Ian Birch’s Iconic Magazine Covers (published as Uncovered: Revolutionary Magazine Covers in the UK) is a 250-page compendium of the oral histories behind some of the most groundbreaking and provocative magazine covers of the past 60 years. Birch, an industry veteran and former editorial director of Hearst UK, spent two years conducting over 150 interviews with the art directors, photographers, and editors involved in making the famed covers of “legacy” publications like Esquire and TIME, as well as more obscure titles that made an impact on their cultures before they folded.
One such magazine is Fact, whose controversial 1964 pre-election cover proclaimed “1,189 Psychiatrists Say [Barry] Goldwater Is Psychologically Unfit To Be President!” The Republican senator sued the magazine and won; the fines resulted in Fact’s eventual closure in 1967. Staff member Shoshana Ginzberg — who was married to editor and publisher Ralph — tells Birch, “We never thought there was a chance he would win. Never! We thought America was the land of free speech and it’s absolutely basic that the public can question anything about a candidate running for president. We were so wrong.” The cover affected American culture even after Fact folded: The American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater rule,” issued in 1973, declared it unethical for psychiatrists to offer professional opinions without prior examination.
American magazine Esquire appears multiple times in Iconic Magazine Covers, to no surprise. The covers that editor Harold Hayes, art director George Lois, and photographer Carl Fischer created have been deemed works of art, with some permanently displayed at MoMA. Covers featuring Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian (1968) and Andy Warhol drowning in a Campbell’s soup can (1969) are among the most famous examples, but one of the more interesting backstories describes the creation and reception of a December 1963 cover depicting boxer Sonny Liston in a Santa hat. Lois and Fischer recount the not-so-subtle manipulation it took to get a photo of Liston wearing the hat, such as inviting his hero, Joe Louis, to the shoot to twist his arm and taking just-for-fun shots with the daughter of the manager of the Vegas hotel where the shoot took place. Lois quotes Hayes’s 1981 Adweek piece, in which the editor reflected on the provocative image of a solemn black Santa in 1963, writing that “the notion of racial equality was a bad joke; the felicitations of this season — goodwill to all men, etc. — carried irony more than sentiment.” Esquire received hate mail and lost an estimated $750,000 in ad revenue, particularly from Southern clients. But TIME also hailed it as “one of the greatest social statements of the plastic arts since Picasso’s [1937 painting] ‘Guernica.’”
Thirty years later, Esquire attempted to recapture some of that confrontational spirit with its February 1992 cover, featuring the words “White People” in enormous white sans-serif script against a white background. The issue aimed to jolt its readership by drawing attention to the aesthetics and politics of white culture. Art director Rhonda Rubinstein, editor-in-chief Terry McDonnell, and design consultant Roger Black were inspired by a 1992 Granta cover and The Beatles’ White Album. McDonnell likened it to an inside joke, believing that readers would be appreciative of its ironic “biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you feel […]. ” Despite its aesthetic punch, it didn’t sell.
Financial risk and hand-wringing executives are common themes in the book’s stories — as is the editors’ lack of regret in the face of backlash. While potential profits are obviously key in creating covers, editors and art directors over the past 60 years have seen covers as an opportunity to make a statement. Birch recognizes this, explaining that sales didn’t factor into his choices. He writes, “I chose [these covers] because they broke boundaries and started conversations. They made a moment feel red-hot and meaningful.”
For their ability to encapsulate a cultural discussion or event in a striking image, Birch refers to these covers as “social documents.” He is not, however, a social or cultural historian, and without a more detailed analysis of how these works fit into the history and evolution of a 150-year old art form, his use of the words “revolutionary” and “iconic” might seem hyperbolic at times. Despite these lofty terms, the oral histories bring the work of producing images that stand the test of time down to earth.
Iconic Magazine Covers takes us up to 2016 — a testament perhaps to the speed of our current cultural turnover, in which images that are less than a decade old can be iconic. Yet Birch’s choices, from the 2013 Rolling Stone cover that drew ire for supposedly romanticizing Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to Vanity Fair’s 2015 cover introducing the world to Caitlyn Jenner, emit an aura that promises the same longevity in the collective memory as the covers from the 1960s.
Birch writes that covers have become more “adversarial” and, more recently, “energized by the twin political thunderbolts of Brexit and Trump.” Surprisingly, The Economist and The New Yorker’s post-Charlottesville covers are not included. Announced the same day on Twitter, they both used the iconography of the Klu Klux Klan to distill a significant cultural moment into powerful images. However, Birch features Edel Rodriguez’s “meltdown” illustrations for TIME, which similarly convey the effectiveness of simplifying cultural events to instantly recognizable elements.
Birch mourns the print industry as societies become increasingly centered on the internet. In this way, the book is an homage to print. What the future holds for magazines remains to be seen. But use of digital covers, by Teen Vogue for example, reveals a continued understanding of the power magazine covers hold beyond newsstands.
Iconic Magazine Covers is published by Firefly Books in North America and as Uncovered: Revolutionary Magazine Covers by Cassell in the UK in 2018. It is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.