Nancy Crampton by Lou Jacobs Jr.
Interpreter of Writers
Susan Sontag, 1975;
In this era of grandly manipulated
photographic images, Nancy
Crampton is a distinguished purveyor
of black-and-white simplicity.
Her book, Writers (Quantuck Lane Press,
2005), is a handsome collection covering
four decades, ranging from William Shawn,
the renowned editor of The New Yorker, to
Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin
and Philip Roth. In his foreword Mark
Strand says Nancy’s photographs are more
varied than the typical headshot: “There
is a certain guilelessness about them, an
open, responsive interest in the subject.”
He adds that Nancy’s directness and lack
of theatricality are the foundation of her
More than 100 beautifully
for themselves, as does
Nancy in our interview.
Q: Please tell me something about your
A: I grew up in suburban Philadelphia,
and my only art-related activity in high
school was silversmithing. At Vassar I majored
in English, studied art history, and
took my junior year in Paris, where I
haunted museums and became a fan of
classic French films. I hitchhiked around
Europe looking at art, but I photographed
very little while traveling.
Q: How did you get into photography?
A: In New York in the mid ’60s I was working in book publishing. In 1967
I took off to visit the wildlife parks
of East Africa, where my boyfriend
and I hired our own driver-guides
and were constantly immersed in
the rhythms of the animal world.
It was a lyrical, profoundly stirring
experience. I had to leave Africa
behind, but it had turned me into a
I immediately sold a few of the
African pictures to TWA for brochures.
A friend suggested this,
and I posed as a professional. It
was already clear to me that I had
stumbled into the right field where
I could somehow make my way.
But back in New York I was disoriented,
a photographer without
Shirley Hazzard, 2003;
A friend let me hang out in his
darkroom, and after a while I set
up a darkroom in the bathroom
of my studio apartment and let
it be known I was taking assignments.
A former contact had become
assistant publicity director
at the City University of New
York (CUNY), and she asked me
to photograph the new president
of Queens College. I had no flash or
lights, so I showed up with a tripod
and used ambient light. I processed the
film and made some dampish prints to
show. More prints were ordered, which
I delivered to the newspapers. The next
morning one shot appeared in The New
York Times, and I became a favorite of the
publicity director; CUNY is a vast system,
and I had regular work from them
for several years.
I joined the Village Camera Club and
learned a lot more about photography. I
volunteered to do programming for the
club, and for four years I read magazines
and invited all kinds of photographers to
show their images every Monday night.
André Kertész, Ernst Haas and Elliott
Erwitt came. Twice a month, the visiting
photographer would also critique our
work. It was a pleasurable way to get an
Truman Capote, 1984
Q: What sort of pictures did you do in
your first years?
A: I loved to photograph in New York
neighborhoods, especially East Harlem
and the Lower East Side. I exhibited in
group shows and got assignments from
the USIA magazine America Illustrated to
cover Italians in New York, and from The
New York Times Magazine to photograph
South Bronx street gangs. I met a German
journalist who was covering cultural affairs
for the Springer newspaper chain, the
biggest in Europe, and we teamed up to do
breezy interviews with whoever
Saul Bellow, 1973
During this time I also met
editor Ben Bradlee and started
as a stringer for the style section
of the Washington Post. This
was enjoyable because the Post
often featured photographs, and
I worked with various reporters.
I began photographing writers
on assignment, and continued
to do more portraits on my own.
As early as 1972, I was taking
pictures for what I hoped would
be a book.
Q: Why do you feel writers are
engaging and challenging subjects?
A: In my opinion, writers are
the most interesting and the
most important people. I like to
read them, I like to be in their
company, and I have found them
endlessly fascinating to photograph.
Unlike show biz people,
they are not overexposed. Photographing
celebrities per se has
never excited me. I prefer authenticity.
Philip Roth, 1983
Q: How did you continue to build
A: It’s hard for me to reconstruct, because
it happened every which way. Editors
or publicity people suggested or assigned
writers to me. Sometimes writers
would recommend me to each other.
