Cover Story: The Making of Duane Michals’s Monograph

We recently published a major retrospective catalogue on the work of the photographer Duane Michals, called Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals. This is what the cover looks like:


But it could have looked very different; in fact, it did:


By my count, our indefatigable designer Brett Yasko produced at least 75 variant covers over the course of the design process. This is a bit extreme, but it is not as unusual as you might think. A cover is a tricky thing. It needs to be compelling and representative. It has to look good on a shelf and as a tiny thumbnail online. It is also a physical object—will it get dirty, show scuffs or fingerprints, tear easily?

And Michals’s work in particular presents unique challenges. The photographs for which he is best known require close, sustained looking: his small, multi-image sequences unfold over time and space, and his images incorporating handwritten text are complex. His work is the antithesis of “the decisive moment” that would naturally make for an arresting standalone image. So, after talking with me and exhibition curator Linda Benedict-Jones, Brett started with the sequences, and the concept of Michals as a storyteller…

December 20, 2013: Brett shows us two typographical directions and a number of different image selections, all based on the idea of a wrapping sequences of images: “His sequences show his storytelling abilities the best, of course. It’s also the area of his work that seems to have the most appeal over different audiences. It’s very difficult—and Linda agreed—to define Duane with just a single image.”

For the hardcover, he suggests an off-white cloth cover with the type foil-stamped, then a series of partial dust jackets that feature four of his sequences. Here’s just a couple. Sharp, right?


Young Girl_full version1_1200p

We pick a few favorites and send them off to our wonderful copublisher, DelMonico Books/Prestel, for their thoughts.

January 9, 2014: The team at Prestel reviews the design and has some concerns. The bellybands are a budgetary and logistical issue (they tear easily, leading to higher returns). They feel the design is too complex, given that many people may base their purchases on a tiny two-inch image online. Can Brett simplify the title treatment, and play with single images?

Brett gamely produces nine new covers with full-bleed images and simplified type. Linda, Brett, and I like a number of them a lot, but worry that in making a strong, simple cover we have lost some of the complexity of Duane’s work. The images are now way larger than Duane’s diminutive prints, and the unique aspect of his practice is missing. But still, snazzy:


January 27, 2014: At the sales conference in Munich for all three Prestel offices, a larger team reviews the new selection of covers. Now that they have seen more examples of Duane’s sequences, they agree that a series of images would best “capture the narrative ‘storytelling’ in the work…This is just a tricky one, but a very important book, so everyone wants it to be just right.” Brett returns to sequences, but takes into account their feedback about simplifying text and structure (such as not wrapping images). A six-image grid seems to work best, but that narrows down our options. Again, a sampling:


February 21, 2014: After we share the new cover designs with Prestel and get feedback from our museum shop book buyer, a clear favorite emerges, and Linda is pleased: “I’m very happy with Chance Meeting on the cover. It’s one of Duane’s most memorable early works and it’s the sequence that I’ve always planned for the opening of the exhibition so in this sense it couldn’t be better.”

February 28, 2014: Finally, holding our breath, Linda sends the cover design to Duane for his final blessing. His characteristically cheeky response returns the same day:

“Hi Linda,

Those are my photographs, I’m not sure where you got them.

Five stars!

Dr. Duanus”

Cover down, rest of the book to go….!