BY KARL BADEN
CoveringPhotography.com, simply put, is a collection of non–photographic books; fiction, poetry and the like, with notable images from the history of photography (or images by notable photographers) on their covers. Currently, the collection consists of almost 1300 books, represents more than 300 photographers and spans the history of the medium, from Niepce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot through Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, Bill Burke and other established contemporary imagemakers. And while this collection consists of real books, its content may be accessed virtually, online at www.CoveringPhotography.com. This website and database is hosted by, and was put together with the assistance of, Boston College, where I teach photography and digital imaging.
‘Covering Photography’ is a bit of an oddball endeavor, and like many oddball endeavors, it is primarily a product of obsession and curiosity. Conceived in 2002, ‘Covering Photography’ grew out of a predilection I have for spending time in used bookstores, searching, mostly in vain, for the old, influential photobooks I couldn’t afford when I was younger, and now… well, I still can’t afford them, because they’ve become rare enough to have skyrocketed in price.
Occasionally, however, one or two of these books will slip under the radar of increasingly vigilant bookstore owners and turn up in the stacks for ten or fifteen dollars. In addition to getting a great book cheap, a find like this helps soothe my guilt for not having spent the time taking pictures, as I’d originally intended.
One book I’ve kept an eye out for is Hans Bellmer’s Die Puppe (or it’s later French edition, Les Bijoux de la Poupée. I’d prefer to have the German, but really, either one will do). This little Surrealist gem is one of the Holy Grails of photography book collecting. I mention it because, although I’ve never found it and don’t ever expect to, I did several years ago come across a copy of Youth Without Youth, a 1988 collection of three novellas by Eliade Calinescu. I had never heard of the book, but I purchased it anyway because one of Bellmer’s photographs from Die Puppe was used for its cover illustration. I was particularly intrigued by the notion that this frankly bizarre-looking photograph, made in the early 1930s by Bellmer, a very eccentric German artist, was being used to visually represent the contents of a book of fiction by a Romanian-born philosopher in the 1970s. How, I wondered, did the designer of the cover think to establish this metaphorical connection?
The question of how a photograph, initially created as an independent aesthetic object, is recycled as a visual symbol for a book’s subject matter, frames the central premise around which ‘Covering Photography’ is based. And, as is often the case with collections like this, the purpose of the question is not so much to find a specific answer as to encourage others to notice, to think, and perhaps raise a few questions of their own. It is also, by the way, an excuse to obsessively search for all the other books that may fit this category, which is pretty much what I’ve been doing ever since.
During the process of transformation from photograph to book cover, the photographers original image may be left intact, but as often as not it is 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 an image has been re-staged by another photographer, or even copied into another medium.
The main determining factor in this process 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.
With a few exceptions (notably depression-era government pamphlets using FSA work), the work of well-known art and documentary photographers was not utilized for the covers of fiction, poetry and other non-photographic trade books before the late 1950s (if you need a more specific date, I’ll say 1957). And if they did, it was almost always without giving credit. Not surprisingly, many of these early covers used the work of Magnum photographers; Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bruce Davidson seem to have been popular choices.
As far as I can tell, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that designers, publishers and book cover researchers would plunder the ‘art’ history of photography on a regular basis, and the practice has steadily increased since then, right up to the early twenty-first century.
Naturally, some photographers’ work is used more often than others. As might be expected, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange have photographs on quite a few covers, certainly because they made many graphically striking and content-rich images, but also, perhaps, because their FSA work is in the public domain. Brassai and Bill Brandt are also well-represented, particularly for books about urban life, war and espionage in the early to mid-twentieth century. Leading the pack, however, is Man Ray. From portraits to still lifes, photograms to fashion, multiple exposures to nudes, Ray’s output is so varied and abundant, there is something for practically every designers taste and every books content.
Perhaps more surprising is whose photographs one doesn’t see on book covers. Ansel Adams, for instance. Considering how popular and accessible his landscapes have been for the past forty years, I have only come across a few examples of his work on covers (excluding, of course, Sierra Club publications).
Although the notion of how the concept of the original photograph symbolically relates to the content of the book it is paired with constitutes the core of this collection, I have also included books where the relationship is more direct. 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 literal and direct. 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.
A surprising number of photographs have been used on more than one book cover, complicating the relationship between image and text, but also making it more interesting. Some photographers, including Bill Brandt, Man Ray, Julia Margaret Cameron, Leonard Freed, and Nan Goldin have specific images which appear on at least three covers.
More recently, I’ve become interested in covers where the original image has been restaged or translated into another medium, specifically for the books cover. An example of restaging would be former tennis star and bad boy John McEnroe’s autobiography, ‘You Cannot Be Serious’. For its cover, photographer Bill Sumner shot McEnroe walking through a drizzly Times Square in a very intentional imitation of Magnum great Dennis Stock’s famous 1955 portrait of the actor James Dean.
Cases where the photograph has been reproduced in another medium are even more common. Dorothea Lange seems to be the frontrunner in this category, with at least three of the twenty-three covers in the collection featuring her work translated into drawings or prints. My personal favorite is the book ‘Remembering Espenaza’, on the cover of which the artist Elizabeth Catlett has copied Lange’s 1938 photograph ‘Ex-slave with a long memory’ into what appears to be a woodcut, and retitled it ‘The Survivor’. It’s a fairly literal transcription, although Catlett has horizontally reversed Lange’s original. We are warned that Catlett’s copy is ‘all rights reserved’, but the Lange photograph she appropriated it from is copyright-free.
To think of ‘Covering Photography’ as being only about photographs and photographers is to view it narrowly. In its most practical sense, it is a resource for book design, literature and the history of photography. Seen more broadly, it offers the user an opportunity to gain perspective on the overlapping of aesthetics and commerce; the utilization of ‘high art’, not only as a metaphor for content it was not created to represent, but as a vehicle for ‘selling’ that content.
The website and database, CoveringPhotography.com, has been created so that the resource aspect of this collection may be used as a teaching tool, not only for the obvious subjects (Graphic Design, Photography, Photohistory), but for areas that involve the intersection of multiple disciplines; Cultural Studies, for example, or courses involving Cultural History or Photography and Popular Culture. To this end, all the data on the website has been cross-referenced so that any cover image may be accessed via five major categories: Photographer, Author, Publisher, Publication Date and Designer. Additional categories are planned for the future, including Book Genre (fiction, poetry, drama, etc), Photo Genre (documentary, portrait, landscape, etc) and Historical Group (Photo-Secession, f64, Magnum, etc). Finally, a feature entitled Point of Interest has been added to many of the pages, allowing the user to view the original, unaltered photograph, or to view photographs and book covers of related significance.
‘Covering Photography’ is by its 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 contains a link to post comments). 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 has been on the fine arts faculty at Boston College since 1989. His photographs have been widely exhibited, including at the Robert Mann Gallery, Zabriskie Gallery, Marcuse Pfeifer Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Howard Yezerski Gallery, The Institute of Contemporary Art and The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Musée Batut in France, Photokina in Cologne, Germany, and The Photographers Gallery in London. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. His photographs and visual books are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Addison Gallery of American Art, the Polaroid International Collection and the Guggenheim Museum Library.
Beginning in 2005, Baden has also written about and curated exhibitions on the relationship between book cover design and the history of photography. His website and database, CoveringPhotography.com, allows access to more than fifteen hundred photographic book covers via photographer, author, publisher, publication date and designer.