Eight Unforgettable Magazine Covers


It is true that magazine covers have single-handedly been responsible for popularising some of the most iconic images of our time. Then again, it has also stirred controversy and has sometimes made us ask important questions related to journalism and photography ethics. Here is our list of famous and infamous magazine covers from over the years.

Photograph/Steve McCurry

Photograph/Steve McCurry

The Most Recognised Image in the World!
The raw untouched image of the then 17-year-old Afghan Girl Sharbat Gula, is probably one of National Geographic’s most iconic and recognised photographs in the world. The picture was shot by famed photographer Steve McCurry and was one of the highest peaks of his career. He shot the image while he was on assignment at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in December 1984.

Even today, the photograph leaves people in awe over the piercing portrait of the young girl. 17 years after the photograph was shot, McCurry was able to track down the girl. She remembered McCurry but had absolutely no idea about her famous photograph.

Photograph/Annie Leibovitz

Photograph/Annie Leibovitz

John Lennon’s Last Photograph
They had originally wanted only John Lennon on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. When photographer Annie Leibovitz arrived at Lennon’s apartment, he insisted that his wife Yoko Ono also appear on the cover beside him.

Annie wanted to create something similar to the kissing photograph on the John’s anf Yoko’s Double Fantasy album cover. She asked Lennon to take off his clothes and curl up toward Yoko. Yoko also offered to take off her shirt but Annie insisted that she keep her clothes on. The resulting photograph was a strong representation of their relationship and love for each other. Annie knew that she got her shot. Unfortunately, five hours after the image was shot, Lennon was murdered. Annie Leibovitz was the last photographer to have shot Lennon while he was alive. The image was shot on 8 December 1980.


Photograph/Linnart Nilsson

Life, in Colour
The photograph appeared on LIFE magazine’s 30 April 1965 cover, where Swedish photographer Linnart Nilsson photographed an 18-week-old fetus. An endoscope with an electronic flash was used to shoot the cover photograph and the several others that appeared inside the magazine.

Initially, Nilsson had approached LIFE with the story idea of photographing colour images of the human reproduction stages-from fertilization to just before birth. The editors at LIFE couldn’t help themselves from feeling skeptical about the story idea. Nevertheless Nilsson did return with the never before seen images.

However, what most people did not know about Nilsson’s photo essay was that the embryos and fetuses were in fact surgically removed, due to medical reasons. In a way, Nilsson immortalised the doomed fetuses and embryos. The methods and devices used to make the photographs revolutionised techniques used for utero photography.


Photograph/George Lois

Photograph/George Lois

The Passion of Muhammad Ali
In 1968, Esquire featured boxer Mohammad Ali on its cover, where he is shown being pierced by arrows. The imagery is reminiscent of the Christian martyr St Sebastian, who was killed in a similar way.

Esquire published this photograph of Ali in support of his decision to not participate in the United States war against Vietnam. Ali did not wish to fight in the war based on religious grounds. His refusal enraged the US government, for violating the Selective Service Act of 1917. He was arrested and barred from the boxing ring. It was however only in 1971, when the US government overturned his conviction in the Clay vs. United States.


Photograph/TIME magazine

Photograph/Matt Mahurin for TIME

TIME Stirs Controversy Yet Again
The magazine faced a lot of flak for publishing a very sinister-looking version of OJ Simpson on their cover, who was put on trial for murdering his wife Nicole. The issue was published in 1994 and resulted in a big public outcry.

The fact that Simpson’s photograph was altered to appear darker and more menacing did not sit well with the public. TIME was also made guilty for coming out as being racist. However, TIME claimed that the photograph was sent to them by the Los Angeles Police Department  and was doctored by illustrator Matt Mahurin.

Newsweek too featured a similar photograph on their cover, which in fact appeared to be the original image. This led many to also believe that TIME wanted to compete with Newsweek in order to sell more magazines.

Photograph/LIFE magazine

Photograph/Leonard McCombe

The Origins of Marlboro Man
The photograph which originally appeared on the 22 August 1949 cover of LIFE, featured a portrait of Clarence Hailey Long Jr shot by Leonard McCombe. The picture aptly captured the spirit of the American West and was used for McCombe’s photo essay about ranching.

But what makes this photograph really special is the fact that the image was the original inspiration for the Marlboro cigarettes. At the time, Marlboro had just introduced filter cigarettes and were looking to rebrand them to appeal to their male customers. Hence, they wanted a rugged-looking cowboy figure to fulfill the role. Long provided plenty of inspiration for that!


Photograph/Annie Leibovitz

Photograph/Annie Leibovitz

Demi Moore’s Most Intimate Cover Photograph
The photograph of Hollywood actress Demi Moore was shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair. Although the photograph does not have a groundbreaking or controversial story attached to it, it’s still iconic. This was the first time that a pregnant nude woman appeared on the cover of the magazine. Moore was seven months pregnant when the image was shot.

Since then several photographers and celebrities have tried to recreate the photo, like singers Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, amongst others. But Leibovitz’s photograph most definitely takes the cherry!

Photograph/Yousef Karsh

Photograph/Yousuf Karsh

The Roaring Lion
Renowned portraitist Yousuf Karsh created one of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s most iconic photographs. The image appeared on LIFE’s 30 December 1941 cover.

The photograph has a even more famous story attached to it. At the time that the portrait was made, Churchill was in no mood to be photographed. While Karsh was setting up his camera, Churchill began puffing on his cigar. Karsh requested that he not smoke but upon his refusal, Karsh walked up to him and graciously pulled the cigar from his mouth. The picture that was immediately shot after this of a scowling Churchill speaks volumes about his personality.

Later Churchill remarked, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.” And so Karsh titled the photo, The Roaring Lion.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Better Photography.

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