Writers: Photographs by Nancy Crampton; introduction by Mark Strand. The Quantuck Lane Press, 2005; $40; 224 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Here are more than a hundred wonderful and sensitive duotone portraits of our major novelists, poets, and playwrights. Paired with the photographs are fascinating texts from each writer on writing -- thoughts on the craft, recollections of significant moments from their personal history, meditations on the civic importance of writing, and so forth. Some of these photographs are well-known -- Bellow, Mailer, Cheever, Wolfe, Singer, and Capote -- and others have never before been published. Many were taken on location, from Tom Stoppard in London and James Baldwin in Provence to Gabriel García Márquez in Mexico City --- one of ten Nobel Prize winners in the book. Closer to home, we have Eudora Welty in Jackson, Nelson Algren in Chicago, Philip Roth and Maurice Sendak in rural Connecticut, Anne Sexton and John Updike near Boston, Walker Percy in Louisiana, Christopher Isherwood in Santa Monica, Annie Proulx in Wyoming, and several writers in the Hamptons.
Whatever the setting, all are strikingly fresh and authentic. The pithy and idiosyncratic thoughts on writing are a perfect complement to the superb portraits; often words and pictures seem to exist in a magical rapport. For all of us who care about the American literary scene, Nancy Crampton's gift is an intimate look at our literary heroes, our Writers . One hundred and four duotone photographs.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Library Journal: Crampton, official photographer for the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, is best known for photographs she's taken of famous writers, which are featured on hundreds of book jackets.... Crampton must have had a warm rapport with these writers to have captured so many in seemingly unguarded poses. Opposite each portrait (all are single with the exception of the lively Studs Terkel's 12-image grid) are eloquent quotes from the writers offering personal recollection or thoughts on their craft.
Los Angeles Times: Crampton works most often with a Leica -- because "it renders light very beautifully, the lenses are wonderful, and I love the feel of it." And she puts great stock in the notion of serendipity.
Publishers Weekly: W.H. Auden, Edwidge Danticat, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Alfred Kazin, Maurice Sendak, Joseph Brodsky, Lorrie Moore, Tom Stoppard, Chinua Achebe, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen, Gayl Jones, Nelson Algren -- the list goes to 104: the number of joyous duotones presented in this collection of exceptionally evocative photos of authors.... Her intimate, New York-centric photos (subjects are placed on streets, in offices, and in apartments rather than in a professional studio) of celebrated writers span more than 30 years.
From Booklist: In his introduction to this outstanding retrospective collection, poet Mark Strand muses over how intently we scrutinize photographs of writers and artists, "as if the face were the door to the darkroom of the imagination." He then praises Crampton for her avoidance of theatricality in her strongly composed, richly detailed, and wonderfully natural black-and-white portraits of writers. The photographs -- each accompanied by a writer's statement, taken in diverse settings, and often featuring cats and cigarettes -- date back to the early 1970s and move into the present.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
On the day that we talked Ms. Crampton was at home in the Greenwich Village apartment from which she has come and gone for several decades. The apartment is in a building where Marianne Moore lived out her last years. Ms. Crampton long ago took my photograph for a book jacket and I had visited the apartment. I recalled the bookshelves, stacked with interesting titles, and a lovely glass-topped coffee table that started life as a jeweler's display case. Ms. Crampton had arranged various treasures beneath the glass. The table she has since given away. I sighed. I hated the thought of the table gone.I remembered Ms. Crampton as gracious, knowledgeable, comforting, and witty. She has not changed.
"Ah," she sighed, "it's nice to have a writer interview you. You understand the problems."
I asked Ms. Crampton the questions I usually ask --- where and when were you born and raised, for instance. She laughed. "The Los Angeles Times interviewed me not long ago and the reporter said, 'Could I ask your age?' I said, 'I prefer not to give my age.' Annie Liebowitz doesn't give her age. And Annie's younger than I am."
Ms. Crampton was born in Philadelphia -- "literally born in Philadelphia, at the hospital there in town. I lived in suburban Philadelphia. That suggests that I had some sort of posh upbringing, which was not exactly the truth, considering that times were a little hard in the beginning. But we always were comfortable. Had a nice house and all that. But it wasn't what you think of as 'Main Line.' It wasn't debutantes and all that sort of thing.
"So I grew up in the suburbs in Philadelphia and went away to college. I went to Vassar [as did her mother and grandmother]. I try not to date my years at Vassar too specifically just because I am still extremely active as a photographer and I guess I will be as long as I have work. I'm not in any position to retire if I wanted to, which I don't want to and so..."
"What was your first camera?"
"A Pentax. I took a trip to East Africa, a safari, and I ordered a camera, which happened to be a Pentax, from Hong Kong because you couldn't order a Nikon from Hong Kong. It was cheaper to order from there, directly. It arrived the day before I left. I went off with this camera. That trip converted me into a photographer. It felt right to me --photography.
"This was 1967 and I'd been some years out of college and working in book publishing. I right away came back and in the American fashion, it wasn't too long before I hung out my shingle that said 'Photographer.'
