“The Writers: Portraits by Laura Wilson” is on view now at UT’s Harry Ransom Center. Featuring views of 38 of today’s top writers from around the world by the Dallas-based photographer, each author is showcased with a major portrait surrounded by more Wilson photos that help to tell a complete story. The show is based on Wilson’s book of the same name, out this month from Yale University Press.
Taking in the show, one is greeted by an abundance of black-and-white images ranging from larger than life to pint sized, arranged beautifully. The biggest names in literature stare at each other in dialogue from all corners of the room. Turn one way to see Margaret Atwood, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Gabriel García Márquez; turn around and spy David McCullough, Tim O’Brien, Zadie Smith and Tom Stoppard. And there are many more.
The book and the show are the culmination of a dozen years of work that were inspired by a lost opportunity.
“Thirteen years ago I met John Updike, who came to Dallas to give a lecture,” Wilson remembered. “After the lecture I went backstage, was introduced to him and I liked him so much. I knew what he looked like, of course. Such a prominent American writer. But I felt by seeing him and how he moved and what an expressive face he had that I hadn’t really seen a photograph of him that I thought captured how appealing he was in real life.
“And I thought, ‘Gosh, would it be wonderful to do a portrait of him.’” Wilson hoped she could make the connection through their mutual friend Charles McGrath, the former New York Times Book Review editor who also wrote the forward to her current book.
She also remembered seeing some photos by Dennis Stock from decades earlier of Updike playing at the seaside. “And I thought, here are wonderful pictures of a famous writer playing as a child might at the edge of the water. So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a series of pictures of writers, really what they’re like, not just kind of the ubiquitous picture, the sort of deadening photograph of the author on the back of his dust jacket taken by a friend. So that was the idea in my mind.”
The hoped-for portrait of Updike never materialized, as the author passed away not long after his Dallas lecture. But the encounter inspired Wilson’s desire to photograph writers, and to show them in a new way. She began to envision a book of portraits of writers.
“I wanted the very best writers… not necessarily the ones who are selling the most books,” Wilson said of her early planning. “What I was looking for are those writers that would have a lasting literary legacy. And so I went in my own mind, I thought who might — who already does have a lasting literary legacy, and who might have one?”
To help answer that question, she approached the Ransom Center.
“I spoke with Tom Staley, who at that time was head of the Ransom Center. And together we compiled a list of possible writers. And so I began my research to get access to each writer.”
She explained that name-dropping the Ransom Center in her letters to famous writers was helpful in persuading some of them to participate. “They wouldn’t know me [but] … they all knew the Ransom Center.”
“I wanted to do a portrait of each writer and I wanted very much to do something that would have meaning for me and would be a strong portrait. It wouldn’t just be a quick snapshot of somebody, but something that really, I would hope, have some substance to it.
“And then I also wanted to know how they lived and how they worked. And so I think of those snapshots really as reportage, which is a photographer’s term for documentary pictures or I mean like a family snapshot.”
“The Writers” is Wilson’s seventh book; previous books include “Avedon at Work,” “Grit and Glory,” “That Day: Pictures in the American West,” and “From Rodin to Plensa.” Her photos have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and London’s Sunday Times Magazine and elsewhere.
“The Writers: Portraits by Laura Wilson” is on view through Jan. I, 2023 at Harry Ransom Center. Admission is free. hrc.utexas.edu
At 5 p.m. Oc. 27, at 5 p.m. Wilson will be on stage at the Ransom Center in conversation with Charles McGrath. The event is free, but reservations are required. More information is available at https://tockify.com/ransom/detail/144/1666911600000