Fall 2011 cover tests

Every quarter one of the hardest jobs I face is choosing the cover of the next magazine.  But I’m not complaining, because it’s also one of the most fun jobs.  For the past few years I have usually had several contenders competing for the cover, and that’s a lot better than the early days of the magazine when finding a cover usually meant a last-minute scramble to find something — anything — that would fit.

It works better now because I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating relationships with artists and photographers who have interesting pictures, and also because the magazine is better known today.  Often a painter or illustrator will come out of the woodwork with a really cool image and suggest it for Airstream Life.  In the past few years the magazine has been honored to feature artists Bob Brugger, Steve Gray, Taralee Guild, Eli Clark, Brad Cornelius, Michael Depraida, and Michael Lambert, plus photographer Alison Turner.  And who can forget the wonderful “Tiki Airstream” painted by Doug Horne on our Summer 2008 issue?

The flip side of having a lot of possible images is that the decision process can be excruciating.  Again, don’t feel sorry for me, feel sorry for the people who really wanted to be on the cover but didn’t make the cut.  I hate having to give people bad news about their photo or picture.  Usually the reason we pass on an image has nothing to do with the quality of the image, but rather that it just didn’t work in the context of the cover.

The current issue provided an excellent example of that conundrum.  I wanted to feature photography this time, because we’ve got a piece in the magazine with some of Alison Turner’s photos from Alumapalooza.  She did a nice job capturing people (and often, their dogs) in the field with their Airstreams.  The article in the magazine will show eight of the “characters” she photographed, with captions.

I saw three or four images (out of over 200 submitted) that I thought might be cover-worthy, and eventually narrowed the choices down to two.  An Airstream Life cover has to be bold and visually interesting at a minimum.  We almost always have Airstreams in the image (a successful exception was our Spring 2005 cover, if you remember that one).  An ideal cover is evocative, or implies a story, although I’m certainly happy with images that just excite you.

Sometimes the excitement comes from seeing a beautiful image of an Airstream in a fantastic setting, like Michael Lambert’s painting of his polished trailer at the Blue Swallow Motel sign (along Rt 66), which was featured on our Fall 2009 issue.  Sometimes it is pure fantasy like the tiki Airstream above, or Brad Cornelius’ great “butterfly” logo for Alumapalooza (Spring 2010).

This time I wanted to go for realism, since this issue is dedicated to the people of the Airstream community.  Alison’s photos provided a great opportunity.  The two photos that I ultimately chose were of Kirk MacKellar, and of Rhonda Coleman.  Kirk is a good friend to Alumapalooza, who has supported us by making signs and other useful items.  He has a 1967 Caravel that he has outfitted to become a “NASA Airstream” complete with decals, a stand-up cardboard spaceman, an “APOLLO” license plate, and other fun stuff.  Rhonda is a blogger and occasional contributor to Airstream Life.

Alison captured Kirk standing on the bumper of his trailer looking skyward (to the moon, one presumes).  I thought this would be an awesome shot for the cover, and so did Lisa my Art Director, and Alison.  But because we’ve been down this road before, just to be safe, I submitted Rhonda’s picture as a backup.

The image above shows Kirk’s cover test.   You can see why it didn’t work; Kirk’s head is scraping the logo and the whole line of his body looks awkward in the cover space.  Lisa cropped the bottom edge of the image in an attempt to make it work, but that just caused the image to lose some of its impact — now you can’t see that he’s standing on the bumper.  Shrinking it would be problematic, because we’d have to clone in the edges of the Airstream (fakery) or run some sort of cheezy border around the edge, which I won’t do.  So, reluctantly, we passed on this image.

In the past we have cloned in bits of sky or foreground to make a landscape (wide) image into a portrait (tall) one.  But when we do that we always get the permission of the artist first, and they get to approve the final result.  We did this for Summer 2008, Fall 2010, and one or two others. I don’t like to do it but sometimes it’s the difference between having an awesome cover or not. In the case of the current issue, we had the backup image, and it tested very well.  So Rhonda gets the cover, and Alison wins either way since she took both photos.

Kirk, by the way, took the loss with good humor, commenting it wasn’t his “first brush with sexism.”  I do have to admit Rhonda looks pretty good on the cover, and I hope that when it comes out in August, you’ll agree.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine