A book cover can be the make or break sale of a book. Like a bottle of wine, the way a book looks is important because it must be a match of quality and, hopefully, not outshine the actual substance that was bought into.
Hanya Yangihara’s A Little Life is an excellent example of this: it features well considered, well executed book design that mirrors the reality of the pages you read with a single image. A Little Life is a powerful, beautiful book that seems impossible to pull off; yet, she and cover designer Cardon Webb did just that. This was all done with the single, tightened look of a young man.
So what’s the story behind it? That image is by Peter Hujar, a gay photographer who worked in black and white, photographing his life and world before passing away of AIDS-related pneumonia in the late 1980s. The image selected for A Little Life is The Orgasmic Man. It was taken in 1969 and depicts exactly what you think it’s depicting: an O-face. The photo is so captivating because it does two things: expresses agony and ecstasy, the joy and pains of life. It sums up the entire work of the book with a lone scrunching of expressions. There is more to be read into into the image but, alas, I will not unpack, as to not spoil and of the book for you.
Beyond this, the photo comes from a set of images that depict men orgasming and in sexualized positions. Images like this—along with lust snapshots and intimate portraits of fellow artists—defined Hujar’s work, as a lover of images about and around love. His photos of this ilk were most recently on display at the exhibition Love & Lust at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. Funny enough, the gallery recently did a show dedicated to images selected by Yangihara. Clearly this admiration is much bigger than book art.
As literature and photography show us, everything is a matter of context and reflection that need to be zoomed in on, specified, to teach us about the universality of our experiences. A Little Life does that, Hujar’s photo does that, and they so gently work together with a pushed-into image that captures the same feelings that sums up over eight hundred pages. That is the mark of a good story—and a good image.