What each month’s cover should look like is always a thorny problem, this month no less than others. It is unusual, though, for us to take three different cover ideas to completion before choosing among them.
The basic rule in thinking about covers is that a clear, straightforward image is best. This rule is always true—except when something else might look better. So the rule is not as helpful as it might seem. In any event, that’s where we started in this month’s story on the King Ranch. Our first idea was to have a red-hot branding iron searing the King Ranch’s Running W onto the cover paper. That was clear and straightforward. But what wasn’t clear and straightforward were the questions of what angle the branding iron should be held at, whether the resulting photograph would actually “read” as a branding iron branding paper, whether people would think it odd to be branding paper and not cattle anyway, and whether the Runnng W was, after all, widely enough known. In short, for a variety of reasons, once we had seen it, no one really liked the idea anymore. One cover down, two to go.
The other two covers were chosen from photographs taken to illustrate the story. Each one showed something about the King Ranch as a place, a way of life, and a piece of history, but what we liked about one photograph was precisely what we didn’t like about the other. Although I’m afraid that the cover we finally rejected loses something in the translation from color to black and white and in the great reduction in size, it seemed, to us at least, to have these virtues: it showed a big sky and lots of land resulting in a strong sense of the ranch as a place; the herd in the distance showed the work done there; and the cowboy in the right foreground gave the picture a partial frame and a contemplative mood that we hoped would reinforce the cover type.
In the cover we finally chose there isn’t much sense of place. Although it was shot at the ranch, it might almost as easily have been taken in a pen at the Astrodome during the Houston Fat Stock Show. But for the same reasons that is loses a sense of the surrounding, it gains a clear focus. One’s eye doesn’t wander about the picture wondering exactly what it’s supposed to be seeing. The lasso in the air adds some action. And, finally, in combination with the type, this photograph just seemed a better composition.
If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s only that the clear and straightforward rule that we began with reasserted itself in the end, so maybe it was a help after all. And that deadlines, the constant burr under the journalist’s saddle, at least have the virtue of making one decide between two ideas whose strengths and faults could be discussed and discussed and discussed long, long into the night.