By Karl Baden
I’ve been spending far too much time in secondhand bookstores. I’ll waste hours in the shelves, looking, mostly without success, for those iconic photo books that I couldn’t afford when I was younger, and now are as rare as hen’s teeth.
While prowling the stacks, I began to notice that familiar images from the history of photography were being used to illustrate the covers of novels, textbooks and volumes of poetry; books whose nominal subject matter didn’t always literally correspond to the often iconic images that graced their jackets. I became intrigued by what I saw as a metaphorical relationship between cover and content, and began to assemble a collection. It is called “Covering Photography: fifty-five books, twenty-five images” and will be on display in the Photo Cabinets at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts in Cambridge, MA, through November 6, 2005.
During it’s transformation from photograph to book cover, the source 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. The question now becomes: how is an image, originally 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? Interpretive possibilities multiply when, as in the case of this exhibit, books of varied content share a single cover image.
This is a project in progress. I’m currently setting up a website and database where anyone will be able to access the books via author, photographer, designer, publisher and publication date. My hope is that it can be viewed as an atypical look at one aspect of the nexus of literature, graphic design and photographic history.