In the late stages of gathering materials for Our Coast Magazine 2019, as production drew near, photographer Colin Murphey and I felt the first prickles of panic.

We discovered we had a problem: We didn’t have a cover photo.

Or, rather, the photo we thought we would use — a shot Colin had taken months before of beach volleyball players in silhouette against a blazing sun — was a no-go. Somehow we’d convinced ourselves the cover, a rather important piece of the magazine, was a settled matter. But the authorities hadn’t explicitly approved the image we’d chosen and now they wanted something different.

So, in the final throes of assembling a publication that’s supposed to have a summery feel, we desperately needed to get a sunny outdoor image in the midst of a damp, gray winter.

The cover is a source of considerable internal debate every year. Almost no one agrees on what would make the best cover, but we try to check a few obvious boxes: sun, ocean, maybe some land, a human subject. And because the image is meant to represent the entire Columbia-Pacific, it must be thoroughly beachy yet unrecognizable — so no Haystack Rock, no Seaside Promenade, no Astoria Bridge.

The Our Coast planners convened a meeting, ostensibly an update on where the magazine stood generally, but one question drove the discussion: What the actual #$*! were we going to do about the cover?

We looked at a series of possibilities on a projector in the conference room. A couple of candidates were last year’s alternates: a mother and son overlooking the beach at Hug Point as a marine layer rolls in; a lone fisherman out in the surf, the water around him marbled with foam. None quite worked. After all, those rejected covers were rejected for a reason.

As a near-last-ditch measure, Colin offered to dig through old unpublished photos. He landed on one he’d taken in September of Lisa Habecker, the Haystack Rock Awareness Program’s education and volunteer coordinator, checking on rehabilitated seabirds after they’d been released into the ocean. In the photo, she’s bounding into the waters of Cannon Beach, arms outstretched, her back to the camera, as the waves hit her head on.

It’s a nice, symmetrical image, sure, but nothing about it immediately screamed “cover!” I feared readers would think this faceless figure was plunging to her death, that we’d put them in mind of Virginia Woolf or Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” Yet it had an elemental appeal … a woman becoming one with the waves, all but commanding the tide. Her Coast Magazine.

It was the perfect photo. Once we’d calibrated the colors, cropped it from a horizontal shot into a vertical, zoomed in a little and laid down the text, it was everything we needed — and with the glossy finish it turned out better than we dared hope for. A great cover had been in our files all along — true, it needed greatness thrust upon it, but the result is the same.

There are lessons here. Something you think is beautiful might work on its own, but in the context of a larger project may not be quite right. Something you think is unexceptional can be made sublime in the right context. Finally, it’s usually a good idea to check with your publisher before unilaterally deciding the cover for your company’s lifestyle magazine is in the can.

And those three rejected covers — mother and son, the fisherman, and volleyball at sunset? They’re all in Our Coast, each covering two full pages, as God intended.

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