Faces of Time (2009 – 2014)

Being featured on the cover of Time magazine used to be a big deal, so much so that movies use that as a visual cue to signify the noteworthiness of the protagonist. Is it still a big deal? 


Iconic Photos is turning five soon – so maybe time to finally submit a thesis and graduate?

We looked back at the last five years (April 2009 – March 2014) during which time Iconic Photos had been alive. During this time, Time America, Time International, and its regional prints have published 125 different covers featuring 139 faces. Assuming 500 different covers during that period (260 weeks, one U.S edition cover and one International cover), 25% of Time covers feature famous people. In Time’s early days a century ago, nearly all its covers featured noteworthy faces. Iconic Photos’ analysis is not academically rigorous; we have adjusted for 2012 Presidential Election and presidential bully pulpit by counting Governor Romney only once, and not counting President Obama at all. Special issues – such as Olympics specials, Time 100 – are not counted (exception is made for Malala).  [Data is at the end of the post]


Since we counted all international editions, international politicians outnumber US politician nearly two-to-one. (However, international politics rarely intrude upon US editions as superbly illustrated here). Artists are strongly represented, although Jonathan Frazen makes a lonely writer. The Holy See punched above its temporal weight, with five covers between the present pope and his predecessor. Three Supreme Court Justices were featured; four soccer players were featured, all on international editions. Lone basketballer, Jeremy Lin, curiously appeared on the Asian edition. Four chefs appeared (three on one issue); as did four British royals.


On the other fronts, our analysis is depressing. Faces are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male. Among 139 faces are mere 27 female faces or 20%, and ten of those appearances were by four women (Chancellor Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Secretary Clinton, and Governor Palin).

Nationality-wise, Americans dominate. Excluding the current pope, South Americans are underrepresented – and would be more so if not for footballers. Africans appeared only four times — notorious Joseph ‘the Hashtag’ Kony, legless armsman Oscar Pistorius, late-lamented Nelson Mandela, and protest poet Youssou N’Dour – five, if we bend over backwards and count Mario Batolleli, Italian footballer of Ghanan heritage. There were only three African-Americans on the cover excluding all of President Obama’s appearances: First Lady Michelle Obama, popstar Michael Jackson, and the Rev. Martin Luther King. [Time is not racist. For the magazine, historically, almost anyone from south of the Alps was termed ‘swart’ – I am not even kidding, look it up, I dare you – and by that measure, its cover selection looks pretty diverse].


A surprisingly strong entry was Ms. Suu Kyi’s homeland of Burma. The Nobel Laureate herself appeared three times, while General Than Shwe, the country’s brutal dictator from two decades, appeared once. His successor, the current President of Burma, appeared once. The country’s controversial anti-Muslim monk, Wirathu, appeared once on a cover titled ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’ which was promptly banned in Burma and Sri Lanka.

That Burmese leaders appeared six times highlights Time’s strange editorial decisions. By contrast, Chinese leaders appeared four times – twice when Bo Xilai was embroiled in the scandal that marked his downfall; the German Chancellor and the British Prime Minister appeared three times, while Indian, French, Italian, and North Korean leaders appeared twice each. Putin was on the frontpage three times, a dubious honor he shares with Col. Qaddafi of Libya. Notably missing is lethal President Assad of Syria.


More crudely put, if you are Burmese, you have 1 in 15 million chance of being featured on the cover. If you are American, your chances improve to 1 in 5 million. Global average is 1 in 50 million. In Russia, it is 1 in 100 million; in China, it is 1 in 450 million; in India, it is 1 in 600 million. Even such odds will be enviable to Brazilians, Indonesians, Nigerians, and the Japanese who, despite making up 12% of the world’s population, haven’t appeared on a Time cover in last five years.


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O. J. Simpson Cover | Matt Mahurin


If you were not living under a rock in the 90s, you probably have heard of O.J. Simpson and his murder trial. In short, the former football star (and actor manqué) was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. On June 17th 1994, Simpson fled the police in what was the television event for a generation, but was finally taken into custody. A week later, the LAPD released Simpson’s mugshot which ran on both Time and Newsweek’s covers on June 27th.

The trouble was Time’s version was a darker edited version courtesy of its photoillustrator Matt Mahurin (an unaltered photo appeared inside). Many observed that by darkening Simpson’s face, Time had emphasized his skin color (and therefore his race), gave him a more “menacing” appearance and feral look. In an echo of things to come, Time defended its decision firstly online – on a computer bulletin board then used by less than a million subscribers called America Online – and later on the next week’s issue, but also quietly substituted the cover with another (something it had never done before or since).

I have recently been gifted an excellent coffee-table-book called, Time: The Illustrated History of The World’s Most Influential Magazine; inside, alongside the publishers’ recollections of the entire saga, Matt Mahurin remembers:

This was a fascinating, maddening, challenging and ultimately expanding experience. As an image-maker, I work in a dark palette. Whether it was my Time cover on domestic violence, nuclear terrorism—or a former football hero who is suspected of murder—much like a stage director would lower the lights on a somber scene, I used my long-established style to give the image a dramatic tone. Also, the raw image I was given was washed out—therefore from a pure design consideration, by making the image more graphic, I hoped to give it more visual impact to catch the reader’s eye as they passed the newsstand.

For me, the controversy was as much about power as it is about racism. Time magazine had the circulation power to reach millions of readers—and I had the power to make the image that they would see. In hindsight. the misfortune was that there was not a person in a position of power or perception able to be sensitive as to how this image could be perceived by the various interests each pushing their own agendas on race, power and the media. I also believe it was possible there was no one who could have anticipated the fallout. In the end, my career has been in pursuit of the power of the image and it is through this power of the image that we become educated and in the end, this is what we should hold on to; that we have been educated as to how images can he perceived.

As both a professional and personal experience, it is not one I would wish on anyone, nor would I have ever traded it away, because despite all the conflict that came from this controversy, it is yet one more testament that one image is worth a thousand words.

Flipping the North Koreans off

Not many people visit North korea these days but if you are one of the lucky few, more likely than not you will be led through an official guided tour of USS Pueblo – an American Intelligence vessel captured in 1968 – which remains the only American vessel currently in captivity.

The seizure of USS Pueblo is now one of the forgotten episodes of the Cold War. The U.S. claimed it was in the international waters, while the D.P.R.K. insisted that it was in the North Korean waters. Diplomatic and military stand-off that followed was punctuated by a series of photos, films, and letters depicting the crew of the Pueblo enjoying their comfortable captivity.

In reality, however, the crew was being subjected to psychical and psychological abuse. From behind the bars in one of the most isolated places on the planet, the crew nonetheless delivered a master class in political subversion. To undermine the credibility of the letters written home to suggest that they had willingly defected, the crew wrote about the events that never happened. In their press conferences, they used archaic words the Koreans didn’t perfectly understand. Since none of the Koreans knew English well enough to write the confession, the vessel’s commander wrote it himself. They checked the meaning of his words with a dictionary, but failed to catch the pun: “We paean the DPRK. We paean the Korean people. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung”. (“Paean” is homophonic with “pee on”.)

And almost by accident, they came across the idea behind their greatest coup: in two propaganda movies, the crew noticed people giving the finger were not censored. The crew deduced that the North Koreans didn’t know what the finger meant. In the subsequent propaganda photos of the crew, their middle fingers were firmly extended to the cameraman. When the North Koreans questioned, the crew described it as the “Hawaiian good luck sign.” The ruse went on unnoticed until October 1968, when Time magazine explained the mysterious gesture appearing in many photos as one of “obscene derisiveness and contempt.”

This revelation infuriated the North Korean captors, bringing about a period of severe beatings and torture, and the propaganda letters, photos and videos stopped after this. Yet, it would take two more months for the U.S. to offer a perfunctory apology (retracted afterwards) to ensure the release of 82 crewmen. Diplomatic and morale victory hid the bitter reality that the loss of USS Pueblo was a significant blow to the intelligence services. It is now believed that the Soviets urged the North Koreans to seize the ship so that they can reverse engineer US equipment and codebooks.

Time Magazine never responded to the repercussions that followed its very public explanation, which in its entirely is reproduced below. For more photos, check the link here.

The Afghan Girl 2.0

This is my 690th or so post on iconic photos, and as you might notice, most of my posts are about photos taken before the last two decades. Living in an increasingly desensitized society under a 24/7 news circle, we see a lot of images, and clips. Yet, when I saw this week’s Time magazine cover, I literally stopped walking and quipped, “Wow! This is iconic.” Personally speaking I haven’t seen a photo this shocking and powerful, so enticing yet so hard to look, in past few years.

It is a portrait of Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghani girl, taken by Jodi Bieber. Aisha was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. In an editorial, Time’s managing editor Richard Stengel defends his use of the haunting image as the magazine’s cover:

I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha’s safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban…. bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan…. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.

It is highly reminiscent of the National Geographic’s cover “The Afghan Girl” 25 years ago. That Steve McCurry image brought home the Afghan conflict and the international refugee crisis.  Aisha will also bring home a message probably more powerful than any number of leaked Army documents. However, unlike the National Geographic cover (which was accompanied by pretty-much neutral title, Along Afghanistan’s Border), Time’s cover has the title “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” I think this subtext ruins the mood of the photo, since it implied that the tragedies like Aisha’s will ensue/multiply if the U.S. leave Afghanistan. In fact, that is precisely the crux of the article inside: that the rights of Afghan women would be destroyed by a potential settlement between the U.S. and the Taliban.

However, the article largely ignores that the fact that the treatment of Afghan women has not improved a lot despite increasing number of women in the legislature and rhetoric promising increased rights. Fundamentalist judiciary and radicalization of a war-torn population was palpable and in 2009 President Hamid Karzai signed a bill that was seen as legalization of rape against women.

Jimmy Carter gets Democratic Nomination


In addition to being a very successful farmer and agri-businessman in Georgia, Jimmy Carter was trained in nuclear physics and served as an officer in the Navy’s nuclear submarine program. However, Carter campaigned in 1976 as a “Washington Outsider”, someone different from the Washington power brokers and he also was not shy about broadcasting that he was a “born again Christian”.

At the Democratic National Convention in New York, he was headed for the final runoff with Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona and Governor Jerry Brown of California. Hundreds of newsmen worked around the clock for the historic convention, and Dirck Halstead, Time magazine’s Washington Bureau photographer, was there too. Halstead, who covered political conventions since 1960, decided to work for one picture only–the ultimate picture when yet-to-be-unveiled presidential and vice-presidential nominees stood on the podium.

The main problem was the 30-foot height of the podium–Halstead had to settle for a position on a cameramen’s platform 500 feet away. Time magazine sent their new super-telephoto lens, but Halstead had to use the extremely slow shutter speed to properly expose the film with the existing light. There was the vibration problem for the platform too–Halstead had to ask the other photographers to remain as motionless as possible when the time came to snap the iconic image.

Carter won the nomination on the first ballot and selected Walter Mondale as his running mate. As the convention ended, the man the public once gave little chance to win the presidency had become a well-known national figure, who would go on to win the election. The cover of the July 26, 1976 issue of Time magazine features Halstead’s slightly blurry photo of Jimmy Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, daughter Amy, as well as Walter Mondale and his wife, Joan, beaming with pride.

TIME 9/11 Special Cover


Time Magazine’s black border on it’s 9/11 special issue cover was subtle but it delivered a dramatic statement. The magazine, along with Coca Cola, McDonalds and Disney is one of the great American consumerist institutions. An appearance on its hallowed covers, whether it’s of an individual, an organisation, a movement, an event or a trend has long been, and still is, a statement of having arrived, of having made a mark in history.

Although the fonts on the cover changed frequently as the decades progressed, the red border of the magazine, introduced in 1927, was an industry standard, like the Financial Times being pink. (The magazine tried a bright orange table of contents pre-1927.) The red border has only been dropped twice, both in the recent years. The first break with the tradition came for the issue of the 9-11 attacks, above, which was put out just 36 hours after the horrific events of that day. The only issue in the magazine’s history delivered without any advertisement, it sold 3.4 million copies, the most ever.

On the cover was a photo taken by Lyle Owerko. On the back cover was the photo of the Statue of Liberty engulfed in smoke and ash.

[In 2007, for the second time, TIME magazine leaves the red border behind in favor of the green border to celebrate Earth Day. TIME took a page from its departed sister LIFE. LIFE changed the red color twice in its lifetime: the issue after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy (Nov. 29, 1963) when black replaced red, and on Earth Day (May 1990) when green replaced red.]

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TIME Magazine Mock-Ups in Movies

I have been watching a lot of movies lately, and noticed that a lot of movies incorporate magazine covers into the storyline to make the fiction less fictitious. All major American publications’ frontpages are subjected to this ‘fair use’, but the magazine that is seemingly hijacked the most by the filmmakers is TIME magazine. With 3,400,000 per week within the U.S. only, it seems to be the media a lot of people can identify with.

According to the magazine itself, the first prominent mention of TIME in Hollywood was in 1932’s Murder on the High Seas, when the main characters read the magazine during a voyage to Europe. The first manipulated mock-up cover came in 1950’s A Woman of Distinction. In the movie, Rosalind Russell plays Susan Manning Middlecott, the dean of a small women’s college named Benton whose face graces the cover of TIME. Russell, a TIME magazine collector herself, had the make-believe-cover painting framed, and hung it in the lounge of the bathhouse beside her swimming pool in Beverly Hills. When friends would drop in and remark, “Oh. I didn’t know you were on TIME’s cover,” she would answer casually “Sure, look, there it is.” She was finally given her own cover in 1953.

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In 1983 film The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) kidnaps a famous talk show host to have his “big break”. During his act, Rupert noted, “Better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.” The line was immortalized in a news report of Rupert’s release from prison at the end of the movie, as well as on TIME’s cover:


The next year, in the film 2010, Time was featured again. The cover was about the U.S.-Soviet tensions, and reminiscent of Reagan/Andropov Men-of-the-Year cover from the earlier in the year. On the fictitious cover, however, the American President is portrayed by 2010’s author Arthur C. Clarke and the Soviet Premier by 2001: A Space Odyssey director Stanley Kubrick.


In 1992 movie Bob Roberts was set earlier before the Gulf War. It depicts a fictitious senatorial race between conservative folk singer (and anti-Bob Dylan), Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) and the incumbent Democrat, Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal). Roberts was shot by a would-be assassin and paralyzed from the waist down, but he eventually won. Although TIME had covered Huey Long and George Wallace quite extensively, never since the 80s did the magazine pay substantial attention to regional elections let alone put it on the cover.



The same year, Kim Basinger portrays photojournalist and reporter Vicki Vale comes to Gotham City to do a story on a masked vigilante plaguing the city in Tim Burton’s Batman. She just finished covering a revolution in ‘Corto Maltese’, which in the DC comics was an island at the center of an incident not unlike the Cuban missile crisis. Her pictures on the cover and throughout the magazine show a desert war zone strewn with dead bodies. In the 80s and the 90s, crises in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Yugoslavia were frontpage news on Time (and in 2001, the magazine put a particularly gruesome photo from Indonesian Borneo by Charles Dharapak), but I doubt the magazine would misspell their own reporter’s name on the cover as they did here.

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In 1996, Al Pacino made the cover as Mayor John Pappas, an idealist New York mayor who fought against big city neighborhoods, mafia and crime. Five years later the movie City Hall, Mayor Rudi Giuliani made the cover as Man of the Year.



Simone, short for SIMulation ONE, was the name of 2002 movie starring Rachel Roberts. A desperate director makes a computer-programmed actress and she became an instant superstar in a movie that makes the viewers think about our celebrity-obsessed world. In the movie, Simone won the Oscar for Best Actress and become TIME magazine Person of the Year. Ironically, no entertainer has ever been chosen for that honor (Bono won it for his humanitarian work) but ‘computer’ was once chosen as the Machine of the Year.



In 2001, Smallville, a TV show about young Superman premiered on the Warner Brothers. The first season contained two TIME covers. In the pilot episode, Superman’s future girlfriend Lana Lang made the cover after her family was killed in the meteor shower that brought Superman to our planet. The other honored Dr. Virgil Swann, the scientist who deciphered the Kryptonian language, as Man of the Year. (Swann was played by Christopher Reeve, the former Superman himself).



The next year, 2002, came the movie Reign of Fire, probably one of the most ridiculous sci-fi/fantasy movies of our time. During London Underground construction, a huge, hibernating dragon is discovered. It springs to life and creates havoc all over the world. Time was there to cover it too:


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In 2004, Pixar joined the TIME magazine bandwagon in The Incredibles. The cover was a tribute to the mastheads Time used in the 40s and the 50s, but the magazine itself never really used the exact same format as featured in the film, and the phrase ‘The Weekly Magazine’ was retired in the 50s.



A few years earlier, the same combo of Time + Life was in another Pixar animated film. In Toy Story 2 (1999) Sheriff Woody reminisces about his heyday as the matinee TV idol through these magazines’ covers — a revealing look at how much of our cultural memory of the 50s and 60s was indeed shaped by these two magazines. Toy Story 2 propelled Woody and Buzz Lightyear onto an actual Time cover, alongside Pixar’s backer Steve Jobs.

(Life magazine, dated January 12th, 1957, carries the cover story about Sputnik, the satellite which caused a sea change in toy market, by making the kids favor space toys and leading to the cancellation of Woody’s Roundup.  However, the Soviet Union won’t be launching Sputnik until October 1957).



In Man of the Year, the title of the movie itself was the tribute to Time Magazine’s annual year-end issue. Robin William plays a comedian Tom Dobbs, who was erroneously elected the President of the United States. (Time typically names the winner of that year’s presidential election as their Man of the Year). The Man of the Year cover is a little funny because the producers not only copied the magazine, but the pictures of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson on the right were the drawings that appeared on TIME magazine’s covers previously.

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Alan Moore himself have used TIME magazine as a prop in his 1984 graphic novel, Watchmen. The movie adaptation in 2008 also featured the magazine in an authentic-looking mock-up (ironic considering the blue Dr Manhattan is on the cover).



Although it doesn’t do it so often anymore, models frequently graced Time’s covers in the past: Christy Turlington doing Yoga in 2001, Amber Valetta half-submerged in a pool in 1996, Claudia Schiffer a year earlier, and Cheryl Tiegs twice in the 70s and 80s.  So it wasn’t too far-fetched for the title character in Zoolander to be on the cover, although the article being a complete takedown with the cover line that read, “Derek Zoolander: A Model Idiot?” seems somewhat out of tune of Time’s often more staid, circumspect style. Christine Taylor plays TIME reporter Matilda Jeffries, tasked with interviewing  “dumb as a stump” model Derek Zoolander (played by Taylor’s real life husband Ben Stiller)


Michael Jackson (1958-2009)


Time magazine will publish a special commemorative issue on Michael Jackson on Monday, June 29. The stories from the issue appeared on Time’s website. (Many newsweeklies — The New YorkerNewsweekNew York closes press late in the week but Time closes on Wednesdays, and missed the boat on MJ’s death).

For the special commemorative issue, Time spoke with Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Nancy Reagan, Lenny Kravitz, Jesse Jackson, Tommy Mottola, Berry Gordy, Spike Lee, Sheryl Crow, Anjelica Huston, Clive Davis, Al Sharpton, Deepak Chopra, Kobe Bryant, Lance Bass, Oscar De La Hoya, Savion Glover, A.R. Rahman, Peter Gabriel, John Mayer and more.

The special edition will be published in addition to TIME’s regular weekly issue and will retail for $5.99–a little more than $4.95 retail price of weekly issues. The last time the magazine published an impromptu special issue was after 9/11., but last special issue addressing a celebrity death was after Princess Diana’s. Then, Time released an unprecedented gold-bordered issue which sold more than 1.1 million copies domestically. In comparison, 9/11 cover sold 3.25 million copies domestically.