"I was fortunate. When I got back from that safari, a friend said, 'You should see this agency that handles the TWA account.' TWA flew to East Africa. They immediately bought the use of two or three of my pictures. I realized I could make money doing this. I was living in an apartment that rented for $150. So I didn't have a huge overhead.
"I learned darkroom work. There was no International Center of Photography or anything like that in those days. I found somebody who knew somebody who was a photographer from whom I learned darkroom work.
"It took me a year to locate it, but there was an organization called The Village Camera Club here in the Village. A number of professional photographers had come out of that. When I discovered them, I went and there were a half a dozen people there and they had nobody to do programming for them. So I did that for four years, inviting everybody you can imagine, to come. We met once a week.
"I started photographing neighborhoods in New York City, specifically kids in those neighborhoods. East Harlem, the Lower East Side. These were the days before crack cocaine, so it was perfectly safe.
"I started getting assignments. There was a magazine called America . America sent me to photograph Italians in New York -- at Coney Island and neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
"I fell into working for the foreign press. Then a friend said, 'You should meet Ben Bradlee from the Washington Post .' I did and I worked with reporters from the Style section of the Post who came up to New York. I was a stringer for The Washington Post and the foreign press.
"Sometimes they would be interviewing a writer and the writer would want to use the photo for her English jacket, let's say. At the time I was also photographing artists, because there were wonderful artists around. They were accessible in those days -- Calder, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns. Those photos of artists are used now even to open museum exhibits and stuff, but at the time I didn't know what to do with them. Except to exhibit them. I actually started exhibiting right away, in '71 or '72.
"These things happen by chance. There was an exhibit at The Museum of Contemporary Crafts of contemporary photography. I met a curator who invited me to exhibit. I was in various exhibits. It sort of follows from there."
"Did The Family of Man [organized by Edward Steichen and first shown in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art] increase interest in photography?"
"Yes. Of course, there was Steichen. That exhibit had wide appeal. It's true. It called attention to photography. But when I got into photography, photojournalism in America was suffering already. I didn't start photographing writers until 1972. Life magazine and Look were folding. The advertising money was going to TV, so general interest magazines were suffering. I didn't know the difference because I'd never been relying on these magazines to publish my work. I was discovering what I wanted to do with photography, and that which I wanted to pursue, was pursuing."
"Were you still using your Pentax?"
"No. I bought a secondhand Leica. I use it to this day. My favorite camera is actually a Ryka that hasn't been manufactured since 1964. You click quietly because there's no flipping over the way there is, say, with the usual Nikon."
"What makes a Hasselblad so wonderful?"
"It's a different format. I love the 35mm format, at least most of the time. I can still take a horizontal picture, if I want to make it more like a landscape and include more of the setting. At some point I've done a project where I will need at least a medium format camera. I have one, but I don't use it much. But that's not true of the work that I'm doing now.
"I can enlarge these pictures that I take with my Ryka to 20-by-24. Or 20-by-30, that's no problem. If the picture is sharp to begin with, which usually they are. The exhibit I have in L.A. is 11-by-14 stuff -- standard photo paper size. That's a very nice size for looking at in the intimate situation of a gallery. You're going right up the photo."
"Nowadays, when you take pictures of authors, do the publishing houses call you or does the author call you?"
"Oh, it happens every which way. John Cheever used to call me up when he finished a book. He obviously enjoyed the ritual. I photographed him once, for Time in 1973.
"Phillip Roth regularly uses me. These arrangements are somewhat exceptional. Sometimes it's the publisher, the publicity person or the editor. More often probably the editor suggests me to an author. Authors mostly have friends who are writers and they get to you that way. Or who knows? Really, it seems to happen every which way. I'm not too good about showing my work around."
We talked, then, about the book. "There are 104 pictures in the book, which is all we could squeeze into the number of signatures that we used.
"You've got the text too. That was interesting. Forty-four of the pieces of text are taken from interviews in the Paris Review 's Writers At Work interviews. The other 60 are taken from prefaces, lectures, essays, other interviews."
Often, Ms. Crampton, when taking photographs, suggests an author stand in front of a door. She recommended that I do so. I asked, "Why do you use doors so often?"
"Well, that's a good question. If you're using available light, sometimes the door provides you with a bit of a frame. Also, there's something evocative. I like to get dimension into a photograph. There's a suggestion, something evocative about a door. Or, a window.
"Also, you are on the street, looking for a background. I remember the doors in the photo of Tom Wolfe [Page 62 in Ms. Crampton's book], which was actually the door next door to Tom's then-townhouse."
"I can't stand those white suits he always wears."
"Well, that's his persona. It's funny. I remember him before he had that persona. He wore ordinary clothes, nothing that stood out. He's very comfortable with it --- the persona. I've been told that's the first photograph of Tom taken that way [in the white suit]. It wasn't that easy a photo to take because there are a few little steps that go up there and I put the camera right in the top step of these three little steps. And I took my picture. I couldn't even see what I was taking. I did one frame and even so you have to tilt the easel when you print it to straighten out the lines a bit."
"Who was the last person of whom you took a picture?"
