Thursday, September 2, 2010

Quiz #22: Cover Art

The recent flap over Vampire Weekend's Contra has got me thinking once again about photographs on album covers.

Vampire Weekend, Contra, photo by ???

It seems strange to me that so few music albums use noncommissioned photos as cover art. Perhaps they're afraid of being sued like Vampire Weekend. Or maybe they can't afford licensing rights in the first place. Or maybe it's tradition, and musicians put a commissioned portrait on the cover just because it's always been done that way. Whatever the case, albums like Contra or the Eggleston albums are the exception to the general rule. Most photographs used on album covers are commissioned specifically for those albums, and relate somehow to its contents. The most common approach is a simple portrait:

Built to Spill, Ultimate Alternative Wavers

If it's noncommissioned, the cover photograph will usually depict the artist in some way:

Michelle Shocked, Short Sharp Shocked, photo by Chris Hardy

Many albums use artwork by band members:

The Sea and Cake, One Bedroom, photo by Sam Prekop

All of these applications seem to ignore one of photography's most powerful potentials, the ability to imply meaning through metaphor without being tied to any original scene or material.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact the situation with book covers is very different. As Karl Baden has meticulously documented, the use of noncommissioned photography for book jackets is widespread. Unlike albums, it's rare for a book cover to feature an author portrait. You might find a small headshot on the rear inside sleeve, but the front cover is usually reserved for a less direct reference, for example:

Seize the Day, Saul Bellow, photo by Louis Faurer

So what's going on here? Are musicians more egotistical than authors? Do albums rely more than books on artist's looks to generate sales? Can you really judge anything by its cover?

With these questions in mind I've designed a little quiz. Below are 10 photographs used as noncommissioned artwork on album covers. How many can you name?

Answers score 1 point for identifying the photographer and 1 point for identifying the album for a total of 20 possible points. The person who first emails me the answer with the highest point total before next Thursday, 9/9, at 8 am PDT will win the prize, a copy of In-Public's 10 book. Good luck!












David Solomons said...

An interesting post Blake and I immediately recognized a number of the album covers in your quiz but strangely wasn't so good on who took the pictures.

One of the main differences album cover art differs from a book cover is that that artwork is much more intrinsically linked with the album than a book is. Consequently it's more important for the record company to get across the right image for its target audience, who are likely to be younger and more influenced on the design of the product as well as it's content.

This also ties in with the strong links that fashion has with music itself, whereas that link is practically non-existent with novelists.

Blake Andrews said...

I agree that album covers seem more closely linked to their contents than book covers, but why? Why aren't there books and blogs and lists devoted to famous book covers? When a book is reprinted it is often with a new cover, but rereleased albums almost always keep the same image. Why? Why is the album cover so fetishized? Maybe demographics (trending toward youth and fashion) play a role but I suspect there are other factors too.

David Solomons said...

I remember seeing a programme about Bowie recently and they talked about the Alladin Sane cover and how RCA threw thousands on the production of it. That was what the record industry was and still is like, as so much of the marketing went into creating an image/package that would cater and appeal to the youth market. That market also became more competitive, especially over a shorter time period.

The book world has historically worked in quite a different way as it's seen as less fashionable and you can take the Penguin Modern Classics series as an example where books by different authors are packaged very similarly. It's really only in relatively more recent times when some novels by more famous contemporary writers have received similar treatment.

Rowan said...

I'm slightly sad that you don't mention, or include in your quiz, one of my favourite covers from one of my favourite CDs, with a picture taken by one of my favourite photographers. Seriously, this album is the confluence of my entire cultural taste:


Blake Andrews said...

That photo has been on the cover of both a book (Anders Petersen's Cafe Lehmitz) and an album. Wonder if there are any others?

Johanna said...

reallly? I think book cover images are often far more literal than album covers - unintended pun quite apt here - and in the past I looked on with slight jealousy at the album cover designers who seemed to have far more freedom to think laterally than book jacket designers...

the selling of music more universal? and the selling of novels more tied into national preferences?

i'm often amazed at the differences in the cover design of the same book in different languages. Here one has different publishers making the decisions and with music the record label is the same worldwide?

Blake Andrews said...

Great article on Vampire Weekend cover photo and amateur album photography: