What We Talk About When We Talk About Book Covers

We design most of our covers in-house at Vintage and Anchor. On occasion we like to get a fresh take on things and look to outside designers for help. I asked Peter Buchanan-Smith to take on the redesign of Raymond Carver’s backlist for the 25th anniversary of Vintage Contemporaries. He came up with the perfect idea: using the stunning and luminous, suburban night photography of Todd Hido for the covers. Peter conducted the following interview with Todd exclusively for the Sun and Anchor.

—John Gall


Click the images above to see Peter Buchanan-Smith and Todd Hido’s creations in full-size.

Peter Buchanan-Smith: Hi, Todd. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with me. When John Gall at Vintage asked if I would be interested in re-designing the Raymond Carver library I responded as if it was my call to arms—this was the moment I had been preparing for. Carver’s short stories have had a profound impact on me. I soon found your large body of work—the desolate landscapes, abandoned motel rooms, and the nocturnal detached homes—and there was absolutely no doubt that these images would be (had to be!) the new face of Raymond Carver. I have to admit that it was only after I had submitted the first round of designs that I learned that this tailor-made well of photographs was even more too good to be true: much of it was actually shot in Carver Country (the Pacific Northwest). With all of this in mind, I have 5 questions I am dying to ask you…

The most obvious: what impact has Raymond Carver’s work had on you?

Todd Hido: Firstly, I must say that when I first heard of the possibility of you wanting to use my photographs on the reissue of his books I thought “my god this might be one of the most important and significant things that my images are ever used for”—a dream really to contribute something to such an amazing author’s body of published work.

As for his impact on my work—when I read Carver I see pictures.

It makes me lust after going out to hunt for places to shoot.

I think for me the biggest influence he has had on my work is that when I discovered [his work], it put words, stories and characters in my mind that I had been searching for.  I instinctively knew these people from my past experiences—they totally resonated with me.

PB-S: What drew you to the Pacific Northwest / Carver Country in the first place?

TH: I have been to Yakima and that area of Central Washington many times to shoot. It was a place that reminded me of where I grew up in Ohio.

Rough around the edges. Worn out. Snowy, rolling hills surrounded by lots of rural farmland with a working class ethic. I also shoot near Sacramento often; he lived there as well.

PB-S: Tell us about the place where Carver and the landscape intersect in your mind. How did he come into your imagination as your traveled the Northwest? Could you feel him as your drove through those streets late at night?

TH: For me the imagined intersection happens when I am looking for stories that might illuminate or inspire my images.

I find many of my pictures of places to actually be about people—really about relationships.

Carver’s words fill in the void of me not really knowing much about the people who live where I photograph. {I never interact with the people—I just shoot} He gave me ideas about who the people were that I imagined living in the places and landscapes I photographed. Those ideas are always with me when I shoot.

Later a real intersection happened when I first used one of his poems, “The Phone Booth” at the end of Roaming, my book of landscapes. It was the perfect thing to help clarify what I was feeling. It is a very poignant poem about endings and not knowing where to go from there.

In another book of mine Between the Two, I used his poem “Energy.” This one was mostly portraits of women. His poem is about his daughter. She easily could have been one of the people in my book! My favorite line in that poem is:

Can take a cigarette down to the filter in 3 draws, just like her mother.

PB-S: Knowing that you have been on the trail of Raymond Carver for so long, did it ever cross your mind (even subconsciously) that the real reason you might actually be taking these pictures is to some day end up as Raymond Carver covers?

TH: Never in a thousand years would I have thought that my work would be so lucky to end up on his book covers—it might actually be fate!

PB-S: Throughout the course of this project I have looked at your photographs endlessly, weighing them up left right and center, trying to find the one that will strike that perfect note. Now that a few of these images have been selected, and have finally made it into print, do you see those images – the ones you have analyzed more than anyone – any differently now?

TH: They certainly have more gravity to me. I love the selections you have made so far. I feel it is a special union—dark, stark, based in reality, but hopeful. It opens the images up for me more.

Honestly, I can’t wait to line them all up in a row!

What I am very curious about is how the longtime fans and collectors of Carver will see them. I really look forward to the response.

Todd Hido has a show of his photographs opening on September 10th at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York City.*
*John Gall is the Art Director for Vintage and Anchor Books.*
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6 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Book Covers

  1. Thank you Peter and Todd. Short fiction was really the first kind of story telling I truly fell in love with, and Raymond Carver has been one my favorite authors of this form. I love the haunting promise that these covers offer of the humanity inside—the layered moments of revelation that come upon you suddenly in his stories. Great covers indeed.

  2. Hmmm…Carvers stories are so much more lower working class than these covers…they don’t convince me. I don’t feel the raw and the downtrodden emotions of the stories. Perhaps they have been made slightly pretty so they will sell? What I read in Todd’s words intrigue me more than the images and the type do. As a person who has read Carver extensively, I feel disappointed. Perhaps Todd or Peter can speak more about how much the sell factor influences covers?
    I am very curious. Thanks very much.

  3. Pingback: Midweek Miscellany, September 9th, 2009 | The Casual Optimist

  4. As one of your authors (so I have a big-time vested interests in your covers!), and as someone who revered Raymond Carver, I’d like to chime in and say that I think these covers are very compelling. I also love the idea of using the work of a LIVING artist for book covers. To address a comment made above, Carver may have come from a working class background and certainly had his share of difficult times, but he was anything but downtrodden. A cursory trip through his writing and poetry will demonstrate that he saw the beauty in all things large and small, down to a haircut. And he certainly saw the beauty in the dying process and in his own death in ways that I think few of us would be capable of doing. I think the covers draw the reader right into those homes, making us curious about what we might find inside. Bravo!

  5. Pingback: Personism » Blog Archive » Paired: Hido + Carver

  6. Library of America just released a volume with everything Carver wrote, except poetry. I’d skip these altogether.

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