One Reason Magazines Are Suffering: Their Covers

I love magazines, but the current state of magazine covers mystifies me. October saw the industry shrink; layoffs and closures abounded. This week was especially bloody, with new cuts at Conde Nast’s Portfolio and Men’s Vogue, and Time Inc. cuts that could affect People, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune.

The industry’s response to slowing sales has been to be to play it safe. Most cover images seem either bland or retro, as if all notions of innovation had disappeared. But have publishers considered that covers tested in focus groups and carefully calibrated not to offend might be part of the reason for flagging circulation? Wouldn’t it make sense to at least try to be striking and modern?

Trying to make funny pictures of comedians is a truly hopeless endeavor. You can’t style humor – it can only be caught on the fly.

At the normally up-to-date GQ, the retro reference is to two former presidents as Mark Seliger shoots Jimmy Kimmel as both Kennedy and Nixon. Unfortunately, it’s one of those ideas that probably sounded better in the meeting than it looks on the page. Trying to make funny pictures of comedians is a truly hopeless endeavor. You can’t style humor—it can only be caught on the fly.

Elsewhere, whether for modernity’s sake or simply because McCain is a less-than-stellar seller, it’s clearly Obama’s month. New York magazine goes with a heroic shot of Obama by Nigel Parry, Vibe weighs in with a tightly cropped half-face and a stylish picture on the contents page, while Rolling Stone, debuting its new smaller size, goes with a mildly fish-eye close-up in their third Obama cover of the year. Interestingly, neither candidate seems to vet the photographers. Vibe has Terry Richardson, a terrific photographer but one more normally associated with hedonistic shots of naked babes.

And recently there was a minor controversy when The Atlantic sent photographer Jill Greenberg, best known for her detailed portraits of crying babies, to shoot a McCain cover. During the shoot, Greenberg took the opportunity to fire off several highly unflattering portraits of McCain, which she lost no time dispersing around the Internet and using to create anti-McCain posters.

Back in retro land, Esquire reprises its famous 2000 Bill Clinton “crotch shot” with Halle Berry. Just a few months ago, the magazine referenced another famous picture by posing four Victoria’s Secret models in just sweaters and heels. But was it the 1966 Angie Dickinson picture they were referencing, or the 2003 Britney Spears re-creation of the Dickinson picture? Perhaps Esquire ought to follow British magazine i-D’s lead, where every month the cover subject winks to form the letters i-D. (Rotate the letters 90 degrees clockwise and you’ll get it.) Esquire could distinguish their brand by simply going all-bottomless, all the time!

One of the more striking covers of the current campaign was last week’s Time, which contrasted photographs of Obama, Lincoln, FDR, and McCain for the cover story, “Does Temperament Matter?” This cover, a well-selected picture choice, provided fascinating visual fodder as the facial features of the matched pairs revealed eerie similarities, particularly between Obama and Lincoln.

November’s Vanity Fair cover, while a sexy photograph, is a deliberate re-creation of the famous 1941 Bob Landry shot of Rita Hayworth that ran inside Life (too risqué for the cover) and went on to become the No. 2 best selling pin-up of World War II (after the famous Betty Grable shot). The current Amy Adams version, shot by Mert & Marcus, is certainly well done, but seen alongside all the other magazine cover re-creations on the newsstand, one could be forgiven for not knowing what year it is.

Meanwhile, The New York Post reports on a story published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: A study of 40 years of Playboy covers found that the worse the economy, the older, heavier, and more self-sufficient looking the cover model. Subconsciously, the worried Playboy reader is looking for “a more-able woman to take care of them,” according to Terry Pettijohn, who conducted the study. You be the judge of November’s characteristics.

The gold standard of originality in fashion covers for me has always been Richard Avedon’s 1962 Harper’s Bazaar shot of Steve McQueen, art directed by Ruth Ansel. Not only was it daring to put a man on the cover (even one as famously sexy as McQueen), but that bejeweled hand rumpling his hair just adds icing to the cake. I’d love to know how that cover did.

W magazine’s November cover trumpets: “EXCLUSIVE: BRAD PITT’S PRIVATE PHOTOS OF ANGELINA JOLIE.” A cover picture of Jolie discreetly breastfeeding was supposed to be shocking, but the picture really just looks sweet. Much more striking is Pitt’s picture inside playing off Jolie’s famous lips.

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Elsewhere in fashion land, Vogue and Allure close in on their subjects’ faces (and Norman Jean Roy’s Allure photograph of Eva Longoria is remarkably pretty). Was there a prescient sense that this month readers would be more interested in buying lipstick than ball gowns? And at Harper’s Bazaar, Drew Barrymore positively sparkles in front of an American flag. The picture takes us right back to the 1940s—the golden era when magazines ruled.

James Danziger was the Director of Photography at the London Sunday Times Magazine, Features Editor of Vanity Fair, and Director of Magnum New York. He runs the gallery Danziger Projects in New York and blogs at The Year in Pictures.