An image of Joyce Carol Oates by portrait photographer Gregory Heisler is available in a 2013 collection of his work: Gregory Heisler: 50 Portraits.

Joyce Carol Oates by Gregory Heisler
Joyce Carol Oates by Gregory Heisler

I had just read my first Joyce Carol Oates novel the week before. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was rattled by the book’s candid brutality and rawness. There were few photographs of her to be found as reference; in all of them she seemed small, fragile, bird-like. I couldn’t reconcile the person I saw with the words I had read. I felt something more was needed in the photograph, a small, disturbing element to offset her gentle presence. Visiting a local antique dealer near my studio in New York, I spied a cast-iron doll’s hand in a display case. I rented it for the day, along with a little nineteenth-century sculptor’s stand. They’d just be in the frame, unexplained, a disquieting counterpoint to her calm.

Ultimately, as soon as I saw her beseeching expression, the little doll’s hand seemed superfluous. It was a photographer’s contrivance, the one-thing-too-many in the picture. The first thing I did was retouch it out. All that was needed was the subtle S of her body, the gesture of her soft hands, the craziness of her marvelous boa, and her look. Looking at the picture two years later, I elected to put it back in.

The photograph was commissioned by the National Arts Club, and is on permanent exhibition at their NYC headquarters. JCO received their Medal of Honor for Literature in 2009.

This image has been little-seen online up to now, and the version at the National Arts Club does not include the doll’s hand.

More images by Gregory Heisler

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