knowing smile as he is riding his bicycle. In an interesting twist, this reminder of the Bernhard portrait leads us to contemplate the photographic paratexts of the book we have been perusing, since the poster she mentions in her introduction is on the cover of her book.

This book is a pleasure to read. Oster’s style is simultaneously highly readable and intellectually stimulating – an atypical but welcome combination. Even though her examples relate to German-language literary fiction, her arguments are easily applicable elsewhere. As one of the pioneering studies in this particular field, combining book historical, publishing, and art historical questions with observations on the literary field, this dissertation will be of interest to readers from a variety of backgrounds.

First published on 19 February 2016.


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