The Process: Adrianne Mathiowetz, Portrait of David Sedaris, 2012

In which an artist discusses making a particular work

The Process: Adrianne Mathiowetz, Portrait of David Sedaris, 2012

In which an artist discusses making a particular work

The Process: Adrianne Mathiowetz, Portrait of David Sedaris, 2012

Evan Allgood
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Over her ten-year career, Boston-based photographer Adrianne Mathiowetz has shot portraits of hundreds of authors, including David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Kelly Link, and Sue Miller. Since graduating from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in 2010, Mathiowetz, thirty-seven, has photographed events for Planned Parenthood, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Onassis Foundation, and done portraits for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). When the COVID-19 pandemic forced her out of her studio, Mathiowetz found herself in a strange position: snapping photos of newborns through the closed windows of their homes (at the parentsrequest), sometimes perched on a ladder. This uncannily 2020 venture drew attention from The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and, presumably, neighbors.

Even a normal year for Mathiowetz has its moments of surreality. At the annual AWP Conference, she inflicts upon herself twelve-hour, twenty-four-author portrait marathonsveritable gauntlets of writerly self-consciousness. (If theyre registered for the conference, authors pay a discounted rate for the portraits.) Somehow Mathiowetz finds these sessions energizing. As a former radio producer and editor, she says that meeting people, earning their trust, and homing in on their cores requires little more than muscle memory from her. You try to connect with people very quickly because you dont have much time to get a good story out of them,she says.

I met with Mathiowetz at the 2019 AWP Conference, in Portland, Oregon, and followed up with her via email in fall 2020. We discussed the key to a winning portrait, photographing Sedaris backstage at a 2012 This American Life event, and the most challenging author shoot she’s ever had to do.

—Evan Allgood

THE BELIEVER: What’s the secret to a great author photo?

ADRIANNE MATHIOWETZ: It’s all in the eye contact. They want people to connect with them as a writer. I feel like that’s the main impetus behind writing in general: connecting to other people. So many author photos make the mistake of wanting to be everything to everybody; they’re not specific to the author. Or they’re trying too hard, like leaning against a car or something. That’s so embarrassing. To be trying anything is embarrassing, unfortunately.

I come from a public radio background, and there’s something I learned from interviewing people—it’s called accelerated intimacy. I try to achieve that with author portraits, because I only have half an hour with them, and only fifteen minutes of that is spent taking photos. It’s like, All right, you can be yourself with me, and let’s get a photo that is you looking into the lens as if you’re looking at someone you know really well—even someone you love. That’s the eye contact I’m looking for in an author portrait. If you can get that kind of connection with someone, of course they’ll want to read your book.

BLVR: How did you make the transition from radio to photography?

AM: When I was growing up, my dad was a portrait photographer, so it was both the most and least obvious thing to become. It was so clearly his identity that it took me a long time to wrap my head around the possibility that it could be mine too. I never had more than a disposable camera all through high school, even though we had a darkroom.

In college I started writing long daily blog posts about heartbreak and epiphanies and little moments. I was also interviewing fellow students and producing radio stories with my friend Nick [van der Kolk], stories that became the podcast Love and Radio. My senior year, my dad very kindly told me that the photos he was seeing on my blog, which I was taking with my 1.3-megapixel camera, were really good. He got me a DSLR [digital single-lens reflex] camera as a graduation present.

After college, Nick and I started working at the Public Radio Exchange [PRX] as site editors. I needed to select radio pieces to feature on PRX’s home page and on curated lists, so every day I was going through new content that producers were uploading. Each radio story had its own page with an audio file, a description, and a tiny image to represent it—I think they were maybe 150 pixels wide. That’s what tuned me in to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. For every piece Salt uploaded, it was the image that always struck me, even at a teeny size and resolution. They were always “wow” photos.