I first photographed Philip Roth in 1973
and have been his official photographer ever since. I did Saul Bellow
that summer while I
was on a whirlwind tour
for Publishers Weekly. I
chose one of those Saul
Bellow portraits for the
front jacket of my book.
In 1975 I did John Cheever
for Time, after which
he called me whenever he
finished a book. I worked
for the early People magazine,
and getting occasional assignments.
Edward Albee, 1994
Q: Do you have concerns
about protecting your publication
rights to pictures?
A: I don’t sell photos
(except prints to a collector);
I license rights to
reproduce them with specific
limits. Thirty years
ago I took pictures of the
mystery writer Lawrence
Sanders for Time. Sanders
was quite prolific, and
over the years my photo
was used on 30 different
paperback titles. I knew
not to agree to the publisher’s
offer, thanks to membership
in the American Society
of Media Photographers.
I license the use
of stock photos to foreign
magazines plus trade and
textbook publishers, and
for the jackets of biographies
and special editions.
Publishers expect professionals
to delete certain
objectionable items in
their standard permission
Q: Do you shoot mainly
with available light?
A: I like to work as simply
as possible, and I love
available light, but when it
isn’t bright enough, I use
one strobe and umbrella
and a couple of reflectors.
I throw a length of silk
over the umbrella and clip
it at the sides for diffusion.
Joyce Carol Oates, 1993
Q: What camera and
lenses do you use for your
A: Typically I bring a
Leica M3, 50mm and
90mm lenses, and an
old manual Nikon with a
105mm lens. I favor the
50mm because I don’t
like to be too far from my
subjects. If I have to take
both color and black-andwhite,
I bring another M3
with a 50mm. Shooting
visual artists in their studios,
I use a Leica M4 and
a 35mm lens. I don’t own
a digital camera or an autofocus SLR.
Tri-X has always been my film. These
days, however, I shoot more color—usually
Fujicolor Pro 160—for certain magazines
and author publicity portraits. A
nice shop around the corner makes me
two sets of snapshot prints with frame
numbers on the back and a mini contact
sheet. The Tri-X goes downtown to
my longtime printer, Ira Mandelbaum at
and I send contact sheets to
the subject and often to the editor too.
If they still want to see larger images, my
trusty store around the corner does some
4x6 prints. Custom prints are ordered
later from a pro lab. My most popular
pictures are also on CDs, as are retouched
Q: How did three exhibitions of writers
photographs come about?
A: I always planned to
do a New York show, and
it’s really a requirement
from the book publisher’s
point of view. Shows in
other cities came about
as a result of my asking
friends in Los Angeles
and Boston for their suggestions.
Tennessee Williams, 1975
The L.A. Central
Library had a display,
which closed April 2,
where 45 photos were
paired with statements
by the writers as they are
in my book. Although
thede texts are fairly long,
people linger to read
them. At the Boston Athenaeum
they used brief
comments that I wrote
to go alongside the photos.
The New York show
at the Leica Gallery had
no texts, but 60 photographs.
I’m now making
arrangements for these
shows to travel around
the country. The exhibitions
have been very satisfying,
and the book has gone into a
Writers is an exhibition-format book
with wide-bordered black-and-white
photographs on the right and texts by
the subjects, drawn from many sources,
on opposite pages. Joyce Carol
Oates says, “Nancy Crampton is one
of our finest portrait photographers:
subtle, thoughtful, exacting, imaginative
and above all sympathetic.” To
which I can add that Nancy has found
a huge variety of settings, indoors and
out, where writers feel at home and
relaxed. Nancy’s subjects look mostly
at the camera, and you are drawn
back to view them.
Lou Jacobs Jr. is the author of 30 how-to photography
books, the latest of which is How to
Start and Operate a Digital Portrait Photography
Studio (Amherst Media). He has taught
at UCLA and Brooks, is a former president
of ASMP national, and has also written and
illustrated numerous books for children. He
enjoys shooting stock during his travels in the
U.S. and abroad.