They are windows on to the Zeitgeist, they are vivid movie stills, they are news from the war zone, they are multicoloured fashion accessories, they are cards of identity, they are freakish medical displays of disembodied eye, mouth, hand or bosom, they are freeze-framed seconds from opium dreams, they are faces peering through the porthole of the crazy ward. And when seen together on the news-stands, they're like a spontaneous street-art exhibition, one that changes completely every month.
Nothing brings the multifariousness of the modern world so howlingly to life as the magazine cover. Its single image is a form of visual shorthand, pulling you instantly into their editors' (and readers') fantasy lives. Take the stunning cover of Queen magazine in August 1969 (see page 44). Queen covers usually featured pretty models (especially Jean Shrimpton) looking chic or alluring in fashionable hats. This cover flung away the rule-book and said to the reader: Come and get it. Its heavy shadow and lipsticked pout hinted at so much: at sex, anonymity, wickedness, abandonment, fulfilment, arrogance and modern style, as well as the joy of the post-coital fag. Heaven knows what it had to do with London's best primary schools (the adjacent cover-line) but it was an image that hit you between the eyes. Both men and women queued to buy the magazine, not to immerse themselves in its features, but just to take it home and be seen carrying it. If the Sixties were the hinge that turned a grey, post-war, forelock-tugging society into an exuberant, polychromatic riot of confident individualism, it was magazine covers such as this that swung the door.
A new book, 100 Years of Magazine Covers by Steve Taylor, explores the potency and artistry of these visual treats since they began as a by-product of movie fan magazines. Of course, magazines had been around since the invention of mass printing; the 18th-century Enlightenment had seen an explosion of journals, political, literary, scientific; their covers, however, were never more than a workmanlike recital of contents. When Motion Picture Stories was launched in 1909, two major innovations had taken place. One was the dry-plate printing process which enabled magazines to carry pictures and photographs. The other was that film studios started publicising the name of the actors and actresses in their films. Fandom was born. Six years later, with Photoplay, the generic cover-image was born - a loving close-up of a film-star in colour, photographed specially for the issue. As more movie magazines flourished (60 of them between 1911 and 1938) the cover shot of the "off-duty" star, sharing her private life with the reader, became the template for magazine covers everywhere.
Through magazines, stardom and celebrity descended on sportsmen, artists, politicians, TV personalities, businessmen and revolutionaries. Being a cover "star" was like an award - but a temporary one. Andy Warhol predicted that, in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes; magazine covers allowed you a month before the carnival moved on. If you were lucky, or a goddess, the carnival came back for more. After Marilyn Monroe graced the cover of Douglas Airview (the in-house magazine of the Douglas Aircraft Company), she went on to appear on the cover of 33 national magazines in the next 12 months alone. Was she on the cover because she was a star, or vice-versa?
The magazine-as-dream-factory came into its own with women's fashion magazines. Their dissemination of perfect faces and effortless elegance offered women readers a whole gallery of "selves" they might become, were they only to subscribe to Vogue and Tatler and Glamour. "A woman reading Glamour," wrote Naomi Wolf, "is holding women-oriented mass culture between her two hands. Women are deeply affected by what their magazines tell them (or what they believe they tell them) because they [the magazines] are all most women have as a window on their own mass sensibility." When feminism reared its head in the early 1970s, hell-bent on confronting the stereotypes perpetuated by the demure fiancées and coy socialites portrayed on the cover of Harpers or Eva, a niche appeared - a magazine for the liberated chick, emphasising her self-confidence and earning power. And so Cosmopolitan was born, its first cover displaying Cosmo Girl as a feisty sexpot, her arms not quite akimbo - neither housewife nor clotheshorse, a woman who would henceforth make all her own decisions.
Sex, of course, was always the best component of a successful magazine cover, no matter what its content. In the discreet 1950s, "gentlemen's magazines", though they featured spreads of naked women inside, cautiously stuck line drawings on the cover. In the mid-1960s, Playboy carried naked women strategically obscured by foliage or furniture. It took the counter-cultural "Underground" magazines of the late 1960s to use the naked body as a shock tactic. The "School Kids' Issue" of Oz, fronted by pneumatic black girls, ended up in court, prosecuted for obscenity. The groovy journal Friends featured a cover-shot of a hippie fantasy - a naked blonde smoking a joint.
As magazines moved into the 1970s and 1980s, and the market in special-interest journals grew more cut-throat, covers became driven by shock tactics. Their role as windows on the Zeitgeist changed. Now they were windows through which a hand reached to grab you by the throat. Time Out, the listings guide for clued-up Londoners, used iconic gestures such as the Churchill V-sign to brilliant effect. Punk fanzines such as Zigzag put Johnny Rotten on the cover, his blank face obscured by a gin and tonic. Colors, designed by Oliviero Toscani, offered the flinching reader a cover-shot of a naked newborn baby, complete with umbilical cord.
Some journals insisted that design itself could be shocking. The magazine i-D experimented with yelpingly clashing colours and bizarre typography; every cover featured the title ranged on its side, revisualised as an "emotikon" - a face both smiling and winking. The Face gave itself airs as the coolest magazine in the world, partly on the strength of employing the nation's most inventive and avant-garde designer, Neville Brody.
Surreal, subversive, sexy and stylish, magazine covers are a great deal more than the outer shell of a compendium of writing. They are emblems of an attitude to life, visual statements of beauty or shock, postcards from a more exciting world. We buy the magazines because we want to be part of their world; hoping, without ever admitting it, that some of the cover-art glamour will rub off on us.
'100 Years of Magazine Covers' by Steve Taylor is published by Black Dog, £29.95. To order the book at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897Reuse content