"Just last night there was a party for Studs Terkel that his publisher gave. I took some pictures of Studs at the party. And he signed an old edition I had of Hard Times. He wrote 'For Nancy...capturing creative spirits at their most unguarded and creative...with admiration and love, Studs Terkel.'
"I first met Studs in 1973 when I was on a whirlwind tour of the Midwest for Publishers Weekly , which is when I photographed Bellow, who is on the cover of the book."
"I'd never thought he ever looked so young in his whole life."
"He did then.
"I photograph -- it's usually a Monday-night thing, at the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y. Louise Erdrich was there, Monday night. I had an Ojibwa medicine bag -- a stunning thing from the late 19th Century. I photographed Louise holding it."
"Every week you photograph writers?"
"Usually, yes, during the school year. September through May. It's a Monday-night thing."
"Do you remember photographing Auden?"
"Do I remember? Yes. I can tell you a brief story about it. It was 1972. I had already connected with this German reporter with whom I went around for many months, covering the cultural scene for his huge German newspaper chain. Auden was in the Manhattan telephone book.
"He was in the East Village on St. Mark's Place. Bernard called him. He made a date with Auden, and we showed up. Bernard brought a school chum along. The three of us presented ourselves at Auden's front door. He said 'I don't know if I have four teacups.' But then he welcomed us in. He had a place in Austria. He completely flew into speaking German. He conducted his interview in German, which he didn't have to do. But he was having a great time with this interview and after I'd taken a few shots, he waved me away. At that point, I was with the Pentax. Any single lens reflex camera makes a 'clunk' when you take the picture. But I already had my picture."
"Do you know when you have your picture?"
"Well, I didn't have much choice that time. I was still inexperienced. But yes, I think you do. Sometimes more so than at other times.
"I did have a memorable experience with Capote, memorable for me because it was a very late picture of Capote, taken three months before he died."
"Was he pleasant?"
"He was fine. I was flabbergasted when he telephoned me, but his editor put him up to it. I was having a show in The Hamptons. His editor [Joe Fox at Random House] had a house in Bridgehampton or Sagaponack. So I called up Joe and said I wanted to do Truman for this show. Joe said, 'If I see Truman...' I said, 'No, Joe, I need a photograph of Truman.' He was quite taken aback, but he said, 'I'll see what I can do.' Two weeks later, Truman called and said he would be sober at 4 o'clock that afternoon.
"He had the idea to go over to this park on the East River, which was quite nearby. He said that a photo of him had been taken on a park bench once. At that point I already had the invitation to my show printed and I showed it to him. It had de Kooning's name on it. Truman said that they [Capote and de Kooning] were both out in Minnesota at the same time. 'Only it took with him and not with me,' Capote said. Referring to a stay at the Hazelden.
"But the mind was still there. I've thought about that. When I see that photo of him, I think of it sometimes. Even though he was a wreck at that point with his phlebitis and everything, he still could come through for a picture. That was really my picture of Truman. That was a very dramatic experience for me because it didn't seem as though it was going to be a promising session. Then he did come through. And we both knew it at the time. So that was a moving experience."
"Interviewing and photographing demand cooperation."
"Yes, the person has lent himself or herself to this, which they don't have to do and don't always want to do. They don't always consent to be photographed, but if they do, then they have agreed to cooperate."
"What happens if you take a series of photos for a publisher and the author and publisher do not like them?"
"It's extremely rare. It's even very rare to do a re-shoot -- 'unusual,' I should say. Two instances which I think of right now, somebody had her hair done in a way that wasn't 'her,' in quotes. Or had worn something that didn't work out, or a combination of the two.
"I re-shot one person who was a friend. The second pictures were much more successful than the first. I never charged Knopf and I never charged her and I just let it go. It's very unusual though that that happens. And this type of photography, it's relatively low-budget."
"Do you have any tricks you use to make people relax?"
"It's purely instinctive."
"Who did you especially enjoy photographing?"
"Children's book writers. I did Maurice Sendak for an early People magazine, which he agreed to because he figured we'd get some good pictures out of it. We did, of course. He was an old friend. He got me my first apartment in New York, a couple of doors from my present one here on West Ninth Street. I lived in his building for many years, before Maurice moved. I moved myself. Maurice moved to the country.
"Maurice looks kind of like a wild thing. He is full of surprises. I last saw Maurice at the opening of his show at The Jewish Museum -- 'The Art of Maurice Sendak.'
"William Steig also. William Steig was just a kid. Who else would I get to photograph with this cat peering out of a tree? You can't art-direct cats. It was providing a little competition, but it worked out for the photo.
"Steig, at another moment, jumped up to pose on a rock that was probably the inspiration for his book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. There he is, standing on this rock. Like it's a pedestal or something.
"I sent him a few prints and I got a little tube in the mail with a drawing by him, stamped, 'To Nancy Crampton, Artist.' So, of course, he endeared himself to me."
You can see Nancy Crampton's photographs at the Los Angeles Central Library, First Floor Galleries, 630 W. 5th St., Los Angeles. The galleries are open to the public from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. There is no cost for admission. The exhibition ends on April 2, 2006.