Within a couple of years, I wasn’t producing radio at all; Nick started producing the show on his own. I was just doing my job as a site editor and writing and photographing for my blog. I had gotten into burlesque and started photographing backstage at those shows. I switched companies and started doing the site-editing work for This American Life [TAL], working remotely from Boston. Then I went through a breakup and made plans to move back home to Minneapolis; in the midst of making those plans, I met the man who later became my husband. Staying in Boston for him felt precipitous and un-feminist. But Salt was just a couple hours away. I thought I’d apply to its photography program, and if everything worked out, maybe I’d wind up being a photographer and married to this guy. It all worked out.

This American Life let me take three months off to attend the program. For five years after that, I kept my day job but took event-photo gigs on the side and did some photography for TAL in New York. In 2015, I decided I wanted to do this full-time. I quit my job, got engaged to the guy, rented a studio space in Boston, and we drove here in the middle of a blizzard with my cat at my feet.

BLVR: What other parallels have you found in representing the essence, or at least the likeness, of a person in radio and in photography?

AM: Both mediums necessitate having big, intimidating equipment that tends to put people on edge, because it’s constantly documenting them and partially obscuring its operator—with giant headphones, in the case of radio, and a viewfinder in photography. So for both, my first priority is to make people comfortable as quickly as possible. That’s mainly because I empathize with their discomfort, but also because I know from being on the other side that we say the most beautiful things around friends who really get us, and that the best images come from moments of honesty. 

I show them that the gear is no big deal—“What, this old thing?”; that I’m taking care of it and they don’t need to think about it. Then I find some common ground: maybe it’s our senses of humor, or a shared understanding of their background, or even just their day. I think the main thing with both mediums is to know when you’ve gotten there. The two most memorable takeaways I got from radio production were to not ask multiple-choice questions and to not be afraid of silence. Both definitely apply to portrait photography as well.

BLVR: Do similar questions or concerns about manipulation (vocal distortion, Photoshop) arise?

AM: I’d actually say that the parallel to Photoshop isn’t vocal manipulation; it’s story editing. In radio production, the best thing is to get a great answer almost verbatim, so you don’t need to chop up entire paragraphs to get the one-sentence summary you’re looking for. That kind of editing is time-consuming, and you risk the final result not sounding natural. Going in and removing a few “um”s and stutters: that’s no big deal. Still, if you can find a person who’s particularly articulate on a certain subject, or prep them just right, or ask the perfect set of questions in the right order—whatever magical combination it needs to be—you’re going to wind up with a better-sounding story that’s considerably less work for you to fix.

Similarly, if I light and pose or prompt someone well in the moment, I shouldn’t need to do a ton of work in Photoshop outside of what would be considered standard development: color, exposure, contrast. Making an image look really polished still takes time—the camera can act like a microscope, and the skin is full of “um”s that the human eye simply doesn’t see when we’re interacting with a live person. I Photoshop those things without any qualms: acne, stray hairs, dark circles around the eyes. I always tell people what a teacher once told me: “I’ll make you look like you’re well-rested, hydrated, and having a great-hair day.” But I won’t make you look twenty years younger or twenty pounds slimmer. You look great as you are, and we want your friends and family to recognize you.

BLVR: What was it like shooting David Sedaris for This American Life?

AM: He was backstage at this event, The Invisible Made Visible, getting into clown makeup even though clowns had nothing to do with the story he would tell. I got a photo of him looking tired, his face painted white, with a cartoonish duck-yellow wig and big red painted lips. His image was pretty arresting, especially out on that big empty stage, with a pinpoint spotlight on his face.

When David saw the photos from the show, he reached out to me about that one—he loved how weird and dark it was. He said he had never liked associating his appearance with his work, so he was into the idea of an author photo that obscured his real face. At some point along the editorial line, someone put the kibosh on it, but I thought it made a great author photo, too, just as unexpected and vulnerable as that performance had felt.

BLVR: Do you think that, in addition to Sedaris looking down and away from the camera, part of the portrait’s vulnerability is that he’s in between outfits or personas or states of being? It feels very intimate.

