A couple of months ago a publisher approached my agency about using one of my photographs as a book cover. It was a snow scene with a houseboat and a laundry line (see the image here). “There is just one catch,” my agent told me, “they want to add a child running through the snow.” While I’m no purist, it just felt wrong. He asked me if I would just look at a couple of their layouts. I wish I could post them here. The Photoshop work was amazing. But I still said I couldn’t do it.
If it weren’t for the kid running in the snow, I’m sure I would have agreed. I like the use of photographs on book covers. I recently came across a website called Covering Photography that documents this phenomenon (whew, what a specialty). It is interesting to see which images work as book covers. Clearly a lot of people think this photograph by Nan Goldin makes a good cover:
One can’t help but wonder how much say the authors have in these covers. Did Dorothy Allison help select these images by Dorothea Lange, William Eggleston and Wright Morris:
Moreover, did Allison know how powerfully the Lange image would shape the perception of her book? The two seem inseparable. This probably has something to do with using a recognizable face on the cover. This is a rarity in fiction. But there are some notable exceptions. Like the Lange image, it is hard to separate Margaret Bourke-White’s image from the lead character in William Kennedy’s classic, Ironweed:
It is interesting how the flipped version on Ironweed seems so much gentler than Bourke-White’s original (from the book You Have Seen Their Faces).
Most covers go for atmosphere and avoid specificity. It is no accident that the very popular image by Goldin hides both faces. This is interesting given the fact that nearly every magazine cover shows a face looking at the camera. But it makes sense. By keeping things less specific, the reader is allowed to create the characters in their mind. But even with these more generic images, I wonder how much say the writer has in the selection. I suspect the writer Didier Daeninckx knows as little about me (and my picture) as I know about him:
I wonder if Spalding Gray helped choose the image for his novel Impossible Vacation. The book draws on Gray’s own life experience, including his mother’s suicide. Gray himself committed suicide 11 years after the publication of the book – by drowning. Did he help select this image by Ralph Eugene Meatyard:
It is interesting how the cover images affect our reading of the book. But equally influential is the author photograph. In discussing the under-appreciation of Alice Munro in the New York Times, Johnathan Franzen wrote, “her jacket photos show her smiling pleasantly, as if the reader were a friend, rather than wearing the kind of woeful scowl that signifies really serious literary intent.” Franzen makes a good point. Compare Monro’s portrait to his own:
This over-the-top image of Franzen was taken by
Marion Ettlinger. Ettlinger is so successful as a photographer that she has her own verb. “To be ‘Ettlingered’ means to have imparted to you an aura of distinction and renown, regardless of whether anyone besides your mother and your cat knows who you are,” wrote the New York Times.
For the record, Franzen has updated his portrait. Just as he avoided the Oprah Book Club, he now shies away from Ettlinger. I can understand why. Ettllinger is a good photographer. But there is something off-putting about her relentless effort to make authors look like, well, Authors. Others have been more blunt in their criticism.
Dennis Loy Johnson writes:
If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m not sure what words are behind Marion Ettlinger’s photographs, except perhaps “My shoes are too tight.” You could say her photos represent yet another discouragement of intellectualism in modern literature. Or you could say they just prove the power of faceless storytelling — the story about that emperor who wore no clothes, for example.
The New York Times
profile of Ettlinger suggests the problem with her pictures is that they were produced specifically to market books:
A portrait’s function is to have no function except the representation of the subject. Julia Margaret Cameron’s celebrated photographs of Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle are portraits. So are Bernice Abbott’s iconic pictures of James Joyce. The subjects of those pictures acquired, through their work — or through titanic expectation that became a kind of original work itself — reputations that had become larger than their writing. Thus their images could acceptably appear independent of a dust jacket. Ettlinger’s pictures, however, are made expressly to adorn book jackets. Their function is to be, as it were, purely functional — informative, curiosity-satisfying. They are absolutely dependent on the publication of the book, which is a one-time event.
I’m not sure I agree, but it is an interesting argument. It gets me thinking about the portraits I’ve made of authors:
This picture on the left of Patricia Hampl was made specifically for her dust jacket. The picture of Jim Harrison was made for a French literary magazine and was later used by his publisher for a book of poems. Which is the better portrait? How do these portraits alter the way we read the author? I’m not sure. All I know is that pictures change words as much as words change pictures.
One of the best places to watch this dynamic is in the pages of the New Yorker. I’m specifically interested in the way they combine photography and fiction. Much like book covers, the use of a single image within the largely photo-free magazine is seductive. It serves to draw readers into the story.
Also like most book covers, these images are found by scavenging editors rather than producers. Every couple of months I get an email from the editors of the New Yorker that go something like this, “Do you have a picture of an older woman in a damp, Eastern European setting, preferable not with her face showing. We are also looking for a picture of a monkey, possibly sitting on a suitcase….”
These emails always have me scrambling through my archives. I invariably come up dry. While I’ve done editorial work for the magazine a number of times, I’ve never fulfilled one of these fiction requests. But I’ve come close. One time I received a call from the New Yorker photo editor who explained that the illustrator
Maira Kalman had done a painting based on one of my pictures. They wanted to use the illustration with a fiction story. I agreed. I’m a huge fan of the New Yorker. If they asked me to work in the mailroom I would agree. I was also flattered that a painter was inspired by one of my images. This is how it looked:
Here is my original:
After the magazine came out, I received dozens of emails by people who were outraged that my picture was ‘ripped off.’ I explained that the illustration was like a music sample or cover song. What people couldn’t understand was that I wasn’t credited. I didn’t care, though I suppose it would have helped alleviate criticism.
As I now look back on that illustration from August 2004, I notice that the author of the short story was Richard Ford. Ford ended up writing an essay for my book NIAGARA. While it might have been nice to use my picture for his story, I’m much happier that his story was used for my pictures.