The idea for ‘Covering Photography’ first occurred to me in 2002. I had fallen into the habit of haunting secondhand bookstores, spending hours searching, mostly without success, for classic photography books I couldn’t afford when I was younger, and are now as rare as hen’s teeth. While prowling the stacks, I began to notice familiar images from the History of Photography on the covers of novels, textbooks and volumes of poetry; books whose nominal subject matter didn’t necessarily have a literal correspondence with the often iconic photographs that graced their jackets. Curious about this metaphorical relationship between cover and content, I began to assemble a collection that currently numbers more than 1,500 volumes, includes over 350 photographers, and spans the history of the medium, from Niépce
and Fox Talbot
through Nan Goldin
, Cindy Sherman
, Carrie Mae Weems
and other established contemporary practitioners. Also included in this collection is the work of a number of individuals who, though not primarily known as photographers, have produced photographic, or photographically-based, work which has had an impact on the medium. Robert Rauschenberg
and Andy Warhol
are two such examples. Eudora Welty
, best known as a writer, is another.In the Fall of 2005, Boston College’s Instructional Design and eTeaching Services the undertook the construction of a database and hosting of a website that would allow anyone with a computer and an internet connection to access the collection via five primary categories: Photographer
, Publication date
In the year that followed, covers were scanned, data was collected and cross-referenced, consultants were consulted. Now, within the original five categories, additional information may be found regarding Image Title, Book Genre (novel, poetry, etc), Photo Genre (documentary, portrait, etc) and Group (Photo-Secession, FSA, Magnum, etc). Also noted are instances where two or more books use versions of the same image for their cover design.
During it’s transformation from photograph to book cover, the original image is often cropped, colored, reversed or otherwise altered to fit the aesthetic intent of the designer or the more practical concerns of the publisher. In some cases the image has been re-staged by another photographer, or even copied into another medium. All this manipulation prompts the question: How is a photograph, initially conceived as an independent aesthetic object, re-used as a visual cipher for a book’s subject, or as an attention-getting sales device; i.e., how does a shift in context affect a photograph’s meaning? There is no simple answer to this question. In truth, the relationship between cover image and book content runs the gamut, from strictly literal to highly symbolic.
Clearly, the main determining factor in the outcome of this porocess is the designer of the cover: Most designers rummage through monographs and anthologies of photographs as a matter of course, in search of source material and inspiration. A designer can choose to respect the integrity of an image, and use it unaltered, or simply see it as another visual prop, to be manipulated as need arises, in order to fit parameters posed by layout, typography and, last but not least, budget. (I must note at this point that I neither make nor imply any judgment concerning the ‘ethics’ of how a photograph is re-used. It is all interesting to me).
A second determining factor in image use is book content. A biography, for example, will often have a photo of its subject on the cover; whether that photo is by Richard Avedon or a more obscure talent, it’s connection to the book’s main theme is direct and precise. Similarly, books about global strife and violent conflict may employ images by Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, James Nachtwey or similarly well-known war photographers on their covers, but the relationship of those images to text, down to the specific war and battle, is usually a linear one. Other topics allow more wiggle room.
Metaphoric potential increases when a book’s subject involves, say, love and/or sex, particularly when poetry is the form. Verse, by it’s nature, has a more abstract relationship to literary content, and the juxtapositional possibilities of cover and subject for a volume of poetry are often limited only by the designer’s imagination. Karl Blossfeldt and Eugene Atget both seem popular choices for poetry, romance and memoir. Photos by Bruce Davidson or André Kertész contribute urban sophistication and a sense of mystery to romance and seduction, while Brassai adds a gritty realism (Photographs from Davidson’s early ‘Brooklyn Gang‘ series are by far the most popular book cover choice of his many bodies of work; his iconic image of two teens necking in the back seat of a car appears on the softcover editions of at least three books).
If a cover idea calls for nudity (or what passes for nudity in mainstream publishing), the list of photographic candidates is long, ranging (alphabetically) from E. J. Bellocq through Edward Weston. One of the most striking uses of the human form on book jackets comes from Bill Brandt’s 1961 opus, ‘Perspective of the Nude’; work from which can be found on the covers of at least a half-dozen titles.
Although the notion of how the ‘idea’ of the original photograph relates to the content of the book still constitutes the core of this collection, I have expanded the philosophical parameters of the collection to include books where the relationship is more direct. Inclusivity, I feel, is more conducive to increasing knowledge.
‘Covering Photography’ is by it’s nature a work in progress, and meant to be interactive. Titles are added on a regular basis, and commentary is encouraged, whether it refers to the site as a whole, to individual photographers or to any of the covers (every page, including the home page, contains a link to post comments). Because the site, due to my own background, emphasizes a photohistorical point of view, I am particularly interested in comments which approach the material from a literary or book design context. My hope is that this website and database may function as an alternative, albeit atypical, take on the nexus of literature, graphic design and photographic history. Karl Baden”
Note: Portions of the above introduction were originally published in Eye Magazine, Issue No. 59.
Continue reading on the site as Karl shares the “Collection Parameters” “Guidelines for Searching” and more.
Thank you, Karl, for creating and maintaining such an important archive!
PS to those in NYC: One of my favorite shows of the year, “50 Books 50 Covers” closed November 26th at the AIGA National Design Center:
This exhibition showcases selections from the “AIGA 50 Books/50 Covers” competition, which aims to identify the 50 best-designed books and book covers of the year. Selections were made by a distinguished jury and become part of the AIGA Design Archives, where images, full credits, project statements and jurors’ comments for all selections are available.
The exhibition will be on display at the AIGA National Design Center in New York.
Monday through Thursday: 11:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.
Friday: 11:00 a.m–5:00 p.m.