AM: Costume changes are one of my favorite things in the world to photograph. I devoted ten years to it with The Slutcracker, a local burlesque parody of The Nutcracker. A wig hovering over someone’s head the second before they pull it over their own hairline, the contortions in mirrors to perfectly apply a set of false eyelashes, battered sneakers and leg warmers combined with sequined wings. The over-the-top glamour or nightmare of a persona versus our own tired backs and knees, and the changes in expression as we slowly become the thing in the costume. I love those in-between places, when we pause to access a hidden part of ourselves—because that costume is in us, somewhere.

BLVR: Sedaris was wearing garish face paint and a bright yellow wig when you photographed him, but the image is in black-and-white. What effect do you think draining so much color has on the image’s tone and on its viewers? How do you decide whether a portrait should be in black-and-white or in color?

AM: With Sedaris’s candid, I went back and forth a few times and really debated it, because I liked what the color was doing too. It was insane. But ultimately I decided it was too much. Sometimes color bulldozes everything else, and you need to evaluate the main takeaway of the image. Is it something about the moment—a gesture, an expression? Or is it the color? I wanted to turn off the alarm bells the viewer’s brain would uncontrollably send upon seeing all that yellow and red, to refocus on his motion and expression. Stripped of its vibrant wrapping paper, the image looks sad, almost haunting.

That same philosophy can apply in more subtle ways, too, to studio portraits. I always deliver every portrait in both color and black-and-white, mostly because I don’t want people doing that conversion themselves. It’s often difficult for me to decide which one I prefer; they really feel like two separate images. Color is clearly the more accurate representation of what someone looks like, and there’s always beauty to be found in that: a golden tint in the eyes, a jewel-toned scarf they always wear or an earthy jacket. There’s a vivaciousness to color that can almost feel decadent—we get drunk on it. The image feels tangible. But black-and-white always seems to access more of the spirit of the image. Viewing other people’s portraits, I tend to linger on black-and-white images longer. You can feel like it’s telling you a secret.

BLVR: Why do you think the powers-that-be decided not to use that portrait for Sedaris’s author photo?

AM: I could see someone saying, No way. This image is way too creepy to use as your author photo. Think of the children. Maybe it was the clown specifically. Some people claim to have a thing about clowns.

BLVR: How do you respond when a portrait isn’t chosen for publication? Have you made a point not to get too attached to the images you create for clients?

AM: The nice thing about photography is that usually I have signed release forms and can decide to publish whatever images I like. Ho-ho! But for most author portrait sessions, I’m part of the image-selection process. We’ll take maybe one hundred to three hundred images, depending on the length of the session. They rate the images on a zero-to-five-star scale: I tell them to go through the images by themselves and give one star to anything they’re remotely OK with. Anything under that and I don’t even look at it again, because I’m not out to embarrass anyone. Then we look through the portraits together and choose the favorites from each tier, eliminating photos as we go.

I’m often asked to explain why I prefer one over the other. It’s so hard for us to look at ourselves, especially hundreds of times. We’ve got our eyes out for the things we want to hide. “Oh, yuck, my neck’s doing that thing again!” But someone else can say, “I love this one because you look so authentically joyful,” or “In this image you look like a survivor.” I feel like a crystal ball sometimes—they’ll say, “That. That’s what my book’s really about.” And then we both leave knowing they chose the best one.

There have only been a couple of times when someone really wanted an image that I thought was OK but not “the one.” I just made a little note to myself to grab the real one later, for myself.

BLVR: You photographed the late David Rakoff at the same This American Life event where you shot Sedaris, right?

AM: Yes. The photo I took of Rakoff was during the dress rehearsal. I was in the audience area, clambering on chairs to get a better eye-level view. With the stage lights in his face, I doubt he saw me at all. I had heard his story probably twenty times, and each time it made me cry. In fact, it was super difficult for me to photograph his performance because I kept getting shaky and emotional. It ended with the smallest, most elegant gesture—reaching toward the sky. That image wound up running in The New York Times with his obituary.

