If you’re caught in Los Angeles traffic or awaiting a New York subway, odds are good that one of Matthias Clamer’s images is right there with you. Clamer photographs the promotional stills for a ton of network, studio, and streaming platform productions, from Fargo and Atlanta to Shadows and Glow. At any given moment, three or four posters featuring his photography dominate skylines and tunnels. For Clamer, the novelty of seeing them has understandably worn off a bit.
“In L.A. and New York, you see the same poster, like 30 times,” he said from his home in Los Angeles. “They plaster all the subway stations and buses. If it’s something you love, then you’re proud.”
But until I reached out to him, Clamer wasn’t aware that an image he took 15 years ago was ubiquitous in a different, perhaps more permanent, universe. It’s titled, “Naked Woman Sleeping on Gravel,” and can be found on the Getty Images website, along with 1,612 other Clamer images available for rights-managed exclusive usage. It also serves as the dominant art on the cover of at least 11 books.
The book cover design world, it turns out, has something of an all-star squad of stock and archival image that show up on book covers time and time again. James Morrison, an editor, designer, and avid reader who lives in Adelaide, Australia, has been tracking the squad for about two decades. “I think the first one I spotted was a photo called, ‘Man in Fog,’ from 1935, by Arthur Tanner,” Morrison says.
It doesn’t take a decoder ring to figure out why such a mysterious man would land on the cover of a slew of sleuth novels.
“Man in Fog” delivers exactly what the title promises—a shadowy figure, noir to the grayscale bone, smoking a pipe in the inky foreground. It does not take a decoder ring to figure out why such a mysterious man would land on the cover of a slew of sleuth novels by the likes of Agatha Christie, Alan Furst, Somerset Maugham, and Georges Simeon. Some of Simeon’s series of Inspector Maigret tales feature a cropped “Man in Fog” as a logo in the upper left hand corner, which is where Morrison first spied him. An image like “Man in Fog” can be quite evocative, Morrison said, until you start seeing it everywhere. “And the more I looked, the more books featuring it I found,” he said. “This would have been around 20 years ago. It was only when I started blogging, very late in the day, that I had an outlet to inflict this on other people.”
This summer, Morrison, who goes by Caustic Cover Critic at his @Unwise_Trousers Twitter account, posted a collage of 20 Fog Men on 20 book covers. They comprised but one subset of a folder on his computer, titled, “One Image, Many Covers.” Over a few mid-June days, he emptied that folder all over Twitter, drawing the attention of authors, designers, and readers alike. Among the members of the One Image Many Covers All-Star Team: Some askew knees (three covers); a 1933 George Hoyningen-Huene photograph of model Toto Koopman in evening wear (eight covers); a woman expressing despair on the prairie (10 covers); a spectral, Victorian-ish lass toting an empty birdcage (10 covers); a top-hatted man lurking in the middle distance alongside a wrought iron fence (nine covers); a naked woman asleep on gravel (11).
Clamer took that photo in 2004, he believes. Now married with kids, he prefers to be home when not on location to create revealing portraits of actors, athletes, and musicians. Back then, he and a car full of photography industry friends would road trip across parts of the U.S. to shoot documentary projects and explore national parks, covering the gasoline bills with the eventual royalties from photos that Getty Images later licensed. He planned some of these photo shoots meticulously. Others were moment-spurred inspirations, like the one where he asked a friend to pose on a lonely road running through Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
“There was a road and a wide open view and the sun had set, and the sky was beautiful,” he said. “I asked her if she could lie on the street, and that was kind of all there was to it.” Clamer has worked with publishers to take photographs specifically intended to appear on book covers, and there’s a shared concept of what is wanted. With stock photography, which he hasn’t shot in years, Clamer is left to guess why it appealed to the designers who utilized it. “[Getty Images sends] you a statement, but the statement is hard to read,” he said. “The picture has a number that you have to cross-reference, and I can spend a few hours a month researching where my pictures end up. I just don’t do it.”
