Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Edmund White

Edmund White, Toronto, Oct. 1990

I HADN'T READ ANY OF EDMUND WHITE'S BOOKS WHEN I PHOTOGRAPHED HIM in 1990 - I hadn't read nearly as much as I would have liked - but I knew two things about him. One was that he was a gay writer - a political as well as a biographical detail in the last days of the first decade of AIDS. The other - and far more interesting to me - was that he was proudly a part of that world of books and letters to which I'd aspired since I was a boy. A world slipping away even as I took these photos.

He was a friend of Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Harold Brodkey (now mostly forgotten, but once a major literary figure based largely on a novel he took decades to write,) and other big names that regularly appeared in the New York Review of Books. He'd lived in New York, but also Paris and Rome. He spoke French and would later write biographies of Genet, Proust and Rimbaud - writers everyone was expected to know (but perhaps never actually read.)

He was exactly the sort of person you'd expect to find at an author's festival - a very writerly writer, just one of the names I'd photograph for NOW that week, including Elmore Leonard and George Higgins, Carolyn Cassady, Richard Ford, Fay Weldon and Marianne Wiggins.

Edmund White, Toronto, Oct. 1990

The great surprise for me was how eager he was to make a good portrait. Most writers try to be offhanded in front of a camera - resigned to the ritual of a newsprint portrait by a local photographer, quickly slipping into their "author face," a diffident gaze dialed several notches down from the intensity they'd give a book jacket photo.

White, on the other hand, seemed eager to please. I won't flatter myself by imagining that he was flirting, but he was far more responsive to my halting stage directions than most subjects at this early stage in my career, putting actual effort into a ritual request that he "do something with his hands." Recently, while reading City Boy, his memoir of life in New York from the '60s to the '90s, I'd learn that White was acutely self-conscious about his looks in a passage describing his earliest teaching gigs:
In truth I had a highly unstable "body image." I didn't know what I looked like. If I managed to pick up one man (or seven of them) in an evening, then I was certain I was handsome, though I did worry why the eighth one had turned me down. Most of the time, when I was less successful, my confidence in my looks plunged ... Years later, after my looks had faded and I'd become paunchy, a few men and women told me how attractive I'd been and how much they desired me. Harry Matthews got angry and said once in Key West, "Why don't you lose all that weight? You used to be so cute!"
Edmund White, Toronto, Oct. 1990

I would know none of this at the time, of course, having read none of his books, never mind one that he wouldn't write for nearly two decades. I was more concerned that my portrait capture some of the gravitas I attributed to someone who lived and wrote in such a rarified world. Years later I'd learn how precarious and anxious that world really was - just another mostly penniless bohemia much like my own, albeit with the great advantage of being lived in major cultural capitals instead of a provincial satellite.

White's memoirs and non-fiction are a clear, remarkable record of that world, now largely vanished, when people aspired to be artists and not content creators, and when that aspiration obliged you to develop at least an interest in painting and ballet, classical music, film, jazz, architecture and opera. It was a world that kept opera and ballet companies, used bookstores and huge, well-stocked record stores in business, and its vanishing has, I think, as much to do with the end of that cultural obligation as much as any technological revolution.

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