Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Unknown Pleasures

I've settled into predictable consumption habits as I approach middle age. For the most part the only things I buy any more are music, photobooks, and gasoline. I've been enjoying a steady stream of all three lately. For example, the recent A Tribe Called Quest album we got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service is fantastic. Who woulda thunk a band could take so much time off, then come back better than ever? Somewhere Phife Dawg is smiling.

The album cover is a gas too, a Basquiat-inspired graphic mess which I hated at first, but of which I have grown more and more appreciative. 

Compare this design to the cover of a recent favorite photobook. 

This book has great insides. In terms of artistic merit, Faurer is right up there with ATCQ. But you'd never guess that from the conservative cover. It might as well be the face of a corporate training manual or employee handbook. I don't know if it's true you can judge a book by its cover. But this book better hope not. 

These are merely two recent examples but they typify a wider phenomenon which I've often wondered about. Why is it that album covers have a rich history of design and artistic innovation, while photobook covers are generally bland and lacking? I realize that's a broad categorization. Exceptions exist. But generally it's true. 

Don't believe me? Just spend some time browsing recent book covers at Mack, Steidl, or Photo-Eye

Then compare to recent album covers at Pitchfork.

The images shown above are just from the past few weeks, but album cover designers have been hard at it for decades. If you want to delve into the rich history there are plenty of books and reference manuals available. This one's pretty good. Or this. Or this, this, or this. There are scads. The territory is well established. Photobook covers on the other hand? No such equivalent exists, nor should it. Because photobook covers are boring as hell. They make the White Album's cover look downright fancy. Ooh, they twisted the text!

I'd been mulling this situation for a while but it was brought into sharper focus when Aperture's Total Records showed up in my mailbox last week. This is yet another beautiful compilation of record covers, but with a twist. It's compiled from a photo historian's perspective. This treasure trove is packed with photo drafts, croppings, repurposed images, famous photographers hired for covers, covers with sly photo references, etc. For anyone remotely interested in the topic Total Records immediately establishes itself as the central reference. Not that it's a hard task. There isn't much else out there. 

Browsing Total Records one thing becomes quickly apparent. Musicians aren't afraid to put themselves on their own covers. Grace Jones may have taken it further than most, placing her portrait on every single one of her covers as a sort of musical brand. But many others have gone there as well. Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, Madonna etc. At this point the practice is so commonplace we hardly notice it. But think about that motif in the context of photobooks. When did you last see an author's portrait on a photobook cover? Juegen Teller's I Am Fifty comes to mind. Kim Kardashian's Selfish might count in a pinch. After that I draw a blank.

But why not? After browsing Total Records the idea no longer seems so outlandish. Like albums, most photobooks are organized around a particular artist, and purport to express that person's vision. A casual reader might think a photobook is about its photos. But really most books are about the person behind the photos. And a portrait of that person, if it's a good one, might be a very good aid in interpreting their vision. Musicians understand this. I'm not sure why photographer's don't.

For example a photobook cover like this describes something about its contents.

But with Sander's own portrait on the cover, the photographs inside might take on a new dimension. 

That's all fine and dandy, but for me the more interesting territory isn't portraits. It's appropriated covers. For it's in album re-appropriations that photographs become transformed into new languages and new ideas, sometimes in ways their creator hadn't intended. Each appropriated cover is a like a page from Evidence. A Weegee shot of Coney Island is one thing when it's published as photojournalism. But stick that picture on a George Michael cover and watch it transform. Or view Sugimoto through a U2 lens, or Eggleston through Spoon. Photographic covers are great fun to ponder as you listen to the music inside. This is an area that's near and dear to my heart, the subject of a lengthy Eggleston essay and three quizzes (herehere, and here) on B. But to my knowledge no other critic has investigated the topic until now. 

Total Records takes a stab at it, devoting thirty pages to a chapter titled Aural Reappropriation. Although it contains several examples I hadn't known of before, it merely grazed the subject and left me wanting more. In fact I want the whole thing, and I think it could be delivered in just a few chapters. The territory isn't huge. Considering the millions of record albums in existence, the use of re-appropriated photographs for album covers is actually uncommon. There may be a few hundred examples extant, or perhaps less. In any case it's a manageable quantity. A smallish website could potentially categorize them all. 

Karl Baden's already created such a site for text-based books, where re-appropriation is a cottage industry. His Covering Photography documents hundreds of examples from the 1940s to the present, all cross-referenced by photographer, author, designer, publisher. A similar site for albums would be doable. Maybe some young MFA or BFA student out there reading this could take it on as a thesis project —hint, hint?

Browsing the covers at Covering Photography or Total Records, the influence of designers becomes evident. These covers don't come about by chance. They're crafted by professionals. In the worlds of albums and books "Cover Designer" is an actual job —albeit a niche one— and well compensated. Just ask Chip Kidd or Hipgnosis.

Cover design by Chip Kidd

But in the photobook world, covers generally don't get the same investment. If a designer is hired, it's usually for the book's innards. The designer's energy goes primarily into layout, sequencing, editing, narrative, etc. The cover is an afterthought, or at least it often appears that way. I see a lot of photobooks in which a photographer works with a designer over weeks or months to carefully hone, select, and sequence photographs. That's on top of all the work making the photographs initially, a huge investment of time. All of that, just to slap a cover like this on the finished product:

Employee handbook, anyone? 

I don't mean to single out Bryan Schutmaat. Lewis Baltz recently received similar treatment, so he's in fine company.

As did Diane Arbus...

And Shane Lavalette.

Or Sultan/Mandel, reissued with original cover. 