He said the abstractness of the Colorado photo might be part of its allure. “I think a picture like that—it’s just not a sexual picture,” he said. “There seems to be something primal about it too, like she was dropped on this planet. If I had to analyze it, it’s a lot more open-ended.”
The book covers that feature Clamer’s photograph fall almost entirely in one category, crime fiction. There’s a Jonathan Kellerman detective story, a J.D. Robb volume about an investigator who pushes boundaries with a billionaire murder suspect and a few centered around serial killers and the like. Looking at the search keywords for Clamer’s image, you can see how a designer tasked with designing a crime novel cover would come across “Naked Woman Sleeping on Gravel.” They include “death,” “fragility,” “murder” and “the end” along with less morbid terms like “dreamlike,” “outdoors,” “sleeping,” and “spirituality.”
“There seems to be something primal about it too, like she was dropped on this planet.”
Morrison said that the image lends itself to commercial crime fiction, in that many book covers in that genre suggest an act of violence that manages to leave the victim’s body unmarred. “It’s either a dead nude woman or an out-of-focus child with their back to the camera in the process of vanishing forever,” he said. He suspects that, because designers have access to the same image libraries, and that so many books are published—in 2010, Google put the historical estimate at 129,864,880 unique books—“You’d be hard-pressed to know if the picture you chose to decorate a book had already featured elsewhere.”
While a dozen or so books featuring the same image may look jarring lined up together in an online photo, that’s less likely to happen on a store shelf. Take a closer look at the set of novels that feature Clamer’s photograph, and the titles rarely share the same language. There’s English, French, Polish, Spanish, Swedish, and German. A rights-managed stock image license can come with territorial exclusivity if you’re willing to pony up for it. “People buy the usage,” Clamer said. “Depending on all the figures, they determine the usage price. If you are an uber-famous author, and you’re going to sell 3 million copies and it’s going to be worldwide and it’s going to be in 24 languages, then they ask for more money. But if it’s an unknown author and some random book in Poland, it’s cheap.”
Morrison, the Caustic Cover Critic, said he’s fascinated by book cover design “because it’s the collision of art and commerce: you’re trying to both sell something but also, you’d hope, make a beautiful object.” Asked what he would ask a designer of one of the One Image, Many Cover examples, Morrison said he wondered how they felt when they saw the other covers, and if they felt theirs was the best use of the image.
I reached out to a small publishing house and a designer whose names I found on a couple of Morrison’s examples. No response from either. Eric C. Wilder, who publishes the book cover-obsessed Spine Magazine and designs as well, hasn’t experienced the Same Image, Different Cover phenomenon in his work, but has employed stock when the creative brief calls for it. Speaking for his own design work, Wilder said that stock images come into play when a book cover concept would be best served by a photographic element or illustration, but time or budget constraints don’t allow for a photographer or illustrator to be commissioned on the project.
“Success of the overall design depends on the strength of concept and execution.”
“Stock can be cost-effective, readily accessible, and easily incorporated into a design,” Wilder said. “Success of the overall design depends on the strength of concept and execution.” And it can be beautiful, he said, pointing to the cover of Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot,” which was designed by Oliver Munday and features a Getty Images-licensed stock photo of a rock.
“So many books are beautiful-looking things, and I think we’re living in a particularly fertile time for talented designers,” Morrison said. “This is commonly attributed to the need for physical books to be able to compete with e-books, but I also think that more people are just interested in book design and now have the ability to talk and rant about it online.”
When Morrison shared his findings, it started conversations. Some were aghast at the sameness. Others, in a way, embraced it. New Zealand author Steve Braunias offered a free book to anyone who mocked up an image of the mysterious birdcage holder on any of his works. (He gave out several books.) And Australian author Kate James didn’t have to hand out anything. She’d already been Same Imaged, discovering after publication that the toddler on the cover of her memoir graced at least two other covers as well. She referred to them as her book’s siblings.