BLVR: What’s it like to have one of your portraits run with someone’s obituary? Do you feel differently about those photos from how you do about others that lack such a heavy context?

AM: Knowing what Rakoff was saying as he made this gesture with his working hand (he’d lost ability in the other arm), I felt like it was such a poetic choice to include that image. He was finishing a story about a recurring dream he’d been having in which his arm works again. In the dream he says to his friends, “Hey, watch this,” and his hand simply rises.

Usually I get a nice ego boost when an image of mine is included in a paper I admire, though I may fret about how it looks printed and how I processed it. But it barely occurred to me that I’d taken Rakoff’s when I saw it. Sometimes you’re just a person walking by with a camera. That moment had really not belonged to me in any way; it was all him.

BLVR: What’s the most challenging author shoot you’ve done?

AM: Hmm… I had this gruff-looking guy come in and say, “My whole life I’ve been a private investigator, and now I’m writing fiction about it. I need an author photo, but I also need to remain anonymous.”[Laughs]

BLVR: Wow. Had he brought a disguise kit with him?

AM: Well, he had ideas about wearing a hat or wearing sunglasses, but I didn’t like any of that. I moved a lot of the lights around, and I was able to get it so the light was coming from slightly behind and mostly to the side of his face, so it just caught the outlines of his features. We also did some photos of him holding a hand over one side of his face. And it was so much fun. Honestly, it was the most challenging and also the most fun of all the author portraits I’ve done. I loved the photos that came out of it. You still got a sense of who he was, and he looked exactly the part.

BLVR: How is photographing writers different from photographing other kinds of artists?

AM: I love working with writers. Writers are trying to authentically connect with people through their writing, so it feels like there’s already a built-in desire to have an honest portrait—like it doesn’t even necessarily have to be flattering, and they like that. Or it can be a little weird, and they like that.

BLVR: Don’t put that on your website: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be flattering!”

AM: [Laughs] No, but, like, flattering in a dishonest way. I offer fine retouching, and very few writers take me up on that. I find that, in general, authors who are aging are OK with aging, and I love that. Or authors who wear glasses always want the glasses on. People of different abilities—I’ve taken portraits of people in wheelchairs, or with breathing apparatuses, and they could not have those things in the photo, or they could ask for them to be Photoshopped out, but it’s part of what they’re writing about, or it’s just who they are, so they want it in there.

To me, photographing writers feels like an inherently honest process, as opposed to an advertising process. This isn’t always true of actors or models, or of the corporate headshots I do.

BLVR: What’s the most common mistake you see in author portraits?

AM: The most common mistake I see is making the portrait not about the person but about the place they’re at. Like, Oh, we’re in a graveyard! So make sure there’s a bunch of graves in the photo! Or, like, Oh, we’re by the sea! So here’s the author [very small], and here’s the sea [very large]! They’re telling, not showing in their photo. Don’t beat us over the head with it.

BLVR: Maybe, like Sedaris and the investigator, those authors don’t like associating their appearance with their work. Is that a sentiment other writers and artists have expressed to you? Is it a big hurdle for you to clear?

AM: Oh, almost every single person who walks through my door tells me that. Definitely every writer. “I just need to preface this by saying…” I think it’s an obstacle in getting someone to recognize that a professional photographer could help them, but once they’re in your clutches, it’s no obstacle at all. So many people are used to a relative or loved one taking their picture, and of course that’s awkward and leads to awkward images, which they don’t want associated with their work.

Maybe the opposite of accelerated intimacy is long-form intimacy. It’s really hard to be free and try out new things in front of people who know us well, because we don’t want to embarrass ourselves. But you have nothing to lose in front of me. I’m just a person who’s going to send you a Dropbox link later. 

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