Behind the Cover: The Incredible Photography of Kelia Anne MacCluskey
Behind every cover is not just the story written by the author, but also one of how the visual representation of that book came to be. This is the story of how Learning Not to Drown ended up with its incredible cover.
You might be surprised to hear that most authors get little to no say in what their covers look like. Since I can be really
picky, controlling, hands-on, I wanted to give my suggestions on what I’d like to see. I also am very aware that I don’t know anything about what makes a good cover for a book and the professionals Atheneum/Simon & Schuster definitely do, so I timidly asked my editor if I could give them a small list of some artists that I thought would represent my work well. My editor told me that YA books usually have photos on the front, but, decided to give an illustration a chance. It turns out that Edwin Ushiro was on both my list and theirs. He painted a beautiful swimmer inspired by Clare, surrounded by water both dark and light, tumultuous and calm. I immediately hung his painting in my office across from my desk, where I could easily be inspired by Edwin’s art. But, early testing of the cover came back with some tough results – most people thought the book was mid-grade, not YA.
Michael McCartney at Simon and Schuster got to work on designing another cover for Learning Not to Drown while I continued to work on edits… and continued to have stress nightmares about my cover.
When the final jacket came to me, I fell in love.
Although the photo was taken years before my book was completed, it looked like it had been created just for Learning Not to Drown. I instantly looked up the photographer – Kelia Anne MacCluskey – and almost passed out when I discovered that she took the photo WHEN SHE WAS ONLY SIXTEEN.
I haven’t been able to meet her yet in person, but I was able to connect with her via email and do an interview. After finding out more about Kelia, I was even more impressed – not only is she the photographer (at that time largely self-taught), but she also was the model, AND she taught herself how to use photoshop through online tutorials and experimentation. She is a true artist, and I look forward to see much more of her work in the future.
AS: I love that the photo looks almost like a painting. Can you tell me a little about the process from taking the photo to manipulating it?
KM: This image simply started out as an idea. I could imagine exactly what I wanted to portray, and I knew a lot of the elements had to be added through Photoshop. It started as a very basic image of me leaning back on a chair. I spent hours manipulating my hair and adding small but important details like the bubbles and caustics from the water.
AS: How do you pick your subjects? Is it you in the photo?
KM: When I took this photo, I was a high school girl trying to navigate the somewhat burdensome yet necessary events of adolescence. I think at this age, almost everyone has some kind of identity crisis. I wanted so badly to be an artist. I wanted to be known for something. I wanted to create. When I would be struck with an idea for a photo, I would shoot it immediately. The combination of these things resulted in many self-portraits. Recently, I’ve been scouting for models everywhere I go. Instead of just basing everything off of aesthetics, I observe their mannerisms, their body language, the way they talk, everything that contributes to who they are. It sounds strange, but I kind of fall in love with people before I meet them. If I see someone who mirrors some kind of emotion that I’m trying to portray, I’ll approach them. This has led to a lot of awkward conversations with cute boys. I have to ensure them that it’s not a cheesy pick up line, but then again, sometimes it is. I think that’s the best part of being a photographer, you’re always surrounded by beautiful people.
AS: I think it’s pretty incredible that you took the photo when you were 16. (Is that right?) When did you start taking pictures?
KM: I was in eighth grade and experimented with my Dad’s Sony DSLR quite a bit. Eventually, I got my own ‘point and shoot’ digital camera that I absolutely treasured. Unfortunately, a lot of the photos taken with that camera ended up being Myspace profile pictures. (The ultimate self-portrait practice!) When I was 15, I took the Photography elective at my high school. I began to take photos outside of class, and spent hours trying to learn Photoshop. I truly immersed myself because I had finally found something that I loved to do. Learning to make good images with basic cameras definitely benefitted me. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I got my own camera. Now that I’m in art school, I have the opportunity to shoot with professional equipment which is almost too much fun.
AS: What kind of training did you have when you took the photo?
KM: I learned everything I knew through online tutorials and experimenting with Photoshop. It was definitely a lot of trial and error, but I was so in love that spending hours editing one photo was enjoyable.
AS:What kind of equipment do you like to use?
KM: All of my digital work is shot with a Sony a55v, but recently I’ve been shooting a ton of black and white film with my Canon AE-1. I’ve spent countless hours in the darkroom trying to master printing, which is much of a more intimate and beautiful process than Photoshop. There are tons of applications between editing a digital photograph and printing a negative, and I love translating the process between the two.
AS: How does it feel to have your photo representing a book that you haven’t read?
KM: It is absolutely thrilling! The reason I make photographs is to pour every ounce of my soul into a single image. If my soul can translate into another piece of art, such as Learning Not to Drown, there is nothing more gratifying.
AS: You are currently studying at Savannah College of Art & Design. What do you want to do with photography? Do you have a dream job?
KM: Yes, I’m currently a sophomore at Savannah College of Art & Design. I’ve had the opportunity to take classes like drawing and painting, which has changed everything about my aesthetic, how I shoot, and what I shoot. I am beyond blessed to have the opportunity to attend the school. I would love to shoot fashion in the future, but I also am so devoted to portraiture. I think taking intimate and personal photos of celebrities would be an absolute dream.
AS: Anything else you’d like to share?
KM: I have learned recently that the most beautiful work comes from dark and sad places. My favorite photographs have come from the most painful heartbreaks. Artists are artists because we are so incorrigibly sensitive. We notice things. We fall in love easily. We take things personally. I used to think of these things as negative qualities, but I’ve learned to be grateful for them.