Why We Chose It

Anna Duke Reach
January 3, 2012
Comments 2

By Anna Duke Reach, Director of Programs

One of the most common questions we get here at KR is how we choose our evocative cover art. While some define photography as simply “taking pictures,” at The Kenyon Review, we believe it is more about “making pictures.” As I research cover subjects, I look for photographs that transform a moment in time into the realm of story.

The current winter cover, by photographer André Kertész offers a stolen moment of calm during winter in New York City. The composition is lyrical rather than symmetrical; branches seem to dance in the wind as someone (perhaps a reader, might there be a literary magazine tucked under one arm?) strolls along a curving path in solitude. There is a calligraphic quality to the lines in this photo; walkways, trees, benches, fences and a lamppost bend like script to offer a cryptic message. A second figure tiptoes into the image in the top left; perhaps the silence will be broken? Many footsteps already crunched through the park’s icy piecrust, muted by snow soft as down feathers underneath. The unusual composition of this snow scene, the tranquility of this city park as well as its potential for story inspired me to choose “Washington Square, Winter, 1954” for the current issue. The staff concurred, and our designer, John Pickard, selected an arctic-ocean-blue banner to underline the frozen beauty Kertész captured.

Photos must also be vertical and proportioned to fit the magazine’s trim size, so cropping does not alter the composition. I try to continue a series of photographs by the same artist or group (such as the Photo League) for all quarterly issues in a year. The International Center of Photography in New York City opens up their archives for research, and we are grateful for their generous assistance. Permission to print must be granted, so we research specific rights for each image before designing a cover. As we are a not-for-profit-organization, permission expense is a consideration. When we first decided to use black and white photographs on the covers, it was for economic as well as aesthetic reasons; black ink on white paper saved the expense of color inks. Recent design changes introducing our new color banner means that some cover subjects are now printed in four-colors although they appear black and white. The digital printing process is determined for each subject in order to add tonal richness to match the original photographic print.

We hope each cover ignites your imagination and generates more stories.

2 thoughts on “Why We Chose It

  1. Thanks for this thorough explanation of how you select photos for KR covers. I emailed David Lynn back on October 2, 2011, or so, about how so many recent KR covers lacked appeal:

    “Greetings, David Lynn, Editor. I have a couple of unsolicited questions regarding the choice of cover images for the Kenyon Review. First, are you intentionally choosing edgy, dismal images to put a KR reader off and reduce sales? The last KR cover I remember showed any appeal was Winter 2011, with the lovely, dreamy image, by Bernice Abbott, of midtown Manhattan at dusk. Since then, we’ve had the hunched, emaciated figure, carrying jabby sticks, in a cemetery swarming with locusts (Spring 2011); an iguana-coiffed individual with an expression threatening enough to make you turn 90˚ and cross the street (Summer 2011); and “Serafina,” not to be confused with “Death Warmed Over Looking Through Infected Window Frame” (Fall 2011).
    Second, on the remote chance that you’d like a larger audience for the KR, via subscription or newsstands, may I suggest an effort to present a more appealing journal, starting with KR’s cover images? Your drive to make more visible the fine work of Graciela Iturbide, “one of Mexico’s foremost contemporary photographers,” is laudable; however, I’m a Kenyon alum (class of 1970), fiercely loyal and dedicated to the old alma mater, and every time I receive a new Kenyon Review with one of her aesthetically grating images on the front, I grind my teeth and wonder why, with an ocean of intriguing, wondrous work to choose from these days, we get something like “Woman with Tobacco Leaves, Charlotte, North Carolina,” (Fall 2010), an underexposed, back-to-your-face, unengaging photo that compels me to look away, sighing, “What?–Why?”
    Maybe I’m very old-fashioned, reactionary and conservative, but in this day and age I’m reminded constantly of the thought from E.B.White’s introduction to “The Elements of Style,” “… that the reader [is] in serious trouble most of the time, a man floundering in a swamp, and that it is the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.” Strunk and White’s concerns about clarity in writing apply with equal importance to visual clarity. In an age choked with visuals, each image we confront that’s repellent, that makes us flounder elsewhere — and quickly — for relief or connection, is an image that diminishes the cause. I don’t know who the photography editors are for the New York Times, but persistently they succeed in making a reader look, and often look twice (see, most recently, NYT of Saturday October 1, 2011, page C1, photo of tam-o’-shatered chap pouring barrel of “liquor into a New York City sewer…”)
    I implore you, as editor of the Kenyon Review, to reconsider the impact your choice of KR cover images makes. You’re obviously not the New York Times, but please give us some covers to sell the KR, to make us proud, some covers, like the Winter 2011 Bernice Abbott cover, worth framing (this I’ve actually done — it’s hanging in my studio and reminds me daily of the benefits of visual appeal and strong design!) With thanks for your ongoing work publishing this fine review, and with best intentions and best regards, Pell Osborn.”

    Prof. Lynn kindly responded that recent covers had, in fact, been “edgier,” but that he thought “…the cover of Fall 2011 is one of the most beautiful covers we’ve had in my time.”

    Well, okay, says I, but how ’bout a cover with some more appeal?

    Thanks to your choice, Winter 2012 has great appeal! Thank you! Please keep up the fine work! And thanks again for the explanation!

    Pell Osborn, K ’70

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