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Author photos of a different sort

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk joins a long line of distinguished writers who have doubled as photographers

Orhan Pamuk, from "Orange."© Orhan Pamuk/courtesy Steidl

Usually “author photo” refers to the portrait of the writer on the back of a dustjacket or inside flap. The author looks pensive or amused or, for lack of a better word, writerly. That used to mean holding a pipe or posing with a dog. Now the author is more likely to be sitting by a computer or staring off into the middle distance.

There’s a different kind of author photo, however: one taken by an author. Several famous writers have also been notable photographers. Among them would be Lewis Carroll, George Bernard Shaw, August Strindberg, Jack London, Eudora Welty, Wright Morris, and Allen Ginsberg. It’s an excitingly random list. That’s fitting. One of the great virtues of the camera has been to remind us how excitingly random the external world is.


Now Orhan Pamuk is on the list. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist has published “Orange” (Steidl), a collection of some 350 nocturnal photographs of Istanbul. They are at once similar — all showing densely packed old urban neighborhoods — and varied — what those neighborhoods are packed with is profusely diverse.

Actually, there’s one other similarity. What inspired Pamuk to take the photos was noticing that the progressive installation of fluorescent streetlights has meant “the slow retreat of yellow light.” He set about on nighttime expeditions to capture the waning of that orange cast of light — hence the book’s title.

The interesting thing about author-photographers is how their work in each medium relates to each other. Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” begins with one of the most famous sentences in 20th-century literature: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” It’s also one of the more fatuous. A camera accepts, a writer rejects (imagine the impossibility of trying to describe everything the eye takes in). The impersonality of the lens is antithetical to literature; and the objectivity of the camera is servant to the subjectivity of the photographer.


Yet the enduring appeal of Isherwood’s sentence speaks to a perceived connection between writer and photographer that is by no means imaginary.

With Lewis Carroll, the connection is at once clear-cut and paradoxical. His chief photographic subject was young girls — and the heroine of his two most famous books, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There” (1871) is, of course, a young girl, inspired by one of his favorite sitters, Alice Liddell. [Editor’s note: Carroll’s photographs of children, which include nudes, have raised controversy and questions.]

The paradox comes in the seeming opposition between the thrilling fantasticality of Carroll’s prose and the no-less-thrilling actuality of the photographic image. In his novel “Ada, or Ardor,” Vladimir Nabokov has a throwaway reference to “Alice in the Camera Obscura,” a nice fusion of these two sides of Carroll. Half a century after the “Alice” books, such Surrealists as Man Ray, Dora Maar, and the young Henri Cartier-Bresson would show how powerful the precision of the camera could merge with the very different precision of fantasy.

Jack London photographing the skeleton of the Snark, San Francisco Bay, 1906.Collection of the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

Jack London was the most passionate of these author-photographers. Between 1900 and 1916, he took more than 12,000 photographs. He called them “human documents.” As one might expect from the author of such tales of adventure and distant locales as “The Call of the Wild” (1903), his photographs are of faraway and/or romantic places: London slums, the Russo-Japanese War, the South Pacific, the Mexican revolution. That said, the most enduring photographs taken by the San Francisco native are close to home, of the 1906 earthquake.


There’s an emotional distance to London’s photographs. Whether Polynesian islanders or earthquake rubble, what we see are as much objects as subject. The difference with Eudora Welty is profound. The sense of humanity in her images of life in Depression-era Mississippi bear comparison to the work of her contemporaries, the Farm Security Administration photographers.

Related to that humaneness is a sense of a distinct place at a distinct time which somehow, as with Welty’s fiction, speaks to something universal. “The camera was a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know,” she writes in “One Writer’s Beginnings” (1984), putting those hyphens to splendid use. “Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture; and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it. These were things a story writer needed to know.”

Wright Morris, "Abandoned House," from the series "The Inhabitants," 1940–41© 2003 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents/Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Unlike Carroll, London, or Welty, the novelist Wright Morris is now better known for his photographs than his writing. His spare, classical approach bears comparison to Walker Evans. That is very high praise. Morris’s precision could hardly differ more from Allen Ginsberg. The Beat poet’s motto of “First thought, best thought” has a camera equivalent: “First shot, best shot." His pictures have a loose, on-the-fly quality. He liked to say he was “fooling around” with photography. The fact that he would write captions on his prints, a technique he learned from his late friend Elsa Dorfman, speaks to how word retains priority over image as artistic allegiance.


Pamuk’s photographs connect to his writing in two specific ways. One is superficial, but hard to miss: the prevalence of colors in his titles: “The White Castle" (1990), “The Black Book” (1994), “My Name Is Red” (2001), “The Red Haired Woman” (2017). In a nonfiction collection, Pamuk concedes this chromatic fondness. It’s called “Other Colors” (2007).

Warm and sensuous, that orange tint he likes so much is visually inviting. But Pamuk’s alertness to color doesn’t stop there. The dominant orange palette makes a magenta car look magical. The red of a set of Turkish flags hanging over an alley both chimes with the crimson trim of a storefront underneath and leaps out from the deep purple of the sky above.

The other connection is with Istanbul. That city is Pamuk’s greatest subject — as London was for Dickens or Dublin for Joyce. “Orange” conveys a nearly overwhelming sense of the density of possibility Istanbul has to offer. Why is a man sitting in a chair in the middle of a narrow winding street? That the chair is white makes the image all the more mysterious, as well as visually arresting. Why is there an empty chair on the sidewalk facing him? Each image is a story waiting to happen. Instead of writing it, Pamuk photographs it. He describes “feeling in the nightscape of the city the pull of some enigmatic, beguiling force." That force he felt then lets us see now.


Orhan Pamuk, from "Orange."© Orhan Pamuk/courtesy Steidl

Mark Feeney can be reached at