My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Elizabeth Benedict, editor of What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, which will be released by Algonquin Books in April--just in time to pre-order it for Mothers Day (hint hint). The book even has its own Tumblr page--check it out. Benedict's five novels include the bestseller Almost and the National Book Award finalist, Slow Dancing. She’s the author of The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers and the editor of Mentors, Muses and Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. Click here to visit her website, and visit her on Twitter at @ElizBenedict
My First Photo Shoot
November, 1985. The Algonquin Hotel. A heady moment – maybe four minutes into my fifteen minutes of fame. Private party rooms at the hotel – yes, that Algonquin – and I was mingling with other writers, editors, and literati who wanted to rub elbows with those who’d been short-listed for the National Book Award. That year there was a category for first novels, and my own, Slow Dancing, had made the cut. Moments before, taking the elevator down from my room to the gathering, I’d thought of this event as my debut. Was anyone ever so young (pace Joan Didion)?
I mingled. I tried not to sound like an idiot. Did my best to look like I was not the nervous wreck I was. A man tapped me on the arm, said my name, and introduced himself. Tom Victor. He had a camera or two around his neck. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“Yes, of course.” I had been ogling his beautiful author photos for years, ever since the famous paperback cover – front cover – of Susan Sontag’s short story collection, I, Etcetera, had come out in 1979, adorned with a startling Tom Victor photograph of her: sexy, provocative, a literary Odalisque, though she was fully clothed.
“Would you like to sit for me?” he asked. “If I have a portfolio of photos, when Newsweek calls you, you just have them to call me, and I’ll show them what I have. Are you up for that?”
Two days later, in a dreary downpour – after not winning the big prize – I showed up at Tom’s studio in Chelsea. It was dark outside, but inside the vast loft were high white walls and bright lights of every kind, stray chairs and couches, and giant rolls of white background paper.
Tom was small, energetic, and wonderfully talkative. “Why don’t you stand here and I’ll get some readings,” he said and started fooling with his light meter.
“I hate getting my picture taken,” I said.
“All the best writers do.”
“Really?” I wondered if he’d read my book, the almost prize-winner. He must have, or why would he have said that I’m a good writer? (Was anyone ever so young?)
“Turn your head a little to the right. Tilt your chin up. That’s good.”
Snap, snap, click, click, click. I felt like a sack of potatoes. Why couldn’t I look like Susan Sontag in that famous photo? Why did I have to look like me?
“You’re very pretty,” Tom said. My face wrinkled in disbelief. “But you need to hold your chin up more. Turn a little to the left.” To demonstrate, he came to me and moved my head and touched my waist, doing something with the back of my shirt. “Try that,” he said and touched my cheek.
He crossed the room and snapped dozens and dozens of pictures, and in the course of chatting about this and that, he asked if I had ever seen his work.
“Of course. I’ve known the picture of Susan Sontag on I, Etcetera for years.”
“Susan’s my best friend. I’ve taken pictures of her forever.” As I glanced around, I noticed the backdrops of certain other jacket photos of Sontag, standing by a filing cabinet, by a sliding door. “You’re beautiful, Elizabeth, but you don’t hold yourself the way a beautiful woman should.”
“Sit on this chair,” he said, “and bring your chin forward. That’s good. That’s very good. Gorgeous. Have you heard about Edmund’s advance for the Reagan biography? He got a million dollars. A little to the left, chin down. Eyes to the right. Beautiful.”
Another mini-massage, his hand brushing my check, my shoulder, my waist. Maybe he was right after all. “Good, look a little to the left, oh, that’s great, that’s wonderful. Don’t move.”
This went on for an hour. The directions, the literary gossip, the intermittent massages, the you’re-so-beautiful-and-you’d-be-more-beautiful-if-you-believed-you-were-in-the-first-place. And by the end of it, he had me convinced – not that I was beautiful, but that the way to take a good picture of someone who is not used to getting her picture taken is to seduce her into thinking she’s gorgeous.
Soon after, Tom sent me contact sheets of the hundreds of photos he had taken. I picked out my favorites, and there they sat, in Tom’s studio. Several years later, when my new novel was ready for production, my editor at Knopf tried to save money by sending me to a cheaper photographer – whose photos were terrible.
“Tom Victor has a file of good pictures,” I told my editor, just as Tom had instructed me to say. So it came to pass that my second novel, The Beginner's Book of Dreams, was adorned with one of Tom’s pictures of me.
A year later, in 1989, Tom died at 51 of leukemia. Years after that, when I needed a photo of myself, I called someone senior at Knopf to find out who had the negatives of Tom’s work; no one there knew. More than a decade later, I came across Tom’s ancient obit in the Times, and the name of his surviving sister in the Midwest. By then I knew that he had died of AIDS. I tracked down his sister and did all I could to work with her on a show of the work in New York, and on writing an article about him. It never materialized, but I loved the idea of bringing Tom and his beautiful photographs back to life.
Since that enchanted day in his studio in 1986, I’ve had my picture taken by professionals many times. The first few times, I wondered if the photographers would go to Tom’s lengths to “seduce” me, to make me feel so good about myself that the pictures would sparkle. No one ever came close, though each has his or her methods. Regardless of what the photographers do, I learned from the master what was necessary. I have to be there. I have to do a little vamping. I have to pretend that each and every photographer is the enchanting, gregarious, evanescent Tom Victor, trying to make me believe – at least for half an hour – that I’m a knockout.
Author photo by Daniel Lake