A few weeks ago, we asked you to send us your best portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-person photos for a chance to win a Frank Clegg briefcase. Read on for a slideshow of exceedingly sensitive finalists … and one gloriously pretentious winner!
This would be mid- to late eighties. I had just finished writing my first novel, calling it Bad Girls of Ireland. I would like to note, for the record, that while the book remains unpublished, I stand firm in my belief that it was the first to wear that “bad girls” label which became a thing in the early nineties (before we had memes, kiddies).
At the time I thought it was an appropriately high/low moniker to slap on two hundred pages that were (let’s be honest) too esoteric to be legible to anyone else on earth; in retrospect it sounds kind of cheesy. I think you had to be there. Influences? Joyce, naturellement. Nabokov, Calvino, Rilke, Duras, Cortázar, all of those Zone books about the body. Jung! Was I a mo girl swimming in a pomo stream, or the reverse? From the outside my life looked way more like a Tama Janowitz story than the Kathy Acker one that was going on in my head, right down to the jewelry-selling on the street. Earrings—singletons only, made out of broken glass I collected at bus stops. Some insufficiently considered “performance art.” You get the picture.
Sadly this is not a panoramic shot encompassing the whole of the room, which was pretty classic. Out of sight in front of me are my typewriter and piles of books atop a four-by-eight sheet of plywood and cinder block desk. The bed did have a box spring, I think, but otherwise everything was as low to the ground as it could go, in case I fell over. You can just see behind my right shoulder the broken mirror propped against the wall. Everywhere, piles that could be labeled “art” or “life,” depending on the time of day. Also visible is a bit of the faux marbling on the wall behind my bed, in underwater tones, with a quote from Heracleitus: “Those who sleep are workers and share in the activities going on in the universe.” But you don’t see the dyed theatrical muslin (liturgical shades, natch) creating a canopy. Or all the broken baby-doll parts, painted gold.
I was aiming for some sweet spot between convent and seraglio, not aware that I was tacking too far in one direction till the location scouts from Law & Order (original version) showed up one day looking for a convincing backdrop for a stool-pigeon hooker’s roost. “It’s perfect! Just get rid of all these books!”
At 28, in my Dashiell Hammett phase (circa 1978). This portrait, by photographer John W. Farrell, was created while I was experimenting with writing detective stories. A major influence was the Borsalino hat I had purloined from the coat check at some ritzy uptown restaurant one night, which instantly transformed its wearer into a shadowy figure moving between dusk and dawn night through Manhattan’s punk rock underbelly, collecting the material that would eventually be enshrined in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, about a rock ’n‘ roll detective, first serialized in the New York Rocker and L.A. Weekly, and translated by Hollywood into a motion picture released in 1990 by 20th Century Fox, directed by Renny Harlin and starring Andrew Dice Clay. The movie poster featured the star in a pose with an uncanny resemblance to the original portrait, more than a decade after Farrell’s lens captured my youthful literary posturing.
The picture was taken roughly a decade ago. I had recently graduated from college and was living in New York. I fancied myself an aesthete with a penchant for writing very questionable poetry. I specifically remember having just read and being profoundly moved by George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man. He would have been my biggest influence at the time, alongside Rimbaud and the various poetic stars of the Romantic movement (Coleridge, Keats, etc.). Needless to say, this staged photograph of me is an homage to my nineteenth-century literary heroes.
—M. Monroe Johnson