For better than the last decade, photographer Beowulf Sheehan has celebrated the vitality of literature through his portraiture of its luminaries and its emergent talents from across the globe. Author: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2018) is his forthcoming collection of select images from his journey, featuring 200 historians, journalists, novelists, playwrights, and poets from 35 countries.
Sheehan’s images seek to show the person behind the persona, to share the humanity of the artist of letters. Just as metaphor is a powerful device in literature, the same holds true for Beowulf’s photographs. When an environment helps to tell the story of the storyteller, it appears with the writer, both broadly lit, connecting the two. For many of us our journeys are better worn, however, on our faces and bodies. Many voices speak volumes with theirs. Beowulf Sheehan sees those writers with a minimal light and clean background, asking the viewer to see the subject’s journey in the line of a body, the turn of a smile, the cast of a gaze.
To Beowulf Sheehan’s vision, Salman Rushdie writes in his foreword to Author, “Writers are not the easiest of subjects for a photographer. Many of us are uneasy in front of a camera lens, seeing ourselves as observers, not the observed…. Beowulf’s gentle ease soothes even the toughest literary spirits.” In his introduction he shares that writers, as he sees them, “reflect and help shape societies and cultures, calling attention to their ills and dangers, celebrating their wonders and triumphs. They are you. Me. Us. And they are beautiful.” However compelling a single image in Author might be, the cumulative effect of the body of work is twofold: Author calls attention to the importance of art and artists in our world today, and it illustrates the diverse, inclusive community of which we are all a part.
Author is also Beowulf Sheehan’s “Thank you” to the literary community. The work will be a partial fundraiser for BookUp, a program of the National Book Foundation to inspire reading by young people in challenged communities across the US, and for PEN America, the US’s flagship office of the world’s largest organization committed to protecting the freedom to write and freedom of expression.
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