A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. That's a good thing, because few people are willing to read a thousand words these days. A great picture can, and often should, stand alone or be accompanied by a few well-chosen words. This may sound strange coming from a writer, but I don't think of good photography as taking the place of good writing. Instead compelling photography both forces and enables me, and the designer, to sharpen our virtual pencils. When all components work together, it elevates the end result.
What got me musing about the interplay of photography and copy was the arrival of my secondary school's alumni magazine (pictured). I love what this photo "says." In writing for independent schools, I try to get across the energy and engagement of classrooms—a little different at each school. This picture captures it beautifully. Oh, how I would love to have an image like this when I'm creating a viewbook!
Glimpsing the magazine as I took it from my mailbox, I had two reactions and an expectation (all subtle). First, I felt proud to have gone to a school where children still get excited by what they're learning. It doesn't matter that I attended 35 years ago or that I started in seventh grade and therefore never went to the school in the picture (elementary and middle/secondary schools are separate). Graduates naturally want to identify with positive images of their alma mater, however defined.
Second, it made me eager to actually read the magazine, something I confess I don't always do. Energy breeds energy. But the photo led me to expect that there would be stories about student engagement or new pedagogical techniques or even the use of manipulatives—something classroom related. Instead the issue focused on ethics, an integral part of my school's mission but a disconnect from the cover shot.
If a magazine has a theme, reflected in an appropriate cover line, then the cover image—whether one or several photos, artwork, or a combination—should relate to the theme or convey its mood. If you have a great image that doesn't fit, save it for somewhere it does. On the other hand, if there is no unifying theme, then the cover image can be more general, and several cover lines can be used to preview important articles.
The concept extends beyond magazines. Whatever the piece and the purpose, use the best possible photography and writing. Even more important, make sure they work together, because linking a powerful image with powerful messaging is what maximizes impact.