The art of the book cover


Strange Flesh by William Kogan, Penguin 2008

A well-designed book cover is not an accident. It’s an example of team work in the visual arts, a collaboration between specialists. An art director sets the strategy, a designer crafts the visual relationships, and, in the books presented here, an historical photographer who work makes the background image. The website has a large collection of contemporary book covers that you can browse in categories of photographers, illustrators and designers. It’s a great archive of book cover art.

These examples of cover design show how notable photographs from the past can be re-assigned to a new purpose, quite distinct from their original application.

In Strange Flesh, the two photographs are by Edward Weston, of his then lover and muse Charis Wilson. They were taken on the sand at Oceano, California in 1936. Originally the photographs were part of his general photographic explorations, possibly intended for future exhibition. They were not joined together in this way, but in this cover design by designer Mark Melnick the bodies form a looping shape, echoed by the lettering of the title.


 WH Auden, Selected Poems, Vintage 2007

Designer Megan Wilson has used a portrait of the poet W.H.Auden by Cecil Beaton, made in about 1930. The pyramid shape of the photograph is balanced with the centred text above; the script lettering echoing the rounded shapes of the pose.


Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, Basic Books 1999

Photographer Ernst Haas was well known as a pioneering colour photographer in the 1950s. This cover design by Rick Pracher plays on the negative space of his black & white image The Cross, 1966.


Under the Light by Sam Michel, Knopf 1991

This dramatic cover by celebrity book designer Chip Kidd uses a photograph by Harry Callahan, a portrait of the architect Bob Fine from 1952. He’s that little black dot at the bottom of of the shaft of light.



Winogrand at Rice


In 1977, Garry Winogrand gave a talk to students at Rice University in Texas. The almost two hour Q & A session was an informal chat with students asking their best questions and Winogrand giving some inspired and challenging answers revealing his deepest thoughts about the medium.

Winogrand was a modernist photographer, using the camera as a transparent tool to record the contemporary world and to analyse essential nature of the medium. He was engaged in a quest to understand the phenomenon of the photograph.

From a photograph, what do you know? They don’t have narrative ability. A cow jumping – you don’t know if it’s going up or down from the picture. So why should you know where it was taken, from the picture. 

There’s a paradox. They’re not ambiguous. Yet you don’t know what’s happening. Ambiguous is almost the opposite of being specific. These things (photographs) are very specific.

I can play games. I can say: what if I tell you every photograph, everything, has been cast, directed and posed. From the photograph you cannot prove me a liar.


In a photograph, the symbolic meaning, this is part of the content. What it looks like is happening is part of the content … they question what you think you know. What seems to be the narrative content is part of the content.



They function like puns, in a sense. They question what you think you know. A pun plays with your understanding of a word, that’s why you laugh.

They don’t communicate literary ideas very well. They show you what a piece of space and time looked like – to a camera.


Self-powered camera


Scientists have invented a camera that generates its power using only the light it captures in the sensor. No battery or electric cable powers it. Instead …

the pixel’s photodiode can be used to not only measure the incident light level, but also to convert the incident light into electrical energy. A sensor architecture is proposed where, during each image capture cycle, the pixels are used first to record and read out the image and then used to harvest energy and charge the sensors’ power supply. (Towards Self-Powered Cameras).



///    /sensor-30x40-pixel

Petapixel describes it this way: “After each image capture, the sensor switches modes, harvests light, and stores that energy in order to power the next shot. By alternating between capture and charge modes in this way, the camera sensor can continually shoot images and video without having any kind of additional power source.”





The prototype camera has only 30×40 diodes – pixels – hence the crudeness of the image. As a first experiment in a new technology, it’s reminiscent of the first movie tests made by Thomas Edison’s team in 1889, the very first motion picture.


