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 2,500 volumes, includes over 350 photographers, and spans the history of the medium, from Niépce, Daguerre 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 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, Author, Publisher, Publication date and Designer.
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.
So far, 'Covering Photography' has been limited by the same factors that drive it; i.e, my knowledge and recollection of photographers and photographic history. If I'm not aware of it, chances are it won't be found in the collection. And that is one reason why I'd like this site to be interactive: input -> information -> insight. In my ideal, fantasy scenario, one could, given the inclination, haul the entire 'Covering Photography' collection of books into a large gallery space, hang them on the wall like photographs, and have a respectable, reasonably comprehensive representation of the history of photography.
Naturally, the collection has it's strengths and weaknesses: It is considerably stronger, for example, in twentieth century photography than in nineteenth century photography, and it consists almost entirely (but not completely!) of work by American and European photographers. I hope and expect that, given time, these deficiencies will be remedied.
That being said, the point needs to be stressed that this is not a 'completist' collection. Even if one begins in the 1950's, when photographs began to more regularly appear on book covers, hundreds of millions of books have been published around the world, and millions more come out every year. The use of 'notable' photographs on book covers has increased significantly in recent years, and it would be impractical, if not impossible, to locate them all.
Which leads me to the topic of how books are selected. After all, there are tens of millions of photographic book covers out there, and... well, as Walker Evans paraphrased Matthew 22:14, I will paraphrase Walker Evans, and say that many are called, but relatively few are chosen. Most of the photographers listed on this site are obvious picks; accomplished and well-known, at least to other photographers and those whose job it is to know such things. It is with younger and more contemporary image-makers that decisions become more subjective. Most, though not all, of the photographers in this collection have had at least one monograph of their work published, and have appeared in several anthologies. Others may not be as fortunate, but I've been aware and admiring of their work for a number of years. And sometimes, although it is comparatively rare, I simply like the photo on the cover, and think it fits in well with the rest.
Every collection is defined as much by what is not included as by what is. In the case of 'Covering Photography', I am primarily interested in mass-market, trade editions of books; not limited editions or livres d'artistes. The collection purposely does not include, for example, original editions of H. G Wells' 'The Door in the Wall' (illustrated by Alvin Langdon Coburn), Hart Crane's 'The Bridge' (illustrated by Walker Evans), or Arthur Rimbaud's 'A Season in Hell' (illustrated by Robert Mapplethorpe). On the other hand, the Swallow Press paperback of Anais Nin's 'House of Incest' (Illustrated by Val Telberg) is included, largely because it was produced to reach an audience larger than the few wealthy collectors targeted for a limited edition.
'Point of Interest'
The 'Point of Interest' feature appears in the upper right of some of the pages. Clicking on it will allow the viewer to see either another, conceptually related book cover, or the original image on which the cover is based. However, any original photograph we display in this feature must be free of copyright. If an original image needs to be shown which is still under copyright protection, we try to provide a link to a site where it is displayed. Since the link is to another site, we can't guarantee that the image will always be there.
Guidelines for Searching:
Although searching this site should be a fairly simple process, the software does have a few quirks. Here are some guidelines for those who may need them:
- Contents for all search categories are listed in alphanumeric order; for example, ‘Ansel Adams’ precedes ‘Robert Adams’. Within this order, however, a persons name will be listed ‘first-name-first’, i.e., ‘Ansel Adams’, NOT ‘Adams, Ansel’.
- If more than one name is involved [as in a pair or collaborative team of photographers, authors, etc], the names can usually be found alphabetically, under the last name of the first person listed. For example, ‘David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson’ would be found under ‘H’.
- Publication date is by year, going from most recent to oldest.
- The categories Publisher and Publication date refer to the specific edition of the title listed, which is not necessarily the first edition. For example, Joseph Conrad’s 'Heart of Darkness' was originally published in 1902; the copy we refer to, with a cover photo by Carl Chiarenza, was published in 1989.
- For instances where a designer is named in the colophon, but not specifically identified as the cover designer, I have indicated that by adding '[book design]' after the person's name.
A Note on Image Titles:
Due to their relative unimportance in the larger scheme of a book's purpose; i.e., informational content, storyline and style, the 'original' titles for cover photographs are often omitted by the publisher. Initially, I had planned to list titles only if they appeared in the book (usually on the back cover, back end flap or in the colophon), and then exactly as they appeared. I've since scrapped that plan in favor of providing original titles for as many of the photographs as possible, whether or not they appear in their respective books. It is worth noting, however, that titles, and even dates, of images can vary, according to where one finds them. When I have to choose between different titles/dates for a single image, I go with what I consider to be the most authoritative source.
This website has been conceived and built purely for the exchange and dissemination of knowledge and ideas relating to book covers, literature, popular culture and the history of photography. In that sense, it's purpose is primarily educational. There is no commercial intent involved. We hope that viewers enjoy, learn from, and contribute to the site and the archive. We welcome your comments. KB