Blog

The Making of a Book Cover: To Kill a Mockingbird

Mary Badham & Gregory Peck

Mary Badham & Gregory Peck

In the fall of 2000 my wife and I re-watched (and re-loved) the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout.  I have always loved the story, which touched me both as a father and as a lawyer.  Atticus the fearless advocate had inspired me, but I was also moved by the tenderness between father and daughter. 

Scout turning away the lynch mob

Scout turning away the lynch mob

The film told another story as well:  the evolution of emotional intelligence and empathy within the child.  Much of my portraiture has focused on coming of age, not just in the physical sense but in the spiritual realm as well.  It is often marked by an ability to see fairness and justice as concepts impacting others, not only the self.   I saw those as the forces that animated the character of Scout, particularly in the scene where she turns away the angry mob at the jailhouse. Her use of psychology and shame are nothing short of brilliant.  Her father stands in admiration, as she does what he can not.  It is my favorite scene in all cinema.

And the movie was a delight to my eyes visually – shot in black and white against a visual texture similar to rural New England where I live and photograph.  So To Kill a Mockingbird was  a very special book for me long before I had any involvement in the creation of its cover image.

"A" from the mother/daughter dancers shoot (2000)

"A" from the mother/daughter dancers shoot (2000)

Coincidentally, a few days after watching the movie I did a shoot with about 30 mother/daughter dancers at a local studio in Portland.  I was photographing so many people so fast that I barely saw the faces in front of me.

I processed the film a few weeks later.  Suddenly, emerging in the developing tray in the red glow of the darkroom, I saw a face of one of the young dancers that immediately engaged me with its openness and honesty.  I called my wife in to look.  “Who is this?”, I asked.  Her reply was immediate and without hesitation.  “My goodness, it’s Scout!”  It was the image of “A”, a young and very accomplished dancer who had already achieved some recognition in the Portland arts community.

We were both highly amused by the resemblance, then soon thought nothing more about it.

In early March of 2001 I received a phone call from a woman named Mary Mcclean in New York.  She explained that she was an images acquisition editor for the publisher Vintage Books/Random House and that she had been given my name by the photographer Jock Sturges. I had studied with Jock in Italy in the summer of 1997 and we have remained friends.  (This was to be the first of many kindnesses that have come my way from Jock.)

Mary was calling to see if I would be interested in submitting images for book covers.  Of course the answer was yes, very interested.  “Oh that is great” she said.  “In fact we are getting ready to release a new edition of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Do you have anything that might work?”  I quickly explained about the shoot a year before with “A” and sent her scans.  Time was very tight with the publisher and they were anxious to move fast. They determined that the existing shots were not adequate for the cover and that I needed to reshoot.

I reached out to “A’s” mother who agreed to let her daughter sit for another shoot aimed at getting the cover.  These types of submissions are on speculation so there is no guaranteed reward, but we agreed on an arrangement on how we would split the fee if the cover materialized.  Thus, on a Saturday morning about five days after the first call from Mary, “A” and her mother appeared at the same studio where we had met the year before.  She brought two outfits (a rough cotton dress and bib overalls).  I brought an old chair and a cigar box.  I rolled an old piano toward the window and positioned “A” in the “sweet spot” of lovely indirect morning light that came through the huge window to my left.  I used no reflectors or lights.  The images were shot on my trusty Hasselblad 500C with an 80 mm lens (T-Max 400, exposed at ISO 200, pulled 10% in processing.)  I shot two rolls (24 exposures).  I wrote to Mary that afternoon:

 

I shot a few rolls of [A] today for Mockingbird. Bib overalls and an old fashioned dress, sitting in a ladder back chair in front of an old piano. The light was lovely. She is a wonderful subject. I hope they turn out to your liking. I am having them processed and proof sheets made up on Monday.

 
 
The dress at the Mockingbird shoot

The dress at the Mockingbird shoot

The overalls and the cigar box (2001)

The overalls and the cigar box (2001)

 

The proof sheets and negatives were shipped off to Random House early in the following week. The art director assigned to the project was an extremely talented fellow named Eric Fuentecilla. He quickly worked with the images sent and all was looking good, but then we hit a snag.  As I wrote to A’s mother in early April:

 

The publisher loved the photos and they made up a "comp" cover with [A] in overalls, clutching the cigar box. It was shown to Harper Lee, the author of the book, earlier this week. She loved the photo but said that only in the movie, and not in the book, did "Scout" wear overalls. Fortunately, we did a number of photos of [A] in the dress, which they also love, so they are making up another "comp" to take back to Harper Lee. So we are still very much in the running.

 

(My father later read the book and found three references to Scout in overalls, but one did not argue with Miss Lee.)

Just when we thought we were home free, Mary wrote in early May to tell me the whole design was off the table altogether:

 

I've just been asked to obtain this Eudora Welty image for the Mockingbird cover. Harper Lee is insisting on it. Bummer!! But when you look at it, you see how very different Lee's vision of Scout is, from the one we all seem to have from the movie. Everyone at Harper Perennials is disappointed, as they all really loved your pictures. And me too. I'm so sorry.

 

I wrote to A’s mother: 

 

I hope you are all well. Bad news on the cover.. Close call, though, as you can see from this message  …  Thanks again to you and A for giving this a try. You are great sports. I will send you a print or two from our shoot before too long.

 

To say that I was highly disappointed would be a great understatement.  And just as I was licking my wounds and getting ready to move on to another project, I learned we were back in business:

The final cover

The final cover

Jack, Here's what they've done with this. Let Eric know if it's OK with you. I'm VERY excited that this is working out this way! We'll have to have a lobster dinner to celebrate!

And what Eric had done was to cobble together two of the photographs, combining the most enigmatic portrait of A, together with the dress that would pass muster with Harper Lee.   Success!  The book, in all its versions (and there have been many editions in addition to this one) is reported to have sold more than 40 Million copies as of 2010.  It still gives me pleasure every time I see it.