Edison’s first motion picture film test, 1889


Kate Ballis : Aerial Pink


Kate Ballis, Aerial Pink 17

Kate Ballis is a young Melbourne photographer who likes to shoot from a plane. These stylish abstracts were taken over Docklands and make it look better than it really is on the ground. Like a lot of photographers today, she shoots both commercial and personal projects, always in a clean, crisp style. This project could be for exhibition, publication or commercial illustration, the border is not always clearly defined in photography.

Ballis is the partner of Tom Blachford, creator of the Midnight Modern project. They travel and shoot projects together, then collaborate on weekends to shoot weddings as Rasberry Robot.


Kate Ballis, Aerial Pink 13


Kate Ballis, Aerial Pink 14


Tom Blachford’s Midnight Modern


Tom Blachford, Midnight Modern

Tom Blachford is a young Melbourne photographer whose new project Midnight Modern is about Mid-Century Modern architecture. The images were taken in the town of Palm Springs, east of Los Angeles, a treasury of Mid-Century domestic architecture. It was once home to Hollywood celebrities such as Frank Sinatra. The town has recently undergone a revival with wealthy enthusiasts buying and restoring the 1950s houses. These are the subjects of his photographs.

What makes Midnight Modern special is that they were made at night, picturing them in untypical shadow and mystery. With the mood of expensive luxury and danger they appear like scenes from David Lynch. Blachford places gleaming fifties cars like characters in a movie.

“The naked eye is unable to process such dimly lit scenes; but the camera, through long exposure, reveals images unseen. Time is compressed from thirty seconds into one viewable moment. The stars blur into dashes to remind us that even seemingly immovable steel and mountains are slowly spinning on a grand scale as our earth rotates on its axis, and in turn around the sun.’’  Tom Blachford. has a short interview with Blachford about the project.


Tom Blachford, Midnight Modern


Tom Blachford, Midnight Modern


A new Carte-de-Visite


C. Leibinger, Carte-de-Visite, 1879-84

Following my lecture on the invention of photography, one of my keen students gave me this carte-de-visite she had purchased for one dollar. Thanks Brianna.

Carl Leibinger took this portrait of an unknown man in about 1880. Would he be surprised that his style of beard would be in fashion 135 years later? Liebinger was a travelling photographer in the colony of New South Wales setting up a temporary studio in various towns as opportunity arose. Photography was a growth business, a record shows him in the small town of Queanbeyan in 1868, competing with two other itinerant photographers.

He set up in Newcastle from 1879 to 1884, when my photograph was made, and later moved to Sydney. He died in 1928. This quaint advertisement appeared in 1880:

Carl Leibinger, Artist and Photographer, Near Markets, Hunter Street, Newcastle.
Photography executed in all branches of the art. Life-size Portraits in Oil,
Crayon, or Water Colours. Cabinets, Carte de Visites. Portraits in Brooches and
Lockets with a finish not to be surpassed in the Northern District.


Olivia Parker’s Looking Glass


Olivia Parker, Contact, 1978

Olivia Parker is a photographer of the still life and her book Under the Looking Glass has 43 of them.

Parker is from Boston, an old America city with a history going far back into the nation’s history. She studied art at Wellesley College, an elite university for women, also old. So it’s not surprising that the still life props and the meditative quality of her photographs seem imbued with history and time.

Parker’s first book was Signs of Life, a collection of black & white still lifes of plants and shells, toned to give them a subtle three-dimensional quality. It had an impact on still life photography.

Working in colour, she used Polaroid’s Polacolor film in 5×4 and 8×10 formats which give the prints a smooth lustrous quality. The slowness of the large cameras, the precision of composition and the thoughtfulness of the images were all of a piece.

The two photographs presented here are from Under the Looking Glass and they seem like twins. Each has a flat background of an antique chart plus an organic prop in contrast. The charts are man-made and the props are from nature.

In Contact, the chart has diagrams of the sun and the human eye with angles of reflection and transmission. It’s a human analysis of the phenomena of vision, optics and light. The dry linear geometry of these diagrams contrasts with the the yellow rose, a great bursting form of colour and life. The rose, like the sun itself, is a giant celestial eye.

