Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Specificity, Magic, and Getting Lost in Cover Art

Talking with Colin Smith recently at his blog got me thinking about the subjective effects of good illustration. We were discussing those pieces of art inside a number of books, but I'm struck time and again by the impact a photo cover has on me versus good old fashioned paintings and drawings. Even a photo of a sculpture is not the same.

When I was a kid, you still saw matte painting in movies and television. Science texts sometimes employed artists for renderings of various objects of study - space, in particular, was fertile ground (so to speak ...) for magnificent paintings of detailed scenes, worlds away from our own, exciting phenomena rendered in bold colors and evoking intensity, heat, movement - danger! - beauty ...

For over a century and a half, there has been a lament that photography destroys art, that it is soulless, that it is unworthy of contemplation. Of course, this is untrue.

And yet, there is something about a photograph - not least the limited and terrifyingly recycled library of stock images used these days in book cover design - that lacks, in comparison with the inspiration of a drawn or painted image.

For one, there is the specificity. As a reader, I dislike being instructed by a book's cover with quite the concreteness a photo provides.

Colin and I talked of the ability to get lost in a simple oil pastel drawing or watercolor, and I remembered the million worlds of Richard Scarry as absorbing adventures that could hold me for hours.

There is also the charm of style. There are covers of books I read growing up I still remember. In histfic, ersatz portraits that took real-life inspiration and transformed old paintings into compositions and costumes that ended up more 60s or 70s in their vibe. Historical figures' new pictures paying homage to known portraiture, but presenting attitudes perhaps less formalized than such images. (Seriously, click on the link, Robert Dudley is kind of perfectly conceived - and not even headless!)

Then there are the comparative studies - the 80s cover whose male model I crushed on, versus the 60s extravaganza of Historical Epicness. Even the 80s one isn't just a straight photograph; its sky is a painted vista, its background a world like so many of those matte paintings I knew from Star Trek as a wee little nard.

Even the most specific, detailed painting or drawing is still in some way subjective, and therefore invites inspiration over being a dictation.

Photo book covers, for me, have all the appeal of an over-sentimental film score. Bad scores are didactic - telling me how I must feel, taking away from me the opportunity to come to an emotion on my own with a character or characters.

I believe in the transportive beauty of photography, but I literally cannot THINK of a photographic book cover that has ever taken me to a new world the way other graphic forms can.

And, again, there is the issue of the strangely limited stock of images publishers seem to use. There are websites and fora all over Teh Intarwebs sharing "oh look, this pic again" images of cover after cover after cover - following the extremes of recycling costumes or particular photo shoots, or even single images, again and again and again and again. Some of the costumes used forty years ago in Elizabeth R have had almost embarrassingly over-recycled afterlife in modeling sessions for cover photos for historicals.

Even if you don't know the provenance, where an image has been used but differently cropped or tinted a hundred times before, a photo (so often of the old headless-woman) has only so much power to invite exploration. It feels like photo design covers are by far more prone to anachronism and even inappropriateness. Amongst all those discussions of "this one again" covers online, there are many conversations about how inauthentic design choices are.

A particular floppy red velvet ruff bearing no resemblance to any actual piece of clothing from any period of history ever is notorious, having graced every kind of novel from the Plantagenet to Victorian and back again. Novels taking place in one century sport covers evoking another, or one culture in the world is plundered just to decorate another. Female models wearing makeup abound; everyone must be pretty, after all.

And, not that the covers I've linked are not cosmetically enhanced in their own ways, but at least the living and breathing reality of a girl tottering about in a bad costume and pouting her strong lipstick isn't slamming me out of a story with all the power of ... well, that book I've been reading in which yards and yards of lace have appeared in a time three hundred years before its existence ...

This may be the power of the subjective graphic forms. They don't look entirely "real" to begin with, so their deviations from authenticity are less concrete, less jarring than a photograph's quantified, concrete, recorded verity. There is something banal in the carelessness of recorded anachronism or inappropriateness.

And I know I've couched a lot of my blather in historical fiction, but it is, honestly, in historicals that photography grates *me at least* the most. Because the medium is modern, it feels wrong right at the start, and because so many of the photographs chosen currently seem to have little depth (never mind being threadbare from frequent use), there is no allure.

Like any human attraction, specificity can both amplify and kill it. Specificity - that adorable mole just in front of a lover's ear, or the way they breathe when they first see your face - is magic. But it is also murder - the zipper you can see on the Elizabethan gown, or the Elizabethan gown fitting poorly on the headless model for a Regency romp ...


Colin Smith said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Diane! My go-to example of great book cover art is the 1975 Pan Edition of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. It holds sentimental value since I have fond memories of borrowing that book from the library when I was about 9, and reading it for the first time. But I also love the detail and atmosphere of the artwork. A photograph wouldn't have worked as well.

DLM said...

Exactly! And why is it the subjective is so much better in some contexts?

I've realized I failed to quantify it: created images, unlike captured ones, leave out just enough objective information that *we get to explore* ... and create. Even the most detailed matte painting invites you to imagine behind the windows, or beyond the mountains; to populate empty scenes with people, or to behold mute people and hear their voices.

Created images demand imagination. They don't tell us everything.

Donnaeve said...

And so, this of course has me thinking about my cover. There is a detail I questioned at the beginning, but the thought was it didn't matter in the grand scheme of pulling readers to it, i.e. no one picking up the book would think, "oh, but this..." (not going to say what cause then it's planted in your head - ha!)

I know what you mean about book covers and the use and overuse of the same images. (I read somewhere that's actually a deliberate marketing tactic) Someone on JR's blog talked about "leg" covers. She said she refused to buy "leg books," i.e. the ones who's covers show only the legs. Publishers love the anonymity of that, plus the headless (like mine) or full body, but facing away from readers. Stock art is used because because it's the easiest to touch up or change should there be the need. And cost is a factor of course.

DLM said...

Thank you for not planting anything in my head! :)

A lot of what I'm talking about is historicals, though - and I mean those set in an era before photography to a degree.
Dixie's cover isn't merely the standard decapitated model, it's something much more evocative - a closeup instead of just a chopped off head. The butterflies are beautiful, the jar traps them. It has a lot to say, your cover.