Magnum photographer Harry Gruyaert opens his archive for Penguin’s Maigret series

For its release of a new translation of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series, Penguin Books turned to Magnum photographer Harry Gruyaert to provide covers for all 75 books. We talk to Penguin picture editor Samantha Johnson about how she has worked with Gruyaert to choose the covers…

Penguin is republishing each of Simenon’s Maigret detective novels at a rate of one a month, and with over 20 now available, it’s possible to get a sense of how Gruyaert’s imagery is working across the new series. Paired with fairly sparse design for the author’s name and individual book titles, Gruyaert’s photographs take centre stage on the covers.

Gruyaert is especially known for his experimental use of colour and his striking use of light and shadow. His photograph’s often contain an air of dramatic mystery, making them a natural companion for a series of detective novels. Penguin first struck upon working with him after Peter Galassi, former curator of photographs at MoMA, New York, suggested him for the series, and picture editor Johnson has since worked closely with Gruyaert to find the right images for the books.

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“We looked through his archives together and that was really great,” she says. “I’d read a lot of the books before I went there and we looked through together though in some ways he hung back and let me look – then he’d say ‘why have you chosen that one? What is it about that?’ He questioned my choices, then once he understood what I was looking for and why I thought something worked, then he’d say ‘you’ve got to see this, let’s look at this set of photos’.

This collaborative approach allowed Johnson to choose a large selection of photographs that she can now look through for upcoming titles. “I chose a really wide selection – I came back with about 600 images and now I use that as my first port of call to go through,” she continues.

Many of the covers feature details cropped from larger shots. “He’s really open to the way we’re using things,” says Johnson. “Obviously the format of a book is a certain shape and size, so there are some images where I’m using one part of it on one cover and we might even use another part on another. He loves that, he loves the way that I would look at an image differently to how he looks at it. He finds it really interesting the way that other people look at his work.”

Gruyaert in his studio, looking through images for the project
Gruyaert in his studio, looking through images for the project
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Johnson’s intention is not to find images that reflect a particular storyline or event in the novels, but more to sum up the ambience of Maigret and of Simenon’s writing. “It’s about trying to understand the feelings and the atmosphere of a particular book and find things that reflect that,” she says.

“It’s a strange project – when I’m looking for images for covers normally I’m not necessarily limiting myself to one photographer’s work. But then neither would I look at every single photograph of one photographer’s work for a project, so in some ways it really opens it out to different ideas.”

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The design of the Maigret series is by Alceu Chiesorin Nunes at Companhia des Letras, Brazil. More info on the books is at penguin.co.uk. An exhibition of Gruyaert’s work is also on show at the Magnum Print Room until October 31, more info is at magnumphotos.com, and earlier this year, Thames & Hudson also published a monograph of his work, more info here.

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