What are yellow roses for? They are an optical device too, a light signal to attract the eyes of bees and butterflies, for sexual propagation.


Olivia Parker, Marine II, 1981

Marine II uses the same compositional device, a vintage technical drawing with a natural prop, a shell. The drawing is titled Marine and may refer to the design of a yacht, given the shape of the outline. It is a serious mathematical design with numbers and grids, clearly made for accurate calculation.

The French word echelle appears in a caption, a homonym for the English word shell. But echelle means scale or proportion, not shell, and is a reference to the geometric chart. The picture rests on a verbal/visual pun.

The shell itself is a section of a nautilus shell that grow in perfect scale or proportion and resembles the Golden Section. Bluish crystals, the colour of the sea, complete the nautical associations.

Like Contact, Marine II is an encounter between man and nature. The difficult and learned mathematics of the technical chart contrast with the natural simplicity of the Nautilus shell, made on a logarithmic spiral. What it takes man the sweat of mathematical calculations is produced blindly by an ocean mollusc.


Richard Learoyd’s Presences


Richard Learoyd, Harmony, white shirt, 2011

Richard Learoyd is a British photographer with a unique method. He combines the oldest camera contraption, a camera obscura, with modern print materials, Ilfochrome paper. His beautiful soft portraits seem imbued with the actual presence of the sitter, so the series is aptly titled Presences. The pearly light, the still poses and interior gazes remind you a little of Dutch Master portraits. His San Francisco gallery Fraenkel explains the process:

Learoyd has created a room-sized camera in which the photographic paper is exposed. The subject—often a person, sometimes a still life—is in the adjacent room, separated by a lens. Light falling on the subject is directly focused onto the photographic paper without an interposing film negative. The result is an entirely grainless image. The overall sense of these larger-than-life images redefines the photographic illusion.

How does he make them so big? There is no negative so no enlarging process to achieve large print size. The large scale of the prints you see below is a result of using large sheets of Ilfochrome (formerly Cibachrome) paper. The sitter is lit by strong lights, and a lens in the wall focusses the image on to the paper in the adjacent dark chamber. It’s a direct positive process, each image is unique, like Polaroid. In fact the large prints are reminiscent, both in size and smooth tonal quality, of the giant 20×24 inch Polaroid.


Installation view, Fraenkel Gallery, Presences 2011


Ebay camera 13


This is the Mother of all TLR cameras!

The ebay ad tells the truth, since this camera is the legendary Gowlandflex, a 5×4 – large format – twin lens reflex! All other TLR cameras such as the Rolleiflex are medium format using 120 film to make 21/4 inch square negatives. This one is a giant. Its inventor, Peter Gowland, was well-known, and the camera did find a small market. There was even an 8×10 model version which stood almost three feet tall!

Advertisements for the unwieldy camera appeared in popular photography magazines around 1960, and 600 were sold. They are currently a collector’s item, one is owned by Annie Liebovitz. The website for the Gowlandflex shows different models and accessories, all of which are unique and original. It’s worth a look, since this is one of the most unusual camera stories of all.




This model was used by Gowland himself and had a mirror fixed to the front so the model could adjust her pose.


The story of its inventor is a strange one. Peter Gowland was a celebrity glamour and pinup photographer during the 1950s and 60s, always seen shooting on beaches with cheesy models. He was handsome and well-built in that Southern California way, and his high-wattage smile must have opened doors for him.

He was the son of actor Gibson Gowland who appeared in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, and starred as the villain McTeague in Erich von Stroheim‘s 1924 masterpiece Greed. He was not a star, but you wouldn’t mind if it meant having those titles on your CV. His son Peter also appeared in several major films, including, unbelievably, Citizen Kane. Who could make this up?


Peter Gowland with his wife and business partner Alice Adams.