Since I posted information about my forthcoming southern gospel book, there’s been some chatter about the cover, and specifically some curiosity about the image. One reader wondered about the propriety of using the image of these four celebrities to grace the cover of this book, which seems to take for granted a far greater symmetry of belief, behavior, and worldview among the people on stage and in the audience than I would assume (and too, there’s the long-settled legal status of reproduced images of public figures).
Another reader expressed a more general interest in the origins of the book’s cover:
The cover intrigues me; in that these are all current singers, and there are none of the “olt-timers.” Doug, could you gives us your thoughts on how you chose the cover?
Sure! I assume the reader’s calling out the relatively recent vintage of the image compared to “olt-timers” implies that he expected a more “classic” photo from one of the legendary quartets. And that’s a fair point. Why not seek out a renown group from the golden age of the 40s, 50s, and 60s?
There are basically two answers: action shot and permissions.
The best cover photos for most books are non-posed shots, which in this case means groups singing live on stage. There may or may not be a lot of high quality action shots of midcentury southern gospel acts in live performance out there, but they are hard to come by in my experience. And even if you can find them, you have to get permission to use them, and this can prove even more difficult for any numbers of reasons. Descendants of bygone stars or other custodians of historic, proprietary content such as midcentury southern gospel photographs guard celebrity legacies carefully. Some are skeptical of academic work. Just as often, some are, again in my experience, simply impossible to reach (literally, as in, they don’t respond to phone calls, emails, faxes, registered mail, and the carrier pigeons never come back … and my hunch is these are a lot of the same folks who don’t pay - and sometimes don’t even collect on - their royalties).
In a perferct(er) world, I would have used this image, or, perhaps, this one. But the obstacles to securing the rights in this particular case were just too difficult to surmount for an image that would have been used with such prominence.
In these contexts, it’s much more pragmatic and manageable to seek out what amounts to a free agent — someone who holds the sole rights to a good image (both in terms of composition and content, as well as resolution and reproducibility … that is, 300 dpi at 5×7 or or higher, ideally) and deal directly with him or her, without all the interference of industry politics and professional self-interest. At this historical moment, under these circumstances, that typically means more recent images of current groups or events shot with digital cameras by regular fans who have a knack for new media. Thus the post from several months back when I asked the hive mind of Avery readers to see what you could come up with. Which led to the generous Jeremy Bell and the image you see used above.
Jeremy has dozens of images up at his site, and I liked a few of the Hoppers, but no image more urgently captured as many related aspects of southern gospel as a distinct set of musical practices and experiences as this one: a quartet, singing (if my memory of the event serves) the staggered ending of a song, flamboyantly emotional, a clear connection among the group (note Fowler’s Youncesque gesture, lightly holding onto his neighbor’s arm, with a seemingly unself-conscious ease), a well-lit stage, and (rarer than rare), an actual face in the crowd, so subtlety lit in the reflection of the stage lights.
In short, one learns to be a pragmatist in these matters. A friend of mine was writing a textbook recently and thought, how clever it would be to place lyrics of content-specific songs from American pop and rock-n-roll above the title of each chapter in her book. Until her publisher came back and said, if you want to use all these lyrics, it will cost you just shy of a million dollars to secure the rights. Let us know when your check’s in the mail. Suddenly, my friend didn’t think those lyrics were nearly so clever, or at least not nearly as necessary.
And so it goes. Let not the perfect be the enemy of the possible etc.
But I don’t think I’m settling. It’s a gorgeous image that deserves an iconographic status separate from my book. But boy howdy am I happy to have access to it.
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