Overview, Images

A portrait of a writer as a biopic

Timmah Ball

A portrait of a writer as a biopic

A portrait displays the likeness, personality, and even the mood of a person. It is defined in the following way:

Noun

  1. 1.

a painting, drawing, photograph, or engraving of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.

Similar:

painting

picture

drawing

sketch

likeness

image

study

representation

portrayal

depiction

canvas

miniature

self-portrait

portraiture

photograph

photo

studio portrait

shot

still

snap

snapshot

vignette

In the social media era, we are saturated with them. Our portraits are everywhere. We are the most photographed generation in modern history. In this moment the portrait of a writer, or the biopic is heightened. It is almost inseparable from the work itself. Occasionally the portrait arrives before the work has even started. We are expected to know how to portray ourselves before we know what our work/art/writing actually is. In the Belly of the Trojan Horse Ahmed Yussuf writes:

‘To be a writer today is to make yourself a product of public consumption on the internet, to project an appealing image that contextualises the actual writing.’

His essay acerbically summaries how the portrait of a writer or biopic carries just as much weight as the artwork itself. I feel this weight, wondering what image I should project even though I am still unsure what the writing will be.

In Author Photo, Part One, Kate Zambreno observes the stereotypical imagining of a writer. She states that:

‘Roland Barthes is smoking a cigarette.
James Baldwin is smoking a cigarette.
Karl Ove Knsugaard is smoking a cigarette.
Marguerite Duras is smoking a cigarette.
Susan Sontag is smoking a cigarette.
Alejandra Pizarnik is smoking a cigarette.
Paul Bowles is smoking a cigarette.
Jean Genet is smoking a cigarette.
Yukis Mishima is smoking a cigarette.
David Wojnarwicz is smoking a cigarette.’
Etc, etc, etc, etc.

I don’t smoke. But I’ve always wanted to write and the cigarette is the writer, when the writer is their bio pic. When I look at photos of Susan Sontag she is almost always smoking. I’m tempted to start or at least fabricate the image in my own bio pics, gently holding a rollie in one hand knowing it will never enter my mouth. Because it captures the writer and therefore the writing with sublime agility. It makes both her and her writing playful and serious, something I would like to replicate for myself and my writing.

When Sontag looks at the camera, she is aware of her gaze. It is as if the process of writing On Photography taught her how to tame the cameras power. We can see it in the way she slightly tilts her head and whether she looks directly at the camera or to the side. She knows how she wants to portray herself. I don’t. Whenever I am asked to supply a bio pic, I clumsily supply selfies or a semi decent photo taken by someone at an event that makes me appear writerly but in a low-key kind of way. Without a cigarette my arms always look awkward, unsure of what to do with themselves. In Author Photo, Part Two Zambreno writes:

After a haircut: “You look more like yourself again.”
When asked to elaborate: “Well, more like photographs of you.”

It’s hard to tell if Zambreno is offended by the comment or not. If we look better in our biopics, is it a complement to our photos or an insult to us. I am trying to take a biopic that looks better than what I really look like but not so much better that it could be perceived as indulgent, fake or unrealistic. I am trying to take a picture of myself as a writer which resembles Sontag because in some absurd way, I am genuinely starting to feel that my writing might improve or at least be perceived in a different way - (aka taken more seriously, progressed to the next level, etc) if I had a better bio pic. But If I wanted to become a better writer, I also know that I need to write more, but I fixate on my biopics whenever the requests by organisations come through.

In Author Photo, Part Three Zambreno writes:

She was so recognizable before. She is still recognizable, although slightly less recognizable. As she grows out her hair, will she continue to become less and less recognizable? Her book has gotten wonderful reviews.

Her thoughts heartbreakingly remind me of the onerous fixation placed on femme bodies and appearances, not matter what the quality of the actual work produced by them is. I wonder if I would remember On Photography as vividly If I couldn’t remember the portraits of Sontag? Almost all of my biopics are selfies, that are designed to appear as if they are professional portraits. The effect varies. And most of the time I am asked by organisations if the biopic is a selfie rather than who to credit the photo too. If appearances matter, my writing will need exceptional reviews and it is unlikely that I will ever be recognizable.

I have one professional photo that was taken of me by an artist in the state library. The experience was uncomfortable. I didn’t have control and had to accept the image of myself, presented through the artists photographic lense. Their project was intended to capture different writers and artists at work, I was asked to pretend that I was working and forget that they were there. But it obviously felt staged. When I receieved the photos the artists said that they were happy for me to use them as biopics. I wanted to, beccause they looked so professional but they also didn’t look like me, or at least how I wanted to portray myself. So I continued using selfies despite the high quality photos and my own inability to capture myself in the way I wanted. Overtime I gravitated towards the professional photo because there was something in it that resembled what I wanted people to see even if it didn’t quite materialise. I decided to turn the photo into a found text/ collage poem that would eventually appear in unMagazine. And as the portrait turned into text I wondered whether I could use it as a biopic. The image became something else, and I finally liked how it represented me.

References

Timmah Ball, The anatomy of a blak urbanist. 2018, Un Magazine, https://unprojects.org.au/article/3737

Ahmed Yussuf, In the Belly of the Trojan Horse, 2019, Going Down Swinging

Kate Zambreno, Screen Tests, 2019, Harper Perineal

7 Screen shots of Susan Sontag, Google Images, 2022

A text by Timmah Ball in response to 'The Portrait'.