Monday, March 15, 2010

Pictures in the Middle: The Use of Photos and Other Illustrations in Biographies

Throughout my career as a librarian, one activity that I have enjoyed is looking at picture in the middle of biographies and memoirs. They evoke in me a feeling similar to finding old pictures in a drawer in my mother's house. I can become transfixed. This can easily happen at the library when I find new books sitting on a cart right out of technical processing, when I am working on reference questions, or when I am weeding collections. I find myself gazing at the photos of the subjects in their youth, then doing whatever made them famous, and finally in old age. There is often more to see than just famous people - there are old clothes, old cars, and interesting locations. I am hooked by these glossy pages.

At a recent book discussion, one of the club members said that her favorite thing about biographies were the pictures in the middle. I understood, but I was suddenly conscious of all the biographies that I have examined in the past three years that did not have picture-in-the-middle sections. I wondered why I had not thought about the change - if there really has been a change.

So I decided to do a little investigating. I have been looking at many biographies published in 2009 anyway, so I created a spreadsheet to keep track of how these books deal with pictures. I used only third person biographies for the study, no memoirs. I discovered two common ways to use pictures in biographies: 1) group pictures into inserted sections, often on glossy paper, or 2) distribute the pictures throughout the text with no glossy paper. There are two other less common ways to use pictures: 3) insert a single picture on glossy paper with a blank back in a few strategic spots in a book (common a hundred years ago), or 4) fill the books with photos and minimal text. The fourth method really makes a different type of book, a photobiography.

Looking at 66 biographies from 2009, I found:
  • 40 books (61 %) with inserted picture sections
  • 20 books (30 %) with pictures spread throughout the text
  • 2 books (3 %) with single inserted pages
  • 2 books were photobiographies (3 %)
  • 4 books had no illustrations (6 %)
This adds to more than 100 % because Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock by Henry Adams had both a color insert section and black-and-white photos distributed through the text, while Rehnquist by Herman J. Obermayer had both distributed photos as well a few single page/single photo inserts on glossy paper.

Seeing that more than half of the biographies still had picture sections in the middle, I wondered if I had really been right in thinking there were more in the past. I decided to go back twenty years and look at biographies from 1989.

At the Downers Grove Public Library in Illinois, I was able to find 46 biographies published in 1989:
  • 36 book (79 %) had picture sections
  • 6 books (13 %) had pictures spread through the text
  • 1 book (2 %) had no photos
  • 4 books were photobiographies (8 %)
Again, the total is greater than 100 % because Mozart: The Golden Years by H.C. Robbins Landon had both color illustrations in an inserted section as well as black and white illustrations throughout the text.

My sample size may not be large enough to be definitive, but it appears to me that there has been a shift in the way biographies include photos. The method that has gained popularity is incorporating pictures into the text, but separate picture sections are still found in more than half of today's biographies. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues with more emphasis on reducing printing costs. Glossy sections must cost more, and digital publishing makes it easier to insert photos into the text.

For now we should enjoy looking at six to twelve glossy photo-rich pages in the middle of the book while we can.

For those wanting to check my math, here are the books:

2009 Biographies

With Insert Sections

  1. Aces High: The Heroic Saga of the Two Top-Scoring Aces of World War II
  2. Ayn Rand and the World She Made
  3. Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown
  4. Barack and Michelle
  5. Bowie
  6. Butcher: Anatomy of a Mafia Psychopath
  7. Cheever: A Life
  8. Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
  9. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  10. Eureka Man
  11. Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schreiver and the Ultimate Weapon
  12. First Tycoon
  13. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor
  14. Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King
  15. Heroes & Villains: Inside the Minds of the Greatest Warriors in History
  16. How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
  17. Last Man Standing: The Ascent of James Dimon and JPMorgan Chase
  18. Last of His Kind
  19. LeMay: The Life and Wars of General Curtis LeMay
  20. Molly Ivins: A Rebel's Life
  21. Munson: The Life and Death of a Yankee Captain
  22. Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan
  23. Paul McCartney: A Life
  24. Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas
  25. Poe: A Life Cut Short
  26. Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life
  27. Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe
  28. Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne
  29. Strange Eventful History: Ellen Terry, Henry Irving…
  30. Strangest Man
  31. Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith
  32. Trotsky: A Biography
  33. Unmasked: Final Years of Michael Jackson
  34. Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa
  35. Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Franes Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
  36. Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth
  37. Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I
  38. Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster
  39. Secret Life of Louis XIV
  40. Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock

With Photos Spread Through Text

  1. Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys
  2. Bolter
  3. Civil War Wives
  4. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time
  5. Egg on Mao: The Story of an Ordinary Man Who Defaced and Icon and Unmasked a Dictatorship
  6. Evelyn Brent: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Lady Crook
  7. Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants
  8. Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age
  9. Jacques Cousteau
  10. Joseph II
  11. Love Pirate and the Bandit's Son
  12. Most Evil: Avenger, Zodiac, and the Further Serial Murders of Dr. George Hill Hodel
  13. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life
  14. Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
  15. Rehnquist
  16. Sisters of the Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels
  17. Scandals
  18. U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth
  19. Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington
  20. Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America

Single Page Inserts

  1. Beyond the Miracle Worker
  2. Rehnquist


  1. Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of It
  2. Great and Only Barnum

No Photos

  1. Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife
  2. Louisa May Alcott
  3. The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, the Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals
  4. Thoreau You Don't Know

1989 Biographies

With Insert Sections

  1. Bad Intentions: The Mike Tyson Story
  2. Bennie Goodman and the Swing Era
  3. The Benny Hill Story
  4. The Bridesmaids: Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, and Six Intimate Friends
  5. Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart
  6. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend
  7. Dale Carnegie: The Man Who Influenced Millions
  8. Dracula: Prince of Many Faces: His Life and Times
  9. Dylan: A Biography
  10. Fred Allen: His Life and Wit
  11. George Bush: An Intimate Portrait
  12. Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life
  13. Grand Obsession: Madame Curie and Her World
  14. He's a Rebel (about Phil Spector)
  15. Hitler: The Path to Power
  16. The Hustons
  17. If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth
  18. Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher
  19. Knight of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson (not glossy paper)
  20. The Landry Legend
  21. Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography
  22. Life and Death of Andy Warhol
  23. Linus Pauling: A Man and His Science
  24. Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart
  25. Misha: The Mikhail Baryshnikov Story
  26. Mozart: The Golden Years
  27. No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy
  28. The Princess and the Duchess
  29. The Quest for El Cid
  30. Royalty Revealed (about the Windsors)
  31. The Secrets of Houdini
  32. Sheens: Martin, Charlie, and Emilio Estevez
  33. The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart
  34. Stanny: The Gilded Life of Stanford White
  35. Stonewall Jackson: Portrait of a Soldier
  36. W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes

With Photos Spread Through Text

  1. The Bishop's Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright
  2. Harold, the People's Mayor
  3. Jane Addams
  4. Louise Brooks
  5. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil
  6. Mozart: The Golden Years


  1. Andrew Lloyd Webber
  2. Bruce Lee Story
  3. Rasputan: Rascal Master
  4. The Vanderbilts

No Photos

  1. The Borgias

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