Some of the most restrained responses to Sept. 11 attacks proved to be the most powerful. Here The New Yorker seemed to recognize that images from that day were already repeating in readers' minds, so recapitulating the scene was unnecessary and possibly unwelcome. Instead these black Twin Towers on a black background made readers search the cover to even discern the subject. Finding the towers there somehow summoned the loss New Yorkers felt in those days when they searched the skyline for towers they would not find.
Seventeen years after National Geographic ran what would become its most-famous cover photo, a portrait of an Afghan girl who'd fled the war in her country and wound up in a Pakistani refugee camp, the magazine and the original photographer, Steve McCurry, set out to find her again. They didn't know her name or whether she was still alive, but finally succeeded, locating Sherbat Gula in the mountains near Tora Bora, still haunted by war and still striking for Western readers.
Magazine covers can excel at timely responses to events in the world, but they can also provide a canvas for timeless, artistic imagery that doesn't get enough room elsewhere in the mass media. Irving Penn demonstrated that potential over decades of work for Vogue magazine, where his career began in 1943. His portrait of Nicole Kidman here in 2004 was his first cover shoot for Vogue since 1989. Mr. Penn died at 92 in October 2009.
JUNE 19, 2006
If celebrity weeklies were big players in the story of magazines this decade, and auctions for celebrity baby photos were huge for celebrity weeklies, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt loomed probably the largest in celebrity gossip itself. So People magazine's cover here, "First Baby Pictures!" of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, was -- in a way that's hard to remember a few years out -- a huge deal in magazines. People paid a reported $4 million for these photos, and Brangelina donated the money to charity.
JULY 8-14, 2006
Thanks go to The Economist for giving readers a way to laugh about Kim Jong-Il, who spent a good portion of the 2000s alarming the world with missile tests and pursuit of nuclear weapons. The subject at hand was neither funny nor so accessible as, say, celebrity baby photos -- but this bold, simple cover delivered the perfect advertisement for The Economist's smart, incredibly readable treatments of important news.
The cover imperative -- getting people to buy magazines -- led to National Lampoon's famous, satirical take in 1973, when its cover threatened "If you don't buy this magazine, we'll shoot this dog." Not long after Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting partner in the face, Texas Monthly saw the opportunity for an update. It's effective as an incentive to buy the magazine, playing with the news event of the day and representing a broader storyline about the vice president himself.
The regular approach to magazine covers -- celebrity plus cover lines -- isn't easy to diverge from, but Esquire had recently introduced a new flavor of the old formula, putting the subject in the foreground and placing arrestingly presented, crowded but compelling cover lines behind. The Iraq War veteran here demonstrated, moreover, a willingness to place emphasis on important subjects. Esquire has gone on to boldly experiment with gimmicks such as e-ink and flip-book covers, but this one will stay with readers far longer.
MARCH 24, 2008
When New York governor Eliot "Steamroller" Spitzer got caught engaging the services of a prostitute, just one of several big scandals to topple state governors this decade, New York Editor Adam Moss put out a call for cover treatments from several artists. He chose a submission by Barbara Kruger, who had already pioneered a powerful visual style that proved fully capable of summing up the situation, and frustration of the governor's supporters, with a pointer and a single word.
When a 1997 Wired cover featured the Apple logo wrapped in barbed wire above the word "Pray," the idea was that the "beleaguered" company was struggling enough for fans to worry. By the spring of 2008, Apple was wielding fearsome power over consumer electronics and media, particularly through the iPod, iTunes and iconic "Mac vs. PC" ads. As the decade draws to a close, if you believe the rumors about an Apple tablet computer coming next year, Apple is poised to further transform the media business in the next decade, too.
JULY 10, 2008
Magazines may be addicted to cover lines, but sometimes a title makes the bold choice that the cover could work better, even sell better, without them. Here Rolling Stone's choice for president appears just days after finally winning a protracted and bruising primary fight and receiving the Democratic Party's nomination. The cover was named "Cover of the Year" by the American Society of Magazine Editors.