I like the cover of Curran Hattleberg's new book. Sure, it's just text, but with a twist. Literally. Plus gold leaf always kills. 

But Lost Coast is the exception. Most photobook covers are boring. The examples above typify the strange burden that photographers feel to textualize the cover with name and title. I guess that's ok. Still, a cover needn't label its contents to get the job done. Most books have plenty of room inside, and any necessary identification can be written internally. A photobook cover might better get the job done graphically, maybe without words at all. If we think of a cover's purpose as twofold —1. To attract eyeballs, and 2. To brand contents— graphic design should be the chief concern. Mack's brilliant Zzyzx cover shows that a wordless cover can be quite effective, while subtly foreshadowing its checkered interior.

Of course this isn't news to album designers. They've been making covers like this for decades.

After a brief familiarizing period, one brief glance at the Joy Division cover or the Halpern cover immediately identifies it. No words needed. At this point Unknown Pleasures is iconic. It's on T-shirts. It's been posterized in a thousand dorms. When was the last time you saw a photobook cover posterized? Photographers are supposedly visual people. Shouldn't we have a better grasp on this cover business than musicians? 

I suspect a complicating factor in wordy covers might be the exhibition effect. Photographers tend to think of their books not just as reading material but as projects, the literary equivalent of an exhibition. And how do you "cover" an exhibition? You paste large simple captions on the wall, like so.

A photographer making a book of work from an exhibition might be tempted to slap the same caption on the cover because, at least in the photographer's mind, there's a rough equivalency. But that's a misnomer. In actuality a book and an exhibition are about as different as an album and a performance. One gets a line in the weekend listings. The other gets a work of art on the cover. 

Matter none of it matters. Whether it's on an album, photobook, regular old book, or some other piece of creative content, a cover's final resting place will likely be the same: invisible. The cover will enjoy a brief public existence before the item is stacked in a pile or on a shelf with only its binding exposed to the world. Books and albums all morph into vertical color fields. Cover? What cover?

Sorry covers, but most of you will be buried, if not on a computer hard drive then on a shelf in the basement. It's a wonder we spent any time at all fussing over you. If you enjoy any sort of publicity in your dotage, it might be as a snapshot on the cover of a photobook about albums.


Stan B. said...

Interesting topic! I'm guessing it would not serve any photographer well if we remember their book more for its cover graphic, than the photos contained therein- a case of competing visuals, as opposed to a music album. As for placing the photographer's image on the book (egads!), I think most photographers (fortunately) prefer remaining behind the lens (at least in this regard)- a nice change of pace these days when most everyone place's themselves front, right and center.

Indie books have gone a long ways to at least try and be more innovative in design all around, but I must say it's kind of nice to find someplace, any place where things are... understated.

FWIW- Recently saw a video in which John Gossage claimed that The Pond was the first photo book not to contain a front cover photo.

Kevin Purcell said...

Interesting that you should mention appropriation and Unknown Pleasures album cover but not connect the two.

For along while I though it was a screen grab from a Fairlight but it's ... science!

Peter Saville designed the cover but Sumner picked out the art work which was a (negative of a) figure from the 1970 PhD thesis of Harold Craft “Radio Observations of the Pulse Profiles and Dispersion Measures of Twelve Pulsars” showing measurements of pulsar CP 1919.

Plus there's Disney appropriating the appropriated artwork for their own T shirt (which is funny on so many levels).

And there are others Mickeyfied T shirts even earlier (part of the EDM scene?).

Perhaps worth a book all on it's own?

Marilyn Andrews said...

tps:// This link is to a NYT article about Irma Boom, a Dutch book designer. She designs a book as a whole, growing from a concept. Most photography books are an assemblage of photographs. There might be a common idea that connects the photographs, but the book itself is not part of the concept. Hence, a cover such as the ones you describe, with the name of the photographer and not much else. If you were designing the cover of a book of your photographs, what might it look like?

Blake said...

Gossage is wrong. There were several photobooks before The Pond without cover photos. The Decisive Moment, American Photographs, Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, and Evidence to mention just a few.

I'm open to all types of covers and all types of photobooks. There's room for all. I just wish there was more variety in design. To me the general mood is too conservative.

The new edition of Democratic Forest presents an interesting compromise. A box with conversatively labeled cover enclosing 10 books, each with a dynamic cover.

If I were making a book I might model the cover on XTC's Go 2.

Indrek said...

"When did you last see an author's portrait on a photobook cover?"

"Annie Leibovitz at Work" has a an artist + her assistant on the book jacket. But this flimsy thingy only covers 1/3 of the book and all you actually get is the TEXT. Sad.

John said...

There's a guy in Japan who is on a buncha his books:

Stan B. said...

That's why you don't do that.
There, I said it.

Blake Andrews said...

Thanks, John. Forgot about the exceptional Araki.

TC said...

As a musician and a photographer, my take is that a musician's performance includes the physical show, their appearance and actions in addition to the actual music, whereas nobody goes to watch a photographer actually make photos...that would be nearly antithetical to the process of making photos, of observing. My personal observation is that many, if not most, good photographers are good at least in part because they spend less time with their appearance in mind and more on the appearances of others, whereas a musician is generally at least conscious of how they look while performing.

And then there is the fact that the photographic output is actually visual, throughout the book, while the album is audio. Putting a blank page on the cover of a photobook could be interpreted as just as different as putting a visual cover on a group of song recordings, in that neither is more of the same, if that makes any sense. Not that I don't agree with your notion that the cover of a photobook should be at least an well-considered as that of an